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The head of a World War II bomber squadron cracks under the pressure.
In 1949 London, American tourist Harvey Stovall is drawn to a battered Toby jug in the window of an antique shop. After purchasing the mug, Harvey travels to the small country village of Archbury and bicycles out to an overgrown, abandoned airfield where he recalls events that began seven years earlier: In 1942, members of the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force 918th Bombardment Group return to their base in Archbury after a bombing strike. Following the crash landing of a crippled B-17 Flying Fortress, group commander Colonel Keith Davenport, adjutant Major Harvey Stovall and group surgeon Major "Doc" Kaiser meet the surviving crew members at interrogation. Distraught over the harrowing mission, co-pilot Lt. Jesse Bishop bolts, leaving Lt. "Willie" Wilson to detail the attack, after which Keith recommends Jesse for the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the base center, after Air Executive Lt. Colonel Ben Gately, Harvey and Doc listen to British turncoat and radio broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw declare the Eighth Air Force's daylight bombing strategy a failure, Ben informs Keith that the group has been placed on maximum effort strike alert for the next day, despite their loss of five planes. Doc warns Keith that there are signs of group burnout and wonders if anyone knows the parameters of an individual "maximum effort." Keith is appalled by the next day's orders, which sets the bombing altitude at 9,000 feet, and vists command headquarters at Pine Tree to consult with his close friend, Brigadier General Frank Savage. Frank admits to issuing the bombing orders personally, in hopes of increasing the bombers' level of concentration and accuracy. When Frank asks Keith about the 918th's continued misfortunes, Keith reveals the men's anxiety at the uncertain potential of daylight bombing and agrees with their misgivings. After Keith returns to the base, command leader General Pritchard contacts Frank about the day's losses and Frank admits he believes the 918th's problem lies with Keith's over-identification with his men. Alarmed, Pritchard has Frank accompany him to Archbury, where Keith goes over the causes for the mission's disruption. When the group's lead navigator, Lt. Zimmerman, admits his error caused a critical delay in reaching the target for a coordinated strike, Keith claims full responsibility. After dismissing Zimmerman, Pritchard presses Keith to instigate necessary changes, but when Keith refuses to replace Zimmerman, Pritchard relieves him of command. On the return to Pine Tree, Pritchard tells Frank how crucial it is to justify daylight bombing, then asks Frank to take over the 918th. The following day, Frank returns to Archbury as the new commander and finds the base in disarray over Keith's reassignment and Zimmerman's subsequent suicide. Discovering Harvey moderately drunk and Ben AWOL, Frank orders Ben to be brought in under arrest and has Harvey provide all the base personnel files for a complete restructuring of the group. When the MPs bring in Ben, Frank berates him for shirking his responsibilities, and accuses him of cowardice, then demotes him to flight commander and orders him to name his plane "The Leper Colony," where all the group "deadbeats" will be assigned. During the next morning's briefing, Frank lectures the group about their need to stop pitying themselves, accept that they are fighting a war and consider themselves already dead. Later, Frank is gratified when Squadron Commander Major Joe Cobb accepts his request to take over as the new Air Executive, but disagrees with Doc, who advises him to ease up on the men. Later, Frank is let down, however, when Jesse, representing all the pilots, informs him they want transfers. When Frank wonders how he might gain time to win the group's loyalty, Harvey, who is warming to his new commander, suggests the transfer requests might be intentionally delayed. Over the next few days, Frank takes the group through grueling flight practices until Harvey informs him that new field orders have come down for a mission. The men find about about new mission orders by having a Toby jug on the mantel in the officer's club turned face outward. The next two missions prove fairly successful, but Frank continues to drive the men hard and ignores queries about the transfers. Keith, now on Pritchard's staff, visits Archbury to warn Frank that rumors about the delayed transfers have prompted an investigation of the 918th by the Inspector General. During the next mission, bad weather forces the entire command's recall and only the 918th fails to return, bringing an anxious Pritchard to Archbury. When the group returns from a successful bombing raid without losses, Frank insists he had radio failure and never heard the recall order. Pritchard angrily chastizes him, but Frank demands the group receive a commendation for their persistence and courage. Afterward, Frank privately questions Jesse about the group's response to the commendation, but the Medal of Honor winner admits he remains unsure about the value of daylight bombing. Despite Frank's earnest appeal, Jesse insists he wants to leave the Air Force. The next day, while the Inspector General examines the pilots, Frank begins packing his belongings, convinced that he will be removed from command. Joe bursts in with the news that Jesse halted the inspection by withdrawing his transfer request, causing the other pilots to follow suit. Frank is momentarily overcome, but covers up with a bluster of stern orders. The next mission takes the 918th into Germany for the first time and upon their return, Frank discovers his driver, Sgt. McIllhenny, had stowed aboard his plane, and Joe reveals Harvey, Doc and even the reverend, Capt. Twombley, had also stowed aboard various planes in order to participate in the first German raid. Although secretly pleased, Frank nevertheless berates Harvey. A few missions later, Joe leads a raid in which Jesse's plane is lost, but Frank masks his distress at the news. When Doc tells Frank that Ben has been hospitalized after flying three missions with a painful cracked vertebrae, Frank visits Ben in the hospital. Although Ben says little to Frank, he is deeply moved by the general's sincere expression of respect and concern. Soon after, the combined chiefs of staff devise a major strike plan on German ball-bearing factories that, if successful, would validate daylight bombing. On the first of the three crucial raids, Frank witnesses Joe's plane receive a direct hit, but responds nonchalantly back at the base. The next morning while preparing to lead the next raid, however, Frank is abruptly unable to pull himself into the cockpit and grows disoriented and shaky. Ben assists him from the plane before taking command of the mission. As the bombers taxi down the runway, Frank gets hysterical, insisting the mission be aborted as Harvey and Keith struggle to subdue him. Back at the base, Frank falls into a comatose state of shock for the duration of the mission and only revives when the 918th successfully returns from their raid. Harvey's reminiscences come to an end and he gives a final glance around Archbury's ghostly remains before bicycling away.
Cast & Crew
|MPAA Ratings:||Premiere Info:||World premiere in Los Angeles: 21 Dec 1949; New York opening: 26 Jan 1950.|
|Release Date:||1949||Production Date:||
16mm safety; 4 reels of 4 (ca. 64000 ft.); and 2 videodiscs of 2
|Color/B&W:||Black and White||Distributions Co:||Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.|
|Sound:||Mono (Western Electric Recording)||Production Co:||Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.|
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