Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sky Commando (Columbia, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Sky Commando was yet another production from Sam Katzman’s “B” unit at Columbia but a considerably better film than Last Train from Bombay even though it was a military aviation movie and thereby invoked all the tiresome clichés of military aviation movies from Wings and Hell’s Angels through Top Gun. A good deal of it, though, was legitimately tough drama — and its star, Dan Duryea, was not only an edgier personality than Jon Hall but also a considerably better and more “watchable” actor.

Sky Commando begins with combat footage of a jet fighter squadron during the Korean War — which was just winding down when the film was released in 1953 — in which the final two planes in the air, flown by Lt. John Willard (William R. Klein, later William Bryant) and his brother, Capt. Frank Willard (Dick Paxton), are just about to return home when they’re suddenly ordered by their commanding officer, Col. Ed Wyatt (Dan Duryea), to fly out again and bomb a machine-gun nest on top of a hill. They do so successfully, but then their two planes are attacked by four enemy MiG fighters and John’s plane gets back to base successfully but Frank’s is shot down and he’s presumably killed. Naturally, John Willard is pissed at Wyatt for giving them the order that got his brother killed, and he’s about to club Wyatt with a lantern when Major Scott (Michael Fox) intervenes and tells a story about how Wyatt got to be such a tough disciplinarian in the first place.

From then the film becomes mostly a World War II aviation film in which Wyatt is a pilot whose co-pilot has just been killed in the middle of a bombing mission, and whose replacement, Hobson “Hobbie” Lee (Touch Conners, who later worked his way down the Hollywood food chain to cheapies at American International and still later normalized his name to Mike Connors and starred on the private-eye TV show Mannix), is naturally nervous about the experience. Also in the dramatis personae is war correspondent Jo McWethy (Frances Gifford), whom Hobbie immediately falls for and who’s attached (in the modern world we’d say “embedded”) to their squadron.

Hobbie follows Wyatt when half the squadron is reassigned from Britain (from whence they’ve been flying sorties over Germany, mainly to take out the Focke-Wulf aircraft plant near Bremen) to north Africa, partly because Jo has also been reassigned there and partly because he wants to catch Wyatt endangering the lives of his crew so he can bring him up before a board of inquiry and get him punished. At one point, while the principals are still based in England, Wyatt orders the crew of his plane to push out of the cockpit three dead crew members (they’ve been killed by anti-aircraft fire) to lighten the load and make sure both the plane and its precious cargo of reconnaissance film of the raid get back to base (one interesting aspect of this movie is it makes filming the targets of bombing raids, both pre- and post-raid, seem as important as the actual bombing), and when the bodies are recovered in the English Channel one of them turns out to have died not by gunfire but by drowning — indicating he was still alive when pushed out of the plane even though Wyatt insists that there was no way he could have survived his injuries and therefore he was dead weight it was O.K. to dispose of.

This, of course, pisses off Hobbie even more — and he remains upset until the final, climactic mission in which the crew members go up in four-engined B-24 Liberator bombers (they’ve been flying two-engined B-25 Mitchells up until this point in the movie) to take out the oil refinery at Ploesti, Romania (which was supposedly the source of 90 percent of the German army’s fuel supply at the time) and their plane is shot down. Wyatt manages to crash-land it over the border in Yugoslavia and a partisan named Jorgy (Dick Lerner) leads them to a boat waiting to take them and their all-important film to Africa and safety — only Jorgy gets picked off by a German sniper 100 feet away from the beach, not that we mind because he’s one of the most obnoxious, unfunny “comic relief” characters in movie history, complete with an attempt at a “Yugoslav” accent that makes him sound like a cross between Yogi Yorgesson and José Jimenez. Then the film cuts back to the Korean War framing sequence, with Lt. John Willard ready and willing to resume his duties — and in a really unwelcome surprise twist, he gets a note just before he goes up on his next mission that his brother Danny is alive after all: the 300 U.S. Marines who were rescued from being pinned down by that machine-gun nest when the Willard brothers successfully bombed it out of existence in turn repaid the favor by rescuing Danny from the wreckage of his downed plane.

It’s a real pity that these last lapses into cliché mar what was until then a genuinely tough war movie, with dilemmas about love, pride and duty neatly if not exactly freshly presented by screenwriter Samuel Newman (adapting a story by himself and Arthur E. Orloff & William Sackheim) and directed with a real edge and flair for suspense by the normally hacky Fred F. Sears. Sometimes a “B” movie that aims out of its class and just misses can be more frustrating than a “B” that remains solidly in its class and never pretends to be anything else. It also doesn’t help that Sky Commando is way overloaded with stock footage of actual combat aircraft, some of it reasonably well-matched, some of it jarringly mismatched, and with a few clips in particular (notably one of a German anti-aircraft gun going off and then another one of it being reloaded) being recycled so often you want to wave to them and say hello to your new-found friends — but this is still mostly a tough-minded movie and a refreshingly edgy one for a “B” production.