Command Decision is my favourite film in the wasteland of mediocrity that is Clark Gable’s post-war career; a period which only had a few highlights. The opening stock footage is the only action seen in the film as Command Decision is a movie consisting of wordy drama; quality actors delivering quality performances.
Gable himself was a bombardier during the war and spearheaded the production of Command Decision thus it must have been something he had a real passion for. The role of Brig. Gen. K.C. “Casey” Dennis is not cocky Gable as he often portrayed, nor does he have a leading lady to play off. Dennis is a man under strain which you can clearly see on his face; in order to fight Nazis he must first fight his superiors, politicians as well as dealing with the press and even attending to matters such as farmers complaining about early morning take-offs frightening their cows (“When did I ever get the impression this war was against the axis?”). Above all, he is a man with life and death on his hands and even the outcome of the war. He may not see the battlefield but he still has an unpleasant job to do.
Walter Pidgeon, however, gives my favourite performance in the film as Major General Kane with his monologue in which he speaks of how the US Air Force struggled for years in an effort to get it equipped and running is the highlight of the movie. It is four minutes long, there are no cuts with actors interacting with Pidgeon along the way while he moves around the room with the camera following him; hair-raising acting.
Van Johnson gives the film its comic relief to contrast the serious, downbeat nature of the film. As Sgt. Evans, he rarely takes himself totally seriously from his wisecracks to sitting at Dennis’ desk when he’s not around. Johnson was often cast in military roles and it’s not hard to see why; he was a boy next door with the essence of an eager young patriot. However Evans’ inability to take himself seriously could show a cynical side to his character as someone who doesn’t have much faith in the war machine; in fact the one scene in which he does act in a more serious manner is the moment in which he praises Dennis and shakes his hand after Dennis lambasts Edward Arnold’s congressman who criticises him for recklessly causing heavy loss of life.
Command Decision is a movie which covers a lot making it one worth viewing more than once in order to take it all in. Giving the film the benefit of the doubt in its accuracy, it’s an educational experience. Compared to a film like The Dawn Patrol (original and its remake) there is a world of difference in flight commanding between the world wars; much more high tech, bureaucratic and on a larger, industrial-like scale.
Like the flight commander in The Dawn Patrol, Dennis gets hounded for the decisions he makes which leads to the message I ultimately take from Command Decision. Dennis’ decisions are causing a heavy loss of life of US airmen but the success of these missions to destroy the Nazi’s secret weapon in Schweinhaven (not a real place) could change the outcome of the war and save a greater number of lives in the long term. You can’t afford to appear virtuous and care only for the immediate loss of life in order to get results. However, as Kane knows, without a good publicity and political support there not be much of an air force and how do you do that is your actions appear reckless to the laymen; a real catch-22.