Rock Hudson plays a United States Air Force officer, Colonel Jim Caldwell, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 wing commander. He must shape up his wing and men to pass a grueling operational readiness inspection (ORI) that the previous commander had failed and for which he had been relieved of his command. Caldwell is also recently married to an English wife, Victoria, and as a tough commanding officer doing whatever he has to do to shape up his command, his wife sees a side to him that she had not seen before.
The film also stars Rod Taylor, Mary Peach, Barry Sullivan, Kevin McCarthy, Henry Silva, Robert Lansing, Leif Erickson, and Richard Anderson.
The Inspector General of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), Major General "Happy Jack" Kirby (Kevin McCarthy), lands unannounced at the fictional Carmody Air Force Base in northern California (a role actually filled by the real life Beale AFB), home of the 904th Strategic Aerospace Wing. Accompanied by a 30-man inspection team, he demands that the Air Police take him directly to the wing's command post and once there announces a no-notice Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI). As the inspection continues, General Kirby receives a score report from a member of his team. With this in hand, he calls General Hewitt, the commanding general of SAC at his Omaha headquarters and soberly informs him, "It doesn't look too good so far, sir."
The general agrees and, without further ado, summons to his office his new aide, Colonel Jim Caldwell (Rock Hudson), who at the time is conducting a tour of visiting dignitaries through the underground command post of SAC Headquarters at Offutt AFB near Omaha, NE. Colonel Caldwell reports to his superior's office, and General Hewitt (Leif Erickson) coolly informs him that the wing commander at Carmody "didn't have what it takes" and must be replaced. Hewitt offers the job to Caldwell, who enthusiastically accepts. To Caldwell, this is a highly enviable career move, one made more auspicious when he discovers that his good friend and Korean War buddy, Colonel Hollis Farr (Rod Taylor), is the vice wing commander. Barely able to conceal his excitement, he telephones his English wife, Victoria (Mary Peach), to tell her the news.
Soon after he arrives at Carmody in a T-33, Caldwell notes a number of problems in the wing that indicate a low state of training and readiness. He then institutes measures that Colonel Farr immediately questions: restoring a seven-day alert cycle that isolates flight crews from their families, freezing all promotion recommendations, and making it clear that no member of the 904th may consider his job secure. This includes the base commander, Colonel Bill Fowler (Barry Sullivan), who, as Caldwell soon learns, drinks heavily. Eventually, Caldwell forces Fowler to retire early, and tells him straight-out that his drinking is the cause. He also alienates the wing's Deputy Commander for Maintenance, Colonel "Smokin' Joe" Garcia (Henry Silva) by telling him that he must learn to delegate authority—and when Garcia applies for a transfer to a B-58 Hustler bomb wing, Caldwell refuses to act on it. Farr protests that Caldwell is "going out on a limb", to which Caldwell replies with a biting rhetorical question, "What's wrong with that?"
Caldwell's harsh policies soon alienate even Victoria, who has befriended Fowler's wife. Eventually, morale at the upper echelons goes from bad to worse. First, Bill Fowler shoots himself, under circumstances that could be accidental but probably are not. Then, after Farr gives leave to a squadron commander whose unit is not in good shape, Caldwell asks the brigadier general commanding the 904th's parent air division to replace Farr as vice wing commander. He says, "I inherited the most popular wing vice commander in SAC—but one who will not assume responsibility!" He then sharply contradicts Farr's rosy approval of the wing's performance during a post-mission critique of B-52G and KC-135A aircraft commanders and their crews as a prelude to informing Farr that he is fired. This almost causes the final breach between Caldwell and his wife, especially since gossip has had Farr and Victoria drifting into an affair, a rumor to which Caldwell lends no credence but one that Victoria has heard, leading her to think that she is in some way responsible for Farr's impending dismissal.
Soon after, while Caldwell visits Fowler in a San Francisco hospital to snap him out of his depression, he receives a call from the operations chief saying that an unidentified aircraft is "on final approach, no emergency declared". Suspecting another ORI, Caldwell orders the officer to notify the battle staff at once. Caldwell cannot return to base fast enough, however, and Farr must assume command in his absence. In this capacity, Farr makes a key decision: to launch a B-52 which cannot produce full power on one of its engines, a violation of peacetime flight safety regulations, because "We're simulating wartime conditions."
After another B-52 must abort its mission, General Kirby's "score" of that mission will make the difference between passing and failing. Kirby confronts Farr about the decision, and Caldwell immediately defends it, stating he would have made the same call. But Kirby, a former wing commander himself, surprises both by saying that he, too, would have done the same, and that he will not score the mission as an abort. Tellingly, he actually smiles at Caldwell as he says this. Caldwell congratulates Farr in a manner strongly suggesting he will retain Farr as his vice commander, saying that Farr has finally learned "how...it feels out on that limb" and "might actually get to like it out there". Victoria, for her part, realizes the value of Caldwell's policies—especially when General Kirby wants to see her about the base's Family Support Program.
General Curtis LeMay, USAF (former head of the Strategic Air Command and serving at the time as Chief of Staff of the Air Force), used his considerable influence to allow Producer Sy Bartlett and Director Delbert Mann unprecedented access to various SAC facilities, in the belief that this film would play a vital role in reminding Americans that the Air Force did indeed have its weapons of mass destruction under tight control. Mann, a former World War II bomber pilot who had won an Academy Award for his first film (Marty), was eager to demonstrate that he could direct serious material and not merely light-hearted comedies which had not been as nearly well received.
