The successful 1949 film about World War II bomber crews was turned into a television series (1965-1967).
Gregory Peck starred as Gen. Frank Savage in the film, commander of the Army Air Corps 918 Bomb Group. Savage is also a B-17 pilot, flying daylight missions over Europe in 1942. Savage is assigned to take over this group to provide it different leadership. As much as this is a World War II action film, it is really more about the high cost of war on the human psyche and the fragile nature of war command.
Peck’s Savage was stern and affuff. He seemed sure he knew what was needed to fix the bomb group and he held his officers and crews accountable. His methods were at times, harsh and unsympathetic.
Robert Lansing played Savage in the first season of the television series. Lansing’s Savage is all business and cold, but seems more connected to his personnel. Producers wanted a strict leader, but a human one.
In 1942, bomber crews were the only American fighting in Europe, doing it from bases in England. Daylight bombing was imperfect and dangerous. German fighter planes and airborne flak, American losses were high. In the film, members of the bomber crews are worn down and demoralized. The group commander, Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) is told he too closely identifies with him men rather than the mission. He is ordered to replace one of his pilots but refuses, and is replaced, by Savage.
The “hard luck” group of they are known, having lost five bombers on their most recent mission. They are ordered to fly their next mission at 9,000 feet, which is quite low altitude.
Savage is told to fly this crews till they can’t take any more. He immediately changes the lax attitude at the base. Savage will not buy into the grief, frustration and poor performance of his new personnel. He makes an example of one of his executive officers (Hugh Marlowe), making Savage immediately unpopular, but he doesn’t care. All of his pilots want to transfer, but Savage holds up the paperwork until he can try and rebuild their sense of pride.
The group’s adjutant (Dean Jagger) is a calming influence on Savage, supports him, but is a straight-shooter. Jagger won an Academy Award for Supporting Actor.
Savage pushes his men, even the expense of disobeying a flight order; his group bombs a target no other group’s successfully reaches. The group earns a commendation for their performance and bravery. Savage is trying to rebuild their sense of honor.
Gradually, the men start to respond. Some of the ground crew even stowaway on missions to get into the action. The pilot he made an example of hides an injury to keep flying and is more seriously injured.
Savage is questioned about whether he is becoming to close to his men. He is told to prepare to give up his command and return to headquarters where he is needed.
The next mission has to be done over two days, deep into Germany, beyond Allied fighter protection. On the first day, losses are heavy, including the air chief, who Savage has grown close. Savage’s face shows his pain, but he quickly buries it, and it stays buried until he tries to climb into the plane on the second day. He physically can’t; he goes into shock and has to be forced into the jeep. The pilot who he made an example early in the film takes his place. Savage is nearly catatonic until the planes begin returning and it is apparent that nearly all the crews are home safe.
The film has almost no air combat until Savage’s final mission. All of the combat footage is real, taken by the Army Air Corps and the German Luftwaffe. The fighter planes and bomber combat is actual footage. We’ve all seen a lot of these grainy air battles. There is no CGI, the planes exploding and breaking apart are real. Life and death combat.
The film is based on a novel by Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett, who drew deeply on their own wartime experiences when they were officers in England. At a premiere showing, General Curtis LeMay, who commanded a bomb group in England, praised the accuracy of the film.
The television series was co-produced by Quinn Martin Productions (The Fugitive, Barnaby Jones). A total of 78 episodes were filmed with 61 in black & white photography. Actual combat footage was again used for the air scenes. In the third season, the production company switched to color, which meant challenges in making black & white archive film appear in color.
In season two, Savage was killed off, replace by Col. Gallagher (Paul Burke), and a mostly new supporting cast, although Maj. Harvey Stovall (Frank Overton) was retained. Maj. Stovall was played by Dean Jagger in the film.
As in the film, each story is focused on the human drama of the pilots and crew. Guest stars pass through from the past or with problems that need solving. The producers spend money on what you see on the screen; guest stars and reproducing the period.
Savage is never without a cigarette and sadly Lansing died of lung cancer. Savage is a humorous, focused officer, even off duty. However, he has the time to live in love occasionally, one of his loves is Dana Wynter. Lansing’s Savage does not change much or any during his 30+ episodes. His steely-eyed look was perfect for his non-nonsense persona.
Paul Burke played Gallagher twice in season one, and was elevated to the group commander role as a change from steely-eyed Savage. I’ve read that Burke was hired as a younger lead, even though he was older than Lansing. The show wasn’t as good without Savage, and the ratings reflected it.
Twelve O’Clock High and Combat! were the two successful WWII dramas during the 1960s. The Rat Patrol lasted two seasons, but only a half-hour format, which is difficult to establish characters and unfold a dramatic narrative. Combat! was more action-driven, but like Twelve O’Clock High, focused on human drama. At the heart of all elements of life, especially war, is human drama.