When watching Strategic Air Command, you almost expect to hear Reed Hadley saying, “These are the men of the Strategic Air Command, who stand ready to defend our nation against nuclear attack…,” and so forth, accompanied by triumphal music, determined to inspire us with patriotic admiration.
I am tempted to say that this is a dated movie, one that might have had some resonance in the 1950s, when the threat of nuclear attack seemed very real, except for one thing: I was around in those days, and contrary to what you may have heard, children were not terrified by the threat of the hydrogen bomb. We use to love getting out of class to go see those films demonstrating the destructiveness of this weapon. It was better than doing long division. The teachers would tell us that if we saw a flash of light, we should immediately “duck and cover,” but we joked about the futility in that. One wise guy posted a note on the wall, saying, “In case of nuclear attack: (1) Bend over. (2) Put your head between your legs. (3) Kiss your ass goodbye.” So, what I am trying to say in all this is that even in 1955, this movie would have been boring. It’s just that it is even more so today.
As a check on how people of the day may have reacted to this movie, I consulted Bosley Crowther’s review for the New York Times. He devotes the first six paragraphs to talking about the visuals. In the seventh paragraph, he finally gets around to talking about the plot and the acting. But then, given the plot and the acting, he might just as well have devoted a couple more paragraphs to the splendors of Vista Vision.
James Stewart plays Dutch Holland, a professional baseball player. He was a pilot during World War II, and now, being in the reserves, he is called back to active duty to fly the long range bombers that carry a nuclear payload in case World War III should break out. His wife Sally, June Allyson, really shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about the important work men have to do, but being a woman, she is all sentiment and feeling, and she just doesn’t understand her husband, who has to make all the big decisions in their marriage without consulting her, because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Unfortunately, World War III does not break out. That means the movie must manufacture moments of dramatic tension: a seemingly hostile situation just turns out to be a drill; an engine catches on fire, causing a crash; a bomber almost runs out of fuel, and Dutch has to land in the fog. It makes you sympathetic to the device in Top Gun (1986), in which a dogfight occurs between American fighter planes and those of an unnamed enemy, even though the country is not at war. Let’s face it. Military movies set during peacetime can be pretty dull.
During the crash that occurred because the engine caught on fire, Dutch injured his shoulder. This eventually leads to his being discharged, giving us the typical Hollywood ending: Dutch got the satisfaction of doing the right thing by deciding to make a career out of being in the Air Force in spite of Sally’s objections, and Sally gets her way when he is forced to return to civilian life. Of course, with an injured shoulder, it is unlikely that he will ever play third base again, which is in keeping with the sense of sacrifice that the men of SAC must make to keep this nation safe, as Reed Hadley might have said, just before the credits start to roll.