Filming was done at Beale Air Force Base, California, using the facilities, Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker and Lockheed T-33 aircraft, Martin Marietta Titan I missile sites, and personnel of the 456th Strategic Aerospace Wing. The military housing used in several scenes is still used today as base housing at Beale AFB for senior commanders of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing.
It was originally announced that John Gavin would support Rock Hudson.
Tom Lehrer wrote one original song for this film, called "The SAC Song". Rod Taylor, as Hollis Farr, performs this song at a party for officers and their wives. Most of Lehrer's work is satirical, and the lyrics and music for this song are quite typical of Lehrer.
As Sy Bartlett and Delbert Mann were filming at SAC Headquarters at Offutt AFB in Omaha, they noticed that SAC personnel were unusually tense. They would later learn, when President John F. Kennedy would make this fact public, that SAC had recently learned of Nikita Khrushchev's plan to introduce nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles into Cuba.
A subplot in the film where Colonel Farr has an affair with Colonel Caldwell's wife, played by Mary Peach, was removed during post production. The original choice for Mary Peach's role was Julie Andrews but according to screenwriter Robert Pirosh, Delbert Mann thought Andrews could not act, only sing. Pirosh felt there was no rapport between Hudson and Peach.
This film depicts the operations of a typical Strategic Aerospace Wing (nuclear bombers, aerial refueling aircraft and ICBMs) of the Strategic Air Command during the early 1960s. The depiction of unannounced Operation Readiness Inspections (ORI) accurately reflects events at SAC bases during this time period. When General Curtis LeMay became SAC Commander in 1948, he undertook a number of base inspections, frequently flying unannounced to a SAC base. LeMay insisted on rigorous training and very high standards of performance for all SAC personnel, be they officers, enlisted men, aircrews, mechanics, or administrative staff, and reportedly commented, "I have neither the time nor the inclination to differentiate between the incompetent and the merely unfortunate." A poor showing during one of these inspections could, and often did, result in the immediate replacement of that base's wing commander, as well as on-site demotions for poorly performing airmen (or immediate on the spot promotions for officers and airmen who performed well).
One anonymous commentator at IMDb stated that he was a member of the wing where filming took place, and vouched for the authenticity of Air Force procedures depicted in this film. Four commentators have left entries at the Turner Classic Movies database entry. Each one claims to have been in SAC during the period of history depicted in this film—and one man states that he was not only stationed at Beale AFB, but also flew the T-33 "chase plane" and worked with Rod Taylor (who, as Col Farr, is depicted as flying the plane when Col Caldwell has to break off air refueling because of a broken fuel line in the cockpit of his B-52G). These men criticize the film for the following errors:Air Force senior NCOs (holding the rank of Master Sergeant or higher rank) would not actually hold tools since they act as supervisors or administrators. More junior NCOs and enlisted personnel, such as Technical Sergeants, Staff Sergeants and Airmen would do the hands-on work.
The Titan I missile silos would not be within plain sight of the end of the runway, as shown in the film, but would probably be 20 to 45 miles distant. Those shown appear to have been at the Chico, CA site, which was near Beale and located on a small hill, allowing the B-52s to be higher above the terrain than they appear in the title shot.
Firefighters would not spray carbon dioxide or any other cold aerosol on the overheated brakes of a B-52 that had to land without flaps. Doing so would cause the disk brakes to explode.
A portrait of President John F. Kennedy hangs in Colonel Caldwell's office as part of a photographic depiction of the chain of command, providing an obvious time frame reference.
Col Daniel J. Bigelow, USAF was the pilot of the B-52G and acted as stand-in for Rock Hudson when Col Caldwell was depicted as flying the B-52G.
The number of the 904th, and the name of its base, Carmody, are both fictitious. The actual base used in filming, Beale AFB, is located north of Sacramento, a significant distance from San Francisco. The picture is dedicated to the officers, airmen and wives of the 456th Aerospace Wing of the Strategic Air Command.
The term "Operational Readiness Inspection" (ORI) was actual terminology in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s applied to exercises evaluating the combat readiness of SAC, TAC, USAFE and PACAF units to carry out their nuclear mission. An ORI would involve the unannounced arrival of a KC-135 with approximately 70 personnel on board who would then conduct a week-long evaluation of every aspect of that base's and wing's readiness. One of the TCM Database commentators vouches specifically for the ORI as depicted, and also for the Minimum Interval Take Off (MITO) sequence (in which Colonels Caldwell and Farr witness B-52Gs taking off fifteen seconds apart on average).
A Gathering of Eagles received relatively weak critical reviews and did poorly at the box office. After more than forty years, opinions vary widely as to the causes of the poor reception. The period in which this film was released is notable for the release, one or two years later, of a number of films that were decidedly unsympathetic to the US military (e.g., Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, etc.). These films asserted a position regarding "positive control" of nuclear weapons that ran counter to A Gathering of Eagles and appeared to much greater critical acclaim and box-office reception.
A Gathering of Eagles received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Effects (Robert L. Bratton) in 1963.