In the early days of WWII, an American bomber unit has been having some tough luck lately, if you believe in luck. The men are losing their will to fly and fight, so General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) is sent to lead them and turn things around. Right away, he starts whipping the men into shape, yelling at the guard at the gate to check people more thoroughly and demoting a young man back down to private for not wearing his jacket on a hot day while he is typing in a stuffy office. He even orders that the bar be closed down for the night, once he has ordered himself a quick beer of course.
In his first time addressing the unit, he spells it out perfectly, “Consider yourselves already dead.” Big changes are coming, not only to focus on their discipline, but also to emphasize better training, tougher leadership and smooth teamwork. Savage even creates the Leper Colony, a team where the disorderly and belligerent men will be assigned. This will create a stigma, a place you don’t want to find yourself, and the men who do might have to work extra hard to make sure they make it through their mission considering the screw-ups on their team.
We soon see that the way Savage is pushing these men is paying off in the statistics. They are completing more missions successfully and losing less men. But as Savage grows closer to the men, he begins to see them as more than another boy to send up in a plane, possibly for the last time. It is easy to walk in on a group of strangers and order them into battle, but do to do it over and over to men you are growing to know is another thing. Savage does his best to repress the stress he is under, but how long can he hold out?
In the beginning of the film, we are told that real footage taken from combat will be featured. Exciting. Unfortunately, they wait until nearly two hours into the film to get to a real dogfight and show us the footage. It is edited very well, between shots of Savage in the cockpit and his men at the guns. Some of the footage may be intense for some viewers, especially if they realize they’re seeing the real thing. We don’t just see heroic flying skills, but carnage. There is a wing being shot off, men bailing out, gunfire all over, another plane exploding in midair, planes spiraling downward and hundreds of bombs dropping on the land below. It was more intense than I expected, but one of those rare moments of priceless film.
I can understand some people thinking it is in bad taste to use this footage in a film, but the characters are based off real people as well, and the film was careful to focus only on the military themes for the sake of glorifying the men who fought. A romantic plot was deliberately cut so that there could be more focus on the men, their battles and the theme of leadership. There is not much fluff here, just like General Savage, this film tries to be tough as nails.
“I believe that to a certain degree, a man makes his own luck.”