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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Command Decision (1948) - Inside Baseball during WWII

The biggest problem with this film is that you can tell, scene by scene, that this was adapted from a stage play.  There are a few main sets, and the characters shuttle in and out of them like clockwork.  Given a lack of any historical accuracy, as discussed below, the only thing this film is the acting - and we get some true histrionic displays. Whether that is enough to hold your interest, well, is up to you.  Do you want to spend the time watching Clark Gable emote, and Walter Pidgeon give a career performance in a show-stopping monologue?  Because there really isn't that much else to this film.

I get into some analysis of this below, just like this flick does regarding its subject.  It is a good stab at showing the dilemmas faced by the air force during World War II.  To do that, just like every other film about the air force made during the 1940s, it mishmashes reality and fiction so that you have to be a true expert to tell them apart.  But there are reasons to see this film today despite the confabulations involved.  Gable is great, Pigeon is great (especially in his extended monologue that must have been heavy to memorize), and the story holds together.  That it isn't true and taken out of the war diary, well, only you can decide if that is important to you.

"No,I mean it, I really do like that scarf"

After wife Carole Lombard died and he enlisted in World War II to fly actual missions over Germany, Clark Gable tended to play more serious roles than he had in the 1930s. This is one of his best, a look at American air operations during the critical war year of 1943. Of course, this is Hollywood, so there are a number of factual liberties taken to make the situation appear more dramatic than it really was. Some of these are minor, but a few are quite glaring and reek of gilding the lily and 20/20 hindsight.

"Yes, you really are bald."

The fictional raids almost certainly are modeled on the real-life August 17, 1943 raid on Schweinfurt and Regensburg, deep inside Germany. Two targets were chosen instead of just one in order to confuse the defenders, as fighter escort was impossible past Eupen, Belgium. Schweinfurt had ball-bearing factories, Regensburg had ME-109 plants. The raid was a noble effort but in actuality a costly Allied failure. Out of 376 bombers sent out, 60 were lost outright and an additional 87 returned but were lost to future operations due to damage. That is darn near a 50% loss rate.  By comparison, the Germans lost a total of 40 fighters.  Despite all their other mounting troubles, the Germans still ruled the sky over Germany.

The real history is important because it shows the liberties taken by the script. The core of the movie is a series of nightly decisions made by the commanding generals as to whether to order another raid on the same targets for the next day with the near certainty of heavy losses. Very dramatic, but that never happened. There was just one raid, not a succession of them, at least not one right after the other. No air force could suffer repeated losses day after day of over 20% - in fact, when an actual second raid on Schweinfurt two months later, on October 14, 1943, did occur, another day of such losses (60 out of 291, over 20%) resulted in a suspension of the raids for another five months. The Germans still had air supremacy over Germany in 1943, a fact few people may realize. These raids, in fact, may be seen as the last strategic American air defeats until the present day. Portraying them as moral victories or something is, well, kind of sketchy.

"Four Score and Seven Years Ago....  No wait, that's not it...."

So, there is some serious revisionist history going on here. The actual attacks were not made to prevent some super-weapon German jet fighter from becoming operational - those fighters, primarily the ME-262, weren't mass-produced until the following year, and were done so in bomb-proof underground bunkers. The ME-109 wasn't even the best German fighter at that point, the Focke-Wolfe 190 was preferred by many Luftwaffe fighter pilots and had better flight and destructive capabilities except at the highest altitudes. According to the Germans, the raids didn't have much effect at all, as German production recovered quite quickly. German Armaments Minister Albert Speer in fact claimed after the war that the Americans SHOULD have focused their efforts more decisively, as in the movie, but instead wastefully dispersed their attacks against multiple targets and WITHOUT quick follow-ups (well, easy for him to say...). And incidentally, there weren't any B-29s operational anywhere until Spring 1944, so all the talk in the movie about transferring to command them is so much hogwash (can't you just hear Gable saying that - "That's just so much hogwash!").

One could argue that the film actually depicts Operation Argument, the so-called "Big Week" bombing campaign, when the US and British actually did conduct daily raids against the German aircraft industry in order to instigate battle against the German fighter force and wipe it out. But that was in February 1944, not 1943 as the film states, and US bomber losses then were much lower than stated in the film, around 7%. There's a huge difference between 20%+ and 7%, the latter is sustainable, the former, not. By then, the long-range P-51 Mustang fighter was available to shepherd the bombers all the way to Germany and back. It's pretty certain that nobody on the Allied side was fired over the outcome of Big Week, which absolutely crippled the German fighter force and, aside from over-blown fears about the late entry of the ME-262, essentially decided the air war.

So, this isn't real history. Nobody probably expects it to be. At best, it is a combination of different events. Taken as dramatic fiction "based upon" real events, though, it is quite engaging. The political aspect is brought up nicely - war is too important to be left to the Generals and all that. I think that the real scene-stealer in the movie is Walter Pidgeon, one of his best roles, who articulates the real political conflicts at work in directing thousands of men to commit daily attacks with the certainty of heavy losses. His speech about how he has fought for bomber development and priority over the other services is a classic. He is how I see a real "big picture" guy operating. Gable is Gable, solid and stoic and delivering his usual fine performance. The supporting performances are uneven, some realistic, a few just annoying (such as those of the actors playing the visiting Congressional delegation, who wouldn't have been THAT self-centered and oblivious in the middle of the war).

Recommended for the atmosphere and the fine performances, not the history.

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