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Strategic Air Command
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,Strategic Air Command

Strategic Air Command

Two things keep Strategic Air Command (1955) aloft. The first is Jimmy Stewart's conviction and authenticity in a role he not only believed in, but lived. The second is spectacular aerial photography. Thanks to these two elements, the film is kept, if just barely, from seeming a live-action United States Air Force recruitment poster in VistaVision. Stewart doesn't just play a demobilized WWII veteran walking away from St. Louis Cardinals baseball stardom to heed the call of Cold War patriotic duty (a la Red Sox legend Ted Williams!). Stewart and SAC commanding general Curtis LeMay, similarly fired up by patriotism, devised this unabashedly propagandistic film specifically to win public and, by extension, Congressional budget support for the SAC in a postwar climate weary of war. In this respect, Stewart represented ideal casting.

He was an actor. But he was also the real thing. No Hollywood figure served in WWII with more distinction. Many times decorated, he rose from second lieutenant to brigadier general, flying dozens of combat missions over Germany, subjecting himself to unnecessary risks, like flying over targets a second time to make sure the mission was accomplished, and leaving safety to go to the aid of airborne comrades threatened by the Luftwaffe. And he was technical-minded as well as courageous. Although he grew up in a time when it was virtually impossible for a young man to remain immune from the novelty and romance of flight, Stewart was anything but a romantic in his approach to it. He may have gone from Princeton to the Broadway stage in 1932, but he also graduated with a degree in architecture, having switched from engineering. For his graduate thesis he designed an airport, including terminal and hangars.

His love of flying was as real as his conservative brand of patriotism. He's the only one in the film who seems in his element, not seeming to realize that the Oscar®-nominated script's skeletal crudeness doesn't give him much element to be in. It's tailored to the Stewart persona, which was always more complicated than his drawling string-bean image. His surface hesitations and taciturnity never hid a spine of steel, and never tried to. Stewart was a principled man who isn't given much more to do here than be principled. There's an attempt to inject drama and emotion, but sunny June Allyson – who previously played his wife in The Stratton Story (1949, echoing the baseball angle) and The Glenn Miller Story (1953) -- never gets off the ground, dramatically speaking. He seems married to the SAC, not her, acting all fumbly when she tells him she's expecting, but never thinking to consult her when he decides unilaterally to re-up.

Stewart pretends to grumble at the idea of training to fly the planes that have replaced the B-17s and B-24s he flew during WWII. She barges onto the base repeatedly, interrupting his training with phone calls, and otherwise is depicted as a whiny nag, who finally catches up with his patriotic vision at the end. Those pesky – but of course lovable -- '50s women in page boy haircuts and full-flare skirts! Stewart's reactivated pilot saves his real enthusiasm – as much as his laconic and vaguely crabby mannerisms allow – for the big Convair B-36 bombers and the sleeker, smaller, more streamlined B-47 Stratojets that replaced them. If we didn't catch the phallic symbolism of the cigars chomped on by Frank Lovejoy's LeMay surrogate in the film, it's unavoidable when one of the ground crew refers to the huge winged silver cylinder as "the big cigar." The film's emotional peak comes when Lovejoy's general takes Stewart into a hangar for a sneak peek at the B-47 still under wraps.

When SAC success is defined as nothing happening, and there are no enemy aircraft to engage in dogfights or combat, Strategic Air Command labors to create the impression of eventfulness. When it comes, it's based on things going wrong – Stewart crash-landing in Greenland's frozen wastes when a leaking fuel line occurs during a cold-weather test, Stewart crash-landing in fog on Okinawa with one arm out of commission. When the violins are cued to a soaring crescendo, it's to accompany images of mid-air refueling! And yet those huge metal beasts, consigned to oblivion a few years later when ICBMs entered the picture, are magnificent. The images of one after another big bomber churning serenely through piles of clouds, in seeming defiance of their tonnage, are still breathtaking. It's no wonder Stewart kept flying across movie screens – as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), as the survivalist captain in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).

Of course, Stewart was filmed at the controls of the planes he unconvincingly groused about having to learn to fly while lighting fires under slacker crew members reluctant to commit to the SAC when postwar prosperity beckoned. Stunt flier Paul Mantz (who did the actual flying here and died when his plane crashed in Buttercup Valley, California, during the filming of The Flight of the Phoenix) deserves star billing alongside Stewart, Allyson, Lovejoy and such other dependables as Barry Sullivan, Jay C. Flippen and Alex Nicol. Of course, he didn't get it. Nor did Thomas Tutwiler, whose spectacular way of bringing visual oomph to essentially static shots by placing his camera at the edge of a wing, or atop the landing gear, allowing audiences to enjoy a gremlin's-eye point of view, remains, if anything, even more arresting now that the planes carry a nostalgia factor instead of nuclear bombs. The '50s were about wideness – wide sofas, wide cars, wide screens. And there's still something potent in the sight of these Cold War relics taking to the wide blue yonder.

Producer: Samuel J. Briskin
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Valentine Davies, Beirne Lay, Jr.
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Art Direction: Earl Hedrick, Hal Pereira
Music: Victor Young
Cast: James Stewart (Lt. Col. Robert Holland), June Allyson (Sally Holland), Frank Lovejoy (Gen Ennis Hawkes), Barry Sullivan (Lt. Col. Rocky Samford), Alex Nicol (Ike Knowland), Bruce Bennett (Gen. Espy).
C-112m.

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