In England in 1949, American Harvey Stowell (Dean Jagger) sees an antique mug in a shop window and buys it, as it reminds him of his days in England as a major in the Air Force during World War II. He then visits an empty, muddy patch of land which used to be an Air Force base, and we flashback to 1942 when he was part of the 918th Bombardment Group, the only group conducting daylight bombing raids, and consequently suffering heavy casualties. After a particularly grueling mission, General Savage (Gregory Peck) orders another mission which the group's leader, Col. Davenport, thinks is suicidal. Savage asks to have Davenport replaced because he identifies too strongly with his men, and General Pritchard agrees, installing Savage in Davenport's place. He's a hard-ass and it takes a while for him to mold the recalcitrant men—one navigator kills himself as Davenport predicted might happen. Several men ask for transfers, and Savage has Stowell delay the requests for a few days so he can work on the men, toughening them up and gaining respect. Slowly, most of the group comes around, especially when Savage begins flying some of the missions with his men. (The antique mug from the beginning of the movie crops up as a signal that a man has been assigned to a new mission.) But, also slowly, Savage begins reacting like Davenport did, over-identifying with his men, and when a couple of deaths hit him hard, he shows signs of a nervous breakdown.
This well-respected war film is not a traditional war film—though there are a couple of battle scenes, the focus is on the relationships of the men with each other and with their commanding officers, and on the qualities that make (or might un-make) a good leader. The movie's strengths are in its relatively low-key approach to the psychological plot points, and the superb non-grandstanding performances, beginning with Peck and Jagger (pictured above; both nominated for Oscars with Jagger winning for supporting actor) and including Gary Merrill as Davenport, Hugh Marlowe (who may well do the best acting of his career here as an injured flier), Millard Mitchell, Paul Stewart and Bob Patten. This is one of the few war movies with no major female character, and no romantic complications. The tone is serious but not glum in this film which was one of the first to consider the psychological costs of war. Highly recommended. [DVD]