Bright Lights Film Journal

How James Stewart Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command

“Chew popcorn to avoid grinding teeth, comrades.”

How many miles of celluloid have been exposed in the business of glorifying the men and planes that dropped the bombs that burned the cities? “Too many” is not a flippant answer.

Strategic Air Command (1955) is the supreme ideological example of the (for want of a better word) “USAF genre” movie. Washington’s defeat in the Korean War thwarted plans to overturn socialism in the USSR and curb anti-colonial struggles via atomic intimidation, and created the stalemate between imperialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat we have come to call the Cold War. And in the Cold War, so far as Washington and its Madison Avenue and Hollywood drum-beaters were concerned, the newly inaugurated USAF had center stage. The gleaming technology and Triumph of the Will-flavored esprit de corps adumbrated in movies like this created the image of professional and self-sacrificing organization men. It was beside the point that the organization they ran, and still run, is an international murder machine pushing the violent rule of the world’s final empire.

Strategic Air Command is no sensitive treatment of such “organization” men, the men in the “gray flannel suit.” It is, instead, about the satisfaction to be found when men (and their wives) embrace the shipwreck of their lives and careers on the rocks of a necessity called National Security.

James Stewart played his finest roles in 1950s-era Hollywood movies. He played them in films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. For Hitchcock he played men appalled to learn what transgressions they were capable of justifying and carrying out. These were the films Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). For Anthony Mann he played rough-and-ready loners warring against their own egos and larger social necessities in Winchester 73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953).

Anthony Mann in the 1950s moved away from tyro kitchen-sink crime films like T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) and into Freudian westerns like The Furies (1950). He finished as a director of historical epics on the scale of nineteenth-century French history painting: Cimarron (1960), El Cid (1961), and most grandly The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Strategic Air Command was manufactured by Paramount Pictures. It espouses “professional military conformity” writ very large. If anyone other than the Pentagon can be identified as the film’s “auteur” it is screenwriters Beirne Lay Jr. (1909-1982) and Valentine Davies (1905-1961). Lay in particular, a former officer with the Army Air Corps during World War II, made a career out of Air Power books and movies. He co-wrote 12 O’clock High (1948), that hymn to “maximum effort” and bureaucratic cold-bloodedness in the service of U.S. plutocracy, and then went to Hollywood to work on the script for the 1949 film of the same name. In 1952 Lay wrote the film Above and Beyond (1952), about the trials and tribulations of another friend of humanity, Colonel Paul Tibbetts. (Lay later wrote that perfect genuflection before the U.S. officer caste, The Gallant Hours (1960), a religious peroration on the career of Admiral Halsey.)

In many ways Strategic Air Command is a fictional retelling of Above and Beyond. The dramatic spine of both movies is the education of a husband and wife in their responsibilities as cogs in the great engine of national war-making. In both, the wives have the worst of it, waiting on the ground and learning to curb their tongues about secrecy and missed dinners. June Allyson seemed to only play these roles in the 1950s. In addition to Strategic Air Command, she played the valiant and saintly help-meet in The Stratton Story (1949), Executive Suite (1954), The Glenn Miller Story (1954) (also starring James Stewart and written by Valentine Davies), and The McConnell Story (1955).

James Stewart plays professional baseball player and Air Force reservist “Dutch” Holland. Recalled to active duty, his resentment against the USAF for destroying his civilian career is eventually broken by the glamour of the new jet bomber he learns to fly (accompanied by Victor Young’s lushly carnal and languorous musical score). Along the way he meets SAC’s supreme commander, General Hawks. Hawks is clearly a fictional avatar of Curtis Le May. He is played by veteran character actor Frank Lovejoy. Lovejoy, now long forgotten, appeared in hundreds of movies, including such Cold War gems as I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and Men of the Fighting Lady, a 1954 tribute to naval aviation during the Korean War.

“It all boils down to less danger of war,” Hawks tells Dutch Holland. It all has to do with what we came to call deterrent and mutual assured destruction. Eventually the stifling moral cynicism of imperialists like General Hawks would be rejected, but until the Wall Street barons and the state that defends their rule is finally removed from power, the real SAC will thrive.

Is Strategic Air Command worth watching? A feminist scholar could certainly make a career, or at least a dissertation, out of the films of June Allyson. A postmodern cultural theorist could find full employment deconstructing the fetishized imagery of strategic bombers sweeping toward gorgeous golden sunsets. (Indeed, Stanley Kubrick has already sent it up in the opening credits of Dr Stangelove.) What can communists get out of Strategic Air Command? Well, communists all love James Stewart movies, and better Strategic Air Command than 1959’s The FBI Story. Chew popcorn to avoid grinding teeth, comrades.