The burden of command in the post-Second World War films

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University

John Wayne plays the platoon’s sergeant Stryker in one of his best screen performances. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In the immediate post-Second World War period, many films began to wrestle with command and the stresses it caused.  Hundreds of thousands of troops were returning to the United States, and films such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) looked at the difficulties soldiers faced in readjusting to civilian life. Other films dealt with pressures created by military conflict across the globe. Of this group of films, the most successful was Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). It depicts a platoon’s genesis from basic training to one of the Second World War’s bloodiest battles at Iwo Jima. It was the first time that the United States had invaded Japanese territory, and they met strong resistance from the Japanese in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War. John Wayne plays the platoon’s sergeant Stryker in one of his best screen performances.

The squad initially detests Stryker and the hard training he insists upon. He is especially despised by private Pete Conway, played by John Agar, who is college-educated. Pete is the son of Colonel Sam Conway, whom Stryker admired. Conway is part of the elite, who disdain military life, but the true heroes are the hard salt of the earth men like Stryker, who project a much tougher line against the United States’ enemies. The film discusses the shocking burden of command. Eventually, Conway understands and adopts Stryker’s techniques.

While the Pacific theatre of war was the focus of Sand of Iwo Jima, Twelve O’Clock High (1949) concentrates on the bombardment of German factories by aircrews of the US airforce. The film is set on an airbase in the English midlands, focusing on a B17 bomber group with an abysmal record. With its morale a disaster, its leader Colonel Keith Davenport is set aside for allowing discipline to erode when he became too close to its men.

Savage collapses under the stain of command in Twelve O’Clock High. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Brigadier General Frank Savage replaces him to lead the 918th bomber group. Screenwriters in 1949 appeared to employ strong, active surnames such as ‘Savage’ and ‘Stryker’ for their protagonists, who then whipped a military unit into shape. Like Stryker, Savage clamps down on discipline and deals harshly with slackers. His new order causes dissent, but eventually, they come around to his way of doing things. Savage leads the 918th on a mission over the German heartland in a version of the Black Thursday strike against Schweinfurt, a major raid against a ball-bearing plant in Germany.[1] The B-17s attack the ball-bearing plant—but a second bombing raid is required. As Savage attempts to board his aircraft to lead the restrike, he suffers a mental breakdown from the accumulated strain. Savage can lead no further, but even in his absence, the unit destroys the target and the 918th is now an elite unit, and it moves on to new leadership. After all his efforts, Savage is disposable. The film was the first to touch on the massive stress involved with command.

Submarine Command dealt with the issues of post-truamatic stress in a submarine commander. (IMDB and Paramount)

The first film to directly deal with post-traumatic stress disorder related to command was Submarine Command (1951), which took these issues to another level. The film focuses on the crushing decision by Lieutenant Commander Ken White, played by William Holden. He orders the submarine USS Tiger Shark to dive to evade an aerial attack, causing his the death of a commander and a quartermaster. White is not able to lead his troops further, as the war is finished when he resurfaces. For White, vindication comes when the Korean War is declared, and his leadership in the face of overwhelming pressure shows his decision-making wisdom. In Regeneration Through Violence, Richard Slotkin shows that the attitudes and traditions that shape American culture evolved from the social and psychological anxieties of European settlers struggling in a strange new world to claim the land and displace the Native Americans.[2] White, Styker and Savage are all vindicated by the violence they direct at the United States’ enemies. The messages from this group of films, which were released in the early days of the Cold War, were that the United States would need to be tougher, and people like Stryker, Savage and White were needed even if they were to be killed or crushed by the demands of war.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_O%27Clock_High.

[2] Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence : The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. 1st Ed.].. ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

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