The films King made with Gregory Peck offer a critique of ultra-masculinity in adverse conditions. Peck adds an extra dimension to these ventures. Whereas King’s first aviation film, A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), was largely uninteresting, this one marks the peak of his career. A masterpiece about leadership, order and responsibility, it unfolds by questioning each of these principles, ending on a sombre, ambiguous note. Told in flashback from the perspective of a major (Dean Jagger, in the role of his lifetime), it focuses on an airfield in England where the US Air Force operates its first series of daylight precision bombings over European targets during WWII, under the leadership of the tough, uncompromising general Savage (Peck). It’s a war film with just one combat scene, which is mostly constructed using archival footage. We don’t see much of the war, or even hear about it. Instead, the conflict’s heavy toll is revealed through gestures, unspoken words, the sweat on the forehead of stammering men. No other fiction film has so precisely translated the war into the neurotic behaviour of suffering soldiers.
In this, one of the greatest films ever made, King investigates the fine line between suicide and heroism, where military terms such as ‘maximum effort’ and ‘group integrity’ lose their meaning. That old ‘Kingly’ conflict between soul and duty re-emerges: the previous commander has failed because he cared more about the lives of his men than the success of his mission while the new commander (Peck) decides to keep his soul under lock and key. Eventually, he brings a balance to that world (duty is done, lives are saved) but loses his own. The strain pushes him to the edge. At the end, burned out and shattered, he lies down on a bed like a defeated giant. No King hero leaves the screen without having his back bent. The more order that is introduced, the more the soul cracks from inside – leading Peter von Bagh to call this a microcosm and almost a prophecy of the future of the world.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo (1948) di Sy Bartlett e Beirne Lay Jr. Scen.: Sy Bartlett, Beirne Lay Jr. F.: Leon Shamroy. M.: Barbara McLean. Scgf.: Lyle R. Wheeler, Maurice Ransford. Mus.: Alfred Newman. Int.: Gregory Peck (generale Frank Savage), Hugh Marlowe (tenente colonnello Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (colonnello Davenport), Millard Mitchell (generale Pritchard), Dean Jagger (maggiore Stovall), Robert Arthur (sergente McIllhenny), Paul Stewart (capitano ‘Doc’ Kaiser), John Kellogg (maggiore Cobb), Robert Patten (tenente Bishop). Prod.: Darryl F. Zanuck per Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.. 35mm. D.: 132’. Bn.
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