Strategic Air Command is a 1955 American film starring James Stewart and June Allyson, and directed by Anthony Mann. This Paramount Pictures release was the first of four films that depicted the role of the Strategic Air Command in the Cold War era. This would be Stewart and Mann's last collaboration and third of three movies that paired Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, the others being The Stratton Story and The Glenn Miller Story.
Stewart's character "Dutch" Holland is a highly paid, star professional baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, when he is recalled to active duty for 21 months. At first, Dutch is a fish out of water, trying to perform duties in a service that has technologically left him far behind since the end of his World War II service as a B-29 pilot. When he reports for duty at Carswell AFB in Ft. Worth, Texas, he has to wear civilian garb because his old uniforms are those of the old U.S. Army Air Forces, much to the displeasure of the irascible General Hawkes, the commander of SAC.
Dutch is given a staff job that involves a lot of flying, soon gains a B-36 crew of his own, and then becomes enamored with both flying and the role of SAC in deterring war. He is joined by his wife Sally (June Allyson), who had not bargained for being an Air Force Wife, and who struggles with his repeated absences and the dangers of flying. Even so, Sally tells Dutch that she is happy as long as they can be together, no matter what he decides to do with his life.
Dutch is injured on duty when he is forced to crash land his B-36 bomber in Greenland. Nevertheless, he becomes a favorite of General Hawkes and is rewarded with a new assignment flying the new B-47 Stratojet at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, across the bay from St. Petersburg where his old baseball team continues to conduct its spring training. Promoted to full colonel and made deputy commander of his B-47 wing, Dutch decides to Sally's displeasure to remain in the Air Force rather than returning to baseball at the end of his active duty obligation.
On a nonstop flight from MacDill to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the injury from the B-36 crash proves to be worse than he thought, which not only bars him from further flying (he leaves the Air Force at the end of the film), but also appears to threaten his baseball career, although General Hawkes suggests he would make an excellent team manager.
Some commentators have speculated that the plot was inspired by Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, a World War II veteran, who was recalled for Korean War service as a Marine Corps aviator, at the height of his baseball career.
|James Stewart||Lieutenant Colonel Robert R. "Dutch" Holland|
|June Allyson||Sally Holland|
|Frank Lovejoy||General Ennis C. Hawkes (character modeled on General Curtis LeMay)|
|Barry Sullivan||Lieutenant Colonel Rocky Samford|
|Alex Nicol||Major I. K. "Ike" Knowland|
|Jay C. Flippen||Tom Dolan, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals|
|Harry Morgan||Master Sergeant Bible, a B-36 flight engineer.|
Stewart's military service and lifelong interest in aviation greatly influenced the making of the film. He pushed for an authentic but sympathetic portrayal of the Strategic Air Command, which led Paramount to put together a strong cast of Hollywood veterans and production people including June Allyson, Frank Lovejoy (playing a character loosely based on the SAC commander of the day, General Curtis LeMay), director Anthony Mann, and even the top stunt pilot of the day, Paul Mantz.
The film includes some of the most dramatic aerial photography ever filmed, for which it was awarded a special citation by the American National Board of Review. It is also the only motion picture to highlight the B-36 (depicted in the movie poster), the largest, mass-produced piston powered aircraft ever built, and the first delivery method for the hydrogen bomb. The B-36 was then near the end of its service life and about to be replaced by the B-52. The aerial footage was accompanied by a dramatic and soaring musical score composed by Victor Young. The film was made with the cooperation of the United States Air Force, and was partly filmed on location at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado and Carswell Air Force Base, Texas. Baseball scenes were filmed with the cooperation of the St. Louis Cardinals at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg.
Stewart's character is based on the real-life military career and actual mission flown by Brigadier General Clifford Schoeffler who crashed and survived an Arctic B-36 mission. Brigadier General Schoeffler was on site at Carswell Air Force Base during the filming of Strategic Air Command for consultation.
James Stewart's character appears to wear several military ribbons from the Korean War, the most notable is the United Nations Service Medal which can clearly be seen on his uniform. Yet, throughout the film, Stewart's character makes several references that he has been out of the military since the end of World War II.
Shot in the new VistaVision process, the film was the sixth-highest grossing film of 1955. Critics were lukewarm about the performances of all except Stewart, who was called "capable," "charming," and "competent. Public reaction centered on the spectacular aerial footage, so that the B-36 and B-47 aircraft were arguably the real "stars" of the film. The film's release led to a 25% increase in Air Force enlistments.
From today's perspective, the film's appeal lies in its homage to the personnel of the Strategic Air Command, whose competence in and dedication to their appointed task, strategic bombing, enabled the SAC maintain a credible nuclear deterrent and thereby ensure peace. These optimistic premises, ultimately proved correct by history, contrast starkly with those of the doomsday comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released in 1964. Strategic Air Command was followed by two films also supportive of the SAC mission, Bombers B-52 in 1957 and A Gathering of Eagles in 1963.