Above and Beyond is a blend of genres; part military history of Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets at Wendover Air Force Base preparing to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and part melodrama about his strained relationship with his wife. Made in 1952, it stars Robert Taylor as Paul Tibbets and Eleanor Parker as his wife, Lucy.
The film is narrated by Eleanor Parker, recounting how their marriage has nearly fallen apart. It begins in 1943, when Tibbets is brought back to America from overseas (where he was flying the B-17 over Africa) to fly test runs of the new Boeing B-29 bomber, which has been having technical problems and even crashed during one test, killing the pilot. Lucy is thrilled to see her husband for the first time in two years – and to introduce him to the son he has never seen – but discovers that he only has thirty minutes to be with her before he reports to Wichita to begin test flying the B-29.
They do manage a few moments together in the coming months and Lucy is soon pregnant again. She comments on how they have been married for five years, are the parents of a child and yet they have really only lived together for about seven weeks. But the war continues and because of Tibbets’ experience with the B-29, he is chosen to head the 509th Composite Group, an Air Force group that was part of the Manhattan Project and the group in charge of actually delivering the bomb, training the crew and modifying the B-29 so that it could carry the bomb.
The 509th Composite Group is located at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah. Initially, there are no women and children, but out of concern that the women would do too much talking and speculating, the decision is made to allow all the wives and children to live on the base….except Lucy. Major Bill Uanna (James Whitmore) is the security officer and strongly advises Tibbets against bringing Lucy. He’s concerned that the pressure on Tibbets will make him of little use as a husband and father and that the stress would be too much for her. But after Lucy has her second child, she can’t understand why she has been excluded when other wives are there and insists on coming.
At first, everything is okay. The house is cramped and dingy, but she’s happy to be with him. But soon she hears some complaints from the wives on the base. Because Tibbets is not even a full Colonel (still a Lieutenant Colonel) and because of the intense secrecy on the base, some of the men don’t believe he is really in charge of anything important and think he’s being strict because he’s angling for promotion.
She dismisses it, but soon begins to suspect that perhaps they are right and can’t understand why he won’t tell her anything. The only people who know what is going on are Tibbets, the scientists, Major Uanna and General Brent (Larry Keating), who meets with Tibbets periodically. Soon she begins to wonder if he’s hardening before her eyes and if she can even live with him anymore. Tempers are short, words are spoken and she’s contemplating divorce. Meanwhile, he is agonizing over whether or not to announce to General Brent that the bomb is ready to be deployed.
The film is well-acted and absorbing, though at 122 minutes, a bit too long and it does hover uneasily between aviation history and melodrama. I’m not sure how much of the story between Lucy and Tibbets is accurate. On the one hand, it seems like she could have been more understanding about the stress he’s under (though according to Wikipedia – a grain-of-salt source – the film was made to explore the very issue of high divorce rates among flight crews). But in the film no one on the base seems to really believe that what they are doing is vitally important, which is what causes the misunderstandings in the first place.
There are two moments in the film that I know are true: when Lucy gets one of the Manhattan Project scientists to fix her sink (Tibbets had told her, when she asked about the men in white overalls, that they were sanitation men) and when the bomb is armed once the Enola Gay is in air and not before. They were concerned that if the Enola Gay crashed before taking off (still a somewhat common occurrence) the whole base would blow up.
I have not seen many of Eleanor Parker’s films; I still think of her as the Baroness from The Sound of Music, so it was fun to see her in another role. She’s quite good, though she is required to spend most of the movie frustrated and anxious. Robert Taylor is another actor I am not as familiar with, though I was impressed here. He’s playing a man who does not generally express his emotions, but feels deeply and cannot tell anyone what he is thinking or going through at all while he as at Wendover.
The film reflects a definite post-atomic bomb consciousness of the horror of nuclear weapons. It is not apologetic about dropping the bomb, but is nonetheless ambivalent about the existence of such a weapon. The film mentions President Truman soul-searching about whether to use it or not and Tibbets is clearly uneasy (when the scientists are discussing how to maximize the damage of the explosion, he gets a queasy look on his face) as if they were fully aware of what a weighty moment in history it was. But in 1945, I have read of no soul-searching or agonizing over the decision or consideration past the primary objective, which was to end the war as quickly as possible, the atomic bomb being considered one method of several concurrently employed to bring it about.
Interspersed in the film is quite a bit of actual war footage, including of the mushroom cloud billowing upwards (which is eerie), footage of the B-17 and B-29, of dropping bombs, of explosions and damage and it is quite well integrated. The ending of the film is chillingly effective, as the crew looks out of their plane at the cloud and the flattened, burning city of Hiroshima. All Tibbets’ says is “God,” in a hushed tone while his men look on, a bit in shock by what they just unleashed.
It’s not a moral exploration of the use of the bomb (Michael Bess writes a thorough and excellent one in his sobering and deeply thoughtful Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II), but is a look at a historical moment in time, as well as a more timeless account of the pressures on a loving marriage were the husband is frequently gone, in danger and unable to talk about what he does.