Monday, June 17, 2013

Above and Beyond

TCM is showing something like 30 movies as part of Eleanor Parker's time as Star of the Month. Since they only have four weeknights to do it, that means that the movies, starting at 8:00 PM Monday, tend to continue well into Tuesday morning. Such is the case with Above and Beyond, which is airing tomorrow morning at 11:15 AM.

Robert Taylor gets top billing as Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets. If that name sounds familiar, perhaps it should: Tibbets' claim to fame is as the pilot of the Enola Gay, the US B-29 bomber which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945. Above and Beyond is the story of Tibbets and of the program to train bombers for the mission to drop that bomb on Hiroshima. But before they can drop the bomb, we have to go back a few years. Tibbets is serving as a pilot in the North African theater, running bombing raids over Tunisia that he considers pointless. So he tells his superiors this in no uncertain words. It costs him a promotion, but brings him to the attention of Major General Brent (Larry Keating). Brent is in charge of part of the atomic bomb mission, although at first Tibbets has no idea that there's any sort of atomic bomb being developed. For now, Tibbets' mission is to pilot test flights of the B-29. Part of the proposed atomic bomb mission involves a very long flight to the target, and then back from the target, which means that a new bomber capable of handling such long range flight, as well as the aftershock, is neccessary. And Tibbets is the right man to test whether the B-29 will be that suitable bomber.

So Tibbets heads out west, much to the dismay of his wife Lucey (Eleanor Parker), who is left behind in Washington with their son. The testing goes well enough that the generals decide the B-29 will be OK for the atomic bomb mission, and it's at this point that they finally let Tibbets in on the real purpose of his mission, which will ultimately be to drop a bomb of such hitherto unimaginable destructive force that the Japanese will have no choice but to beg for surrender. It's Tibbets' job to find the suitable crew to fly the plane that will drop the bomb, and to train them. There's one catch: he's not allowed to let any of them in on what's really going on, as security is understandably exceedingly tight. Tibbets and the rest head out to Wendover Air Base, on the Utah-Nevada border, to train for the mission. Eventually, to try to make Wendover appear more like a regular air base, the men's wives are allowed to join them, although the women are obvoiusly not allowed in on the real point of what's going on at Wendover. As you can imagine, this would be pretty big strain on a marriage, as Tibbets has to look like the bad guy a lot of the time in order to keep things secret.

It's no surprise that the question of whether dropping the atomic bomb was the right thing to do became a point for debate among historians decades after the war. (Charlton Heston, in his Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne, argued that it saved his life: he was stationed in Alaska at the time, but was certain to be part of the force that would presumably have had to invade Japan's Home Islands had the bomb not been dropped on Hirsohima.) However, Above and Beyond was only made a half dozen years after the bombing, so it's understandable that there's no question that dropping the atomic bomb could be anything less than completely morally just. To be honest, I think skipping that question makes for a better movie. Considering all that had previously gone on in the war, it's not as if the people fighting at the time, not having any clue about the long-term radiation consequences of dropping the bomb, would have had any moral compunction about using it.

So, Above and Beyond gives us a more straightforward look at the people involved. I wouldn't be surprised if all of the main people in the film are portrayed even more positively than they were in real life, but that's Hollywood for you. Still, Taylor is quite good as the man who has to keep a really difficult secret, with Parker does well as the woman who must, unless she's a complete idiot, realize there's something big going on, but also knows she can't ask about it. As much as it must have been tough for the military wives to deal with their husbands being abroad fighting the war, I can't imagine it would have been much easier to follow their husbands to some God-forsaken place like Wendover, only to discover that they're being kept out of the loop as to what's going on. James Whitmore, who plays the security officer who informs Tibbets of the real nature of the mission in the first place, while also ensuring everything remains a secret.

I don't know quite how accurate Above and Beyond is, but even if it does get any of the personal history wrong, it's still a very well-made film. It's received a release to DVD from the Warner Archive.

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