Judge Daniel MacDonald sees black & white people.
Heroes, cowards, fighters, braggarts, liars…and what goes on in their hearts!
War films generally involve exotic locals and sweeping battle sequences of a scale rarely found in other genres. Command Decision is an anomaly, then, taking place on an air base, characters rarely even venturing outside. Can it still capture emotion to the same degree as its genre peers?
Facts of the Case
Based on a stage play by William Wister Haines (The Wings of Eagles), Command Decision follows a couple of days in the life of General K.C. Dennis (Clark Gable, Gone With the Wind) as he commands a US Air Force squadron in England during World War II. Faced with the Nazis' development of jet fighters, General Dennis orders bold, increasingly dangerous missions deep in enemy territory, his men paying the high cost of victory with their lives at a rate that doesn't sit well with some of his peers, with a congressman, or with the media. General Dennis has learned to put aside personal feelings for the sake of the bigger picture, but his unwavering confidence may not be enough to preserve his command as the death toll rises.
Portrayed by Clark Gable, General Dennis is a complex, finely nuanced character whose controlled exterior rarely betrays the emotional turmoil within; this is a very fine piece of acting in an intriguing war picture. For the first while we spend with him, General Dennis appears cold, calculating, unwilling to listen to reason. But as events unfold and the stakes are raised, it becomes increasingly clear that the man cares at least as deeply about the loss of life his decisions may cause as his detractors, and that he is anxious for the day he will no longer need to give orders that will send young men to their deaths. Gable's performance is one of the several treats Command Decision has to offer.
As you might expect from a film based upon a play, Command Decision is quite talky, taking place exclusively on base in a limited number of rooms. This claustrophobic environment adds significantly to the tension of the piece, however, putting us in a similar predicament as the characters we are watching: looking at the maps and calculations, coming to decisions without ever seeing the ramifications of those calls. One of the tensest sequences finds General Dennis and a number of other players watching bombers land after a seemingly successful—but casualty-heavy—mission, and Dennis must guide a bombardier-turned-pilot in landing his huge aircraft as the bomber's pilot has been wounded. Part of what makes this such an intense few minutes is that it is a rare scene taking place outside, exposed and vulnerable and faced with the consequences of decisions made in more comfortable surroundings. It's a relief when we return to the confines of General Dennis' office for how removed it is from the ugly unpredictability of the outside world.
Command Decision asks plenty of tough questions, and although it has a definite opinion to put forward, the level of debate is engaging and provocative. The main conflict between military, political, and public relations priorities is explored from a multitude of perspectives, some we may agree with and some we may not. And to make things even more interesting, there's dissent as to what exactly the military priorities should be, leaving some doubt at times as to whom we should be rooting for. Unfortunately, the political angle is the least nuanced part of the film, and Congressman Arthur Malcolm (Edward Arnold, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) occasionally flirts with becoming a moustache-twisting villain. But having such a range of viewpoints given screen time in the same picture is a laudable achievement. Ultimately, we can predict the conclusion Command Decision is going to draw, but the debate remains supremely satisfying.
From a technical perspective, this is a somewhat mixed presentation. The picture is marred by dirt and specs from the start, and while this lessens after a few minutes, the picture is still far from pristine. Grain is not always as fine as other films from the period, but contrast is solid with plenty of shadow detail and the images are usually pretty crisp. The audio is in its original mono, with the limited dynamic range one would expect, but despite it being clear and free of distortion, it seems to be recorded at a much lower level than is standard. I had to raise the volume on my sound system an unreasonable amount to hear the dialogue.
The best of the few special features provided is an episode of the 1930s and 40s short film series Passing Parade titled "Souvenirs of Death." This fascinating piece is a cautionary tale told in the first person from the perspective of a German pistol a soldier has brought home as a war trophy. The man's son manages to retrieve the pistol from its locked case and his dog ends up dead, leading the soldier's wife to convince him to sell this dangerous item—only for it to fall into the hands of a hardened criminal! It's a remarkably hokey way to convince veterans to turn in their illicit guns, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Also included is an amusing MGM cartoon, "King-Size Canary," and a theatrical trailer that could never be accused of false modesty.
Despite its pro-military stance, Command Decision plays less like wartime propaganda than other pictures of the era, and it is a dramatic, expertly scripted work of drama. Presenting a compelling dilemma from a variety of angles, it shows the agonizing human debate over the concept of acceptable loss and is a valuable war picture. Despite a less than perfect technical presentation, it's recommended viewing for genre fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Passing Parade Short 'Souvenirs of Death'
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