Strategic Air Command (1955)

Strategic Air Command (1955) also showed the swing away from red-baiting to a more moderate approach to superpower conflict. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The failure of the anti-communist films from 1949 to 1952 to leave their mark was attributable to three main factors: the haste and clumsy way they were produced; the obvious studio pressure to put as much vitriol as possible in the films; and finally the endless digs within the films at former members of the Hollywood community.  In the first phase, the films can be read as concerted attacks on the unfriendly witnesses and those who supported them.  It is not surprising that the anti-communist films had no resonance with the wider American community because they were aimed at blacklisted communist or left-wing writers, actors or directors.  The films failed to separate liberal and communist critics of society, they justified civil rights abuses, depicted communists as sexually perverted, drug dealing hypocrites and they slandered intellectuals.  These films would have alienated those members of the audience with any liberal sympathies whatsoever.  The films also attempted to blame all America’s problems on the communists.  Union troubles, race riots and demonstrations were all linked back to communist agitators and an elaborate masterplot from Moscow.  The films argued that the United States would be perfect apart from these communist agents.  They were political nonsense with their delusions of world wide conspiracy and the films and their ideas were rejected by the American public.

By the mid-1950s, it was clear that the real sting had gone from anti-communist films. Strategic Air Command (1955) also showed the swing away from red-baiting to a more moderate approach to superpower conflict.  The communists were barely even hinted at in the script, even though the entire film is about the work of the Strategic Air Command.  This group was constantly in flight and prepared to attack Russia with its nuclear weapons.  It would have been a difficult task for a writer to draw out any tension from a plane flying for hours on end and instead the film focused on Rusty Castle played by Jimmy Stewart.  Castle was a major league baseball player who was recalled into the SAC because they needed good, steady leadership in the Airforce to maintain their nuclear threat.  He was reluctant to join, after serving during the war, but on seeing the benefits for America, he did so.  It was a simple film which reveled in the advanced technology available to the United States Airforce.  The film lacked a climax which reflected its underlying philosophy which was put forward by Castle:  ‘There is a kind of war on – we’ve got to stay ready to fight without fighting- that’s harder.’[1]

This message of a fight without fighting resonated with Americans.  Their belief in the effectiveness of the Strategic Air Command was to be shattered when the Russians launched the Sputnik in 1957.  However in 1955, the film reassured the nuclear jitters of the American people.  Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California said the cause of peace was well served by the film.

It serves free people everywhere.  To the extent that all people are made aware of our great military strength, the likelihood of aggression by those who oppose freedom diminishes.  It brings those who view it, a graphic and moving story of the power and might of our Strategic Air Command.[2]

The United States needed its nuclear weapons to keep the communists at bay.  The Strategic Air Command was expensive but it did the job and the security of the American system was maintained.  Subversion was hinted at with the film’s insistence of security.  This film was definitely aimed at reassuring the American people that America’s nuclear weapons were in safe hands and were more than a match for the Russians.

Strategic Air Command achieved great financial success with its message of quiet confidence in the nuclear deterrence and the effectiveness of the American forces.  The cold war message had moved right away from subversion to deal with the actual reality of Russia’s nuclear and military capacity.  When films concentrated on the inherent strength of the United States, they were far more successful.  Strategic Air Command added a note of reassurance which had been missing from the anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s.  It earned $6.5 million and was the fourth highest earning film of 1955.[3]  Such a huge popular reaction to an anti-communist film had simply not occurred before.

Not even the Korean War could provide Hollywood with the impetus to make any popular propaganda films.  The Bridges at Toko Ri (1955), which was the most popular film on the Korean war, avoided discussing any of the major issues involved in the conflict.  There were odd references to the Russians, but the film focused on the life of sailors and pilots in the navy.  The war was a forgotten task undertaken by soldiers who would rather be at home with their wives and girlfriends.  This film was the exception as most Korean War films were box office poison.

Yet the American public remained implacably anti-communist throughout the late 40s and early 1950s and it would be logical to assume that these films would have reflected their concerns and fears about communism.  The films failed because they did not deal with the audience’s real fears about communism.  Other types of films did.

[1] Strategic Air Command, (d) Anthony Mann, (w) Valentine Davies, Beirnie Lay Jnr.

[2] Paramount Studios press release, 31 January 1955, Box 629, Folder 4, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA>

[3] Variety, 25 January 1956.

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