The film was the second film released in Paramount's new wide-screen system, VistaVision, in color by Technicolor and Perspecta directional sound. It would also be Stewart and Mann's eighth and final collaboration and the third of three movies that paired Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, the others being The Stratton Story and The Glenn Miller Story.
Robert "Dutch" Holland (James Stewart) is a professional baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals. A B-29 bomber pilot during World War II, he is also an officer on inactive status in the United States Air Force Reserve. During spring training at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, he is recalled to active duty for 21 months. He reports to his posting at Carswell AFB, a bomber base in Fort Worth, Texas, to qualify in the Convair B-36. He arrives in civilian clothing because his old uniforms are those of the old U.S. Army Air Forces, for which he is rebuked by General Hawkes (Frank Lovejoy), the commander of SAC. The General's character is patterned after the real SAC commander of the time, General Curtis LeMay.
Dutch is given a staff job with the bombardment wing at Carswell that involves a lot of flying. He soon has a B-36 crew of his own, selecting a former World War II colleague as his flight engineer, and becomes enamored with both flying and the role of SAC in deterring war. He is joined by his wife, Sally (June Allyson), who had not bargained on being an Air Force wife, and who struggles with his repeated absences and the dangers of flying. On any given night, Dutch might find his aircraft on airborne alert far from the continental United States, in secret, only telling his wife when he returns days later. Even so, Sally tells Dutch that she is happy as long as they can be together, no matter what he decides to do with his life.
The B-36 is a complex aircraft when introduced, but improvements are being worked on all the time. One challenge was leakage from the fuel tanks, but a new fix is introduced to address this once and for all. On their next flight, Dutch's crew has to fly their B-36 from Carswell AFB to Thule Air Base, Greenland. The fix does not work and one of the engines bursts into flame, causing the entire left wing to catch fire. The crew is forced to abandon the aircraft and bail out over the ice and snow of Greenland before arriving at Thule. Dutch and his Radar Navigator stay on board for a forced landing, which causes Dutch to injure his right shoulder.
Dutch becomes a favourite of General Hawkes and is rewarded with a revised assignment flying the new Boeing B-47 Stratojet at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, across the bay from St. Petersburg where his old baseball team continues to conduct its spring training. Promoted to full "Bird" colonel and made deputy wing commander of his B-47 wing at MacDill, Dutch decides, to Sally's displeasure, to remain in the Air Force, rather than return to baseball at the end of his active duty obligation.
On a full B-47 wing movement exercise that involves flying nonstop from MacDill to Yokota Air Base, Japan, they encounter severe wind and storms. Low on fuel, they divert to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. As they prepare to land, Dutch realizes that his shoulder injury from the B-36 crash was worse than he thought, and it is almost immobile. He is unable to operate the engine power levers (throttles) during final landing phase and has to rely on his co-pilot to do so while Dutch works the flight controls with his left arm and feet.
This injury not only bars him from further flying (he is discharged from the Air Force (USAF) shortly after the incident), but also appears to threaten his baseball career. General Hawkes suggests he would make an excellent team manager.
As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
In real life, during World War II, Stewart had been a B-17 instructor pilot, a B-24 squadron commander, and a bomb group operations officer, completing 20 combat missions. At the time of filming, Stewart, much like the character he portrays, was also a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, serving with the Strategic Air Command when on duty; he was later promoted to brigadier general. In later years, Stewart continued to fly, including Operation Arc Light missions in Vietnam as a non-duty observer aboard a B-52F. Thus, Stewart's character was not too far from the life he was actually living.
Stewart's military service and lifelong interest in aviation greatly influenced the making of the film. He pushed for an authentic but sympathetic portrayal of the Strategic Air Command, which led Paramount to put together a strong cast of Hollywood veterans and production people including June Allyson, Frank Lovejoy, director Anthony Mann, and the top stunt pilot of the day, Paul Mantz. The film accurately portrays (from the perspective of the 1951 starting point of the script) the duties and responsibilities of an Air Force strategic bomber pilot, and the demands such service places on family life.
The film includes dramatic aerial photography, for which it was awarded a special citation by the American National Board of Review. It is also the only motion picture to highlight the Convair B-36 (depicted in the movie poster), the largest mass-produced piston-powered aircraft ever built, and the first delivery method for the hydrogen bomb. The propeller-driven B-36 was then near the end of its service life, about to be replaced by the jet-powered B-47 Stratojet and ultimately, by the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The aerial footage was accompanied by a dramatic and soaring musical score composed by Victor Young.
The film was made with the full cooperation of the United States Air Force and was partly filmed on location at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida; Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado and Carswell Air Force Base, Texas. Baseball scenes were filmed with the cooperation of the St. Louis Cardinals at their spring training home of Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, just across Tampa Bay from MacDill AFB.
Stewart's character is based on the real-life military career and an actual mission flown by Brigadier General Clifford Schoeffler, who crashed during an Arctic B-36 mission and survived. Brigadier General Schoeffler was on site at Carswell Air Force Base during the filming of Strategic Air Command for consultation.
Some commentators have speculated that the plot was inspired by Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, a World War II veteran, who was recalled for Korean War service as a Marine Corps aviator, at the height of his baseball career.
The Storz Mansion in Omaha, Nebraska, was the scene of opulent parties celebrating the movie. The movie premier was held in Omaha, the home of Offutt AFB and SAC Headquarters, and the premier party was held at the Mansion with guests including Stewart and June Allyson, as well as the Strategic Air Command commander, General Curtis LeMay.
Shot in the new VistaVision process, the film was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1955. Critics were lukewarm about the performances of all except Stewart, who was called "capable," "charming" and "competent." Public reaction centered on the spectacular aerial footage, so that the B-36 and B-47 aircraft were arguably the real "stars" of the film and the film's release led to a 25% increase in Air Force enlistments.
From today's perspective, the film's appeal lies in its homage to the personnel of the Strategic Air Command, whose competence in and dedication to their appointed task, strategic bombing. This contrasts starkly with the Cold War thriller, Fail Safe, or the dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both released in 1964. Strategic Air Command was more immediately followed by two films that were also supportive of the SAC mission, Bombers B-52 in 1957 and A Gathering of Eagles in 1963.
The B-47 cockpit used in the film is now on display at the March Field Air Museum at March Air Reserve Base (former March AFB) in Riverside, California.1955 Academy Award Nomination: Best Motion Picture Story (Beirne Lay, Jr.)
1955 National Board of Review, USA: Special Citation to recognize the film's aerial photography
In October 2016, Strategic Air Command was released by Olive films on High Definition Blu-ray.
Reference: Robert Harris review of the Strategic Air Command Blu-ray: