Command Decision (1948)

Directed by Sam Wood

I love to drug out this old classic  and watch it at least once a year.

Clark Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces after his wife Carole Lombard died in a plane crash on a war bonds selling trip assisting the war effort. Gable went to Officers Canidate School graduating as a second lieutenant, and was eventually promoted to major. He was trained as an aerial gunner and combat cameraman and was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for at least five aerial bombing missions over Germany from England with the 351st Bomb Group (Heavy). Adolf Hitler personally offered a reward to the pilot or anti-aircraft gun crew who shot down Gable’s plane.

This movie’s lead cast of Clark Gable, Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon, Brian Donlevy, John Hodiak, Richard Quine and Edward Arnold reprised their roles from this movie in a Screen Guild Theater program radio broadcast on 3 March 1949 for NBC Network. Apparently, according to “Daily Variety” in February 1949, this was the first ever pre-recorded commercial show to be broadcast from Hollywood over the radio network.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949) was delayed in its release because this film beat it to the punch. The similarity in content between the two films forced 20th Century-Fox to hold back on “Twelve O’Clock High” for a few months.


General Dennis of the US Force in England in World War II finds that he must order his planes deeper and deeper into Germany to prevent the production of military jet planes that will turn the tide of battle to the Germans. He must fight congressmen, and his own chain of command to win the political battle before he can send his planes out. His problem is complicated by a very narrow window of good weather necessary to allow his effort to be successful. Adapted from a stage play, it attempts to look at the challenges of command in the political arena.


Not Really a War Movie

28 May 2006 | by aimless-46 (Kentucky) – See all my reviews

In a larger sense “Command Decision” is not really a war movie but a film about the responsibility of command and leadership. It is one of the few films that effectively explores these topics; and belongs right up there with the original “Flight of the Phoenix” and “The Red Tent”. Not having the visual power of those two films (the limited combat/action scenes are almost entirely stock footage), it must focus more narrowly on the human complications arising from the responsibility of command. The contradiction being that while a leader must cease to be human, no one who can do this is fit to be a leader.

Adapted from a stage play, “Command Decision” suffers from a fair amount of “long-windedness”. Fortunately the most long-winded character (Major General Kane-played by Walter Pigeon), is well written and has many substantial things to convey. Much like his character in “Forbidden Planet”, Pigeon is tasked with inserting historical and philosophical details into the story, and his commanding screen presence makes him ideal for this purpose.


Brigadier General K.C. Dennis (Clark Gable) has the most screen time and most challenging role, as his character is the guy stuck between a rock and a hard place. He is accountable for making the hard decisions that send his men off to die, but has a fragile authority dependent on how much independence his superiors are allowing him at a particular point in time. Gable does fine in this part, probably his best totally “serious” performance. Although the film takes pains to use the German high command to illustrate examples of bad leadership, it is easy to infer that the same mindset applies to the Allies. With many military leaders distorting events to cover their own ass and willing to sacrifice men for their own career advancement and personal ideology.


The premise of the film is the Air Corps discovery that the Germans have developed the first jet combat plane. Based on the real life Messerschmitt Me-262 (shown as a model in the film and in some archival footage), it is called the “Lantze-Wolf” here and considered so effective as a fighter aircraft that full production would allow the Luftwaffe to regain air supremacy over Europe.

The planes are being assembled in three cities deep in Germany. The only hope to delay their full production is “Operation Stitch” (named for its goal of gaining a stitch in time), a plan to attack these sites through dangerous daylight bombing raids. Dangerous because they will be heavily defended and because the bombers will have to go the final hundred miles without fighter escort-since the America fighters do not have the range to reach and return from the target. This type of daylight bombing was called precision bombing because the bomb-site was more effective with better visibility and a lower altitude. The alternative was safer but less accurate saturation bombing at night (insert Dresden here).

General Dennis must decide whether to start the operation, and then when the bombers take substantial punishment he must decide whether to continue in the expectation of additional high losses.


The film takes certain historical liberties as only after a postwar evaluation of the actual ME-262 did anyone really understand its strategic potential (in the hands of well trained pilots) as a fighter aircraft. Until the end Hitler insisted that it be utilized almost exclusively as a bomber. Although able to carry out this alternative role, its bomb load capacity was too little for any significant impact. That the ME-262 is more a footnote to the war than a major element was due more to Hitler’s decision than to any allied efforts to limit its production.

Then again, what do I know? I’m only a child.

An actor’s movie…

Author: markystav from Austin, TX
31 July 2004

“Command Decision” is a wonderful film filled with several great performances. It’s Gable’s movie, but he’s very capably supported by Walter Pigeon, Brian Donlevy and John Hodiak, who nearly equals his “Lifeboat” performance.

Pigeon is especially good in the roll of a senior commander who is more concerned with the political considerations of the war effort than the tactical and strategic goals. (Not without reason – The film correctly details the perilous and tenuous position that the 8th Air Force found itself in during the worst combat period of 1943.)

One of the best scenes in the film is a very long speech given by Pigeon, wherein he explains his reasons for fighting the good fight to keep American air power strong. The scene is a good 6 or 7 minutes long, one camera shot, entirely done without cuts. It must have been rehearsed extensively as it requires about 10 actors to interact with Pigeon at several times, all the while he is moving about the room. Seamless, and very well done! This remarkable scene is followed up with one almost as long, given by Gable.

The drama is occasionally broken up with comic moments provided by Van Johnson, as a savvy sergeant, and Clinton Sunberg as a fastidious aide to Pigeon’s General Kane.

If you like to watch actors banging away with words instead of guns, this is the war movie for you.



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