For many, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. We enjoy barbecues, picnics, and pool parties. However, beyond a few American flags in decorations, we often forget this holiday’s origin and meaning.
Originally called Decoration Day, the holiday may have begun with Southern women’s decorating graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. In 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic encouraged the widespread celebration of Decoration Day on May 30. It did not become an official holiday until 1971, when Congress established the last Monday in May and designated it as Memorial Day.
As with many holidays, it’s easy to forget Memorial Day’s meaning amid its celebration. One way to remember its purpose is to watch patriotic movies. War films made in the 1940s and ’50s are particularly powerful, since they were made during and shortly after one of the biggest military conflicts of the 20th century. “Above and Beyond” (1952) is an underappreciated masterpiece about one of the most important events during the war: the creation and dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
This movie follows the true story of Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets, Jr. (Robert Taylor). While serving in Africa in 1943, he attracts the notice of General Brent (Larry Keating), who is looking for a man to test and modify the new B-29 for combat. Tibbets accepts the assignment, leaving his wife Lucey (Eleanor Parker) and newborn son for Wichita to work on the dangerous project for months. After the mission’s success, Paul settles down with this family.
However, General Brent soon summons him to Colorado Springs to discuss the top-secret development of an atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan. Paul agrees to head the project alongside scientists and highly trained military personnel. Dubbed Operation Silverplate, the mission is so classified that none of the Air Force men except for Tibbets even know what it is.
Memorial Day is all about remembering men and women in uniform who have given the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. This true story shows the sacrifices soldiers and their families made during the war.
At the film’s beginning, Paul watches his comrades dying after obeying the order to fly low during a bombing mission. He implores his superior officer to let the next mission fly higher. Yet his pleas for his crew’s lives costs him a promotion to full colonel and instead earns him a devoted enemy in General Roberts (Robert Burton). Later, he accepts without question whatever assignment General Brent gives him, even when it means physical danger and personal sacrifice.
When General Brent proposes the idea of Operation Silverplate to Tibbets, he warns him of the danger involved: “I can’t give you any guarantee that your plane will ever come back,” he states bluntly. Tibbets simply replies, “A guarantee didn’t come with the uniform, sir.”
Besides the obvious challenges of accomplishing the specialized work, the mission was torturously difficult because of its secretive nature, as Paul alone had the responsibility of keeping the true purpose a secret, even from family and friends. Yet, no matter how much resentment it caused from his nearest and dearest, Paul makes the sacrifices needed to keep the project’s purpose and importance secret.
A Complex Moral Issue
Many refer to war films made during Hollywood’s Golden Age as propaganda, especially those made during World War II. It’s true that Hollywood tried to aid the war effort by ensuring that any military films helped rather than hindered the cause. But it’s a shame that many modern film critics misinterpret for propaganda what was for past generations’ national pride and patriotism.
Perhaps because of this attitude, some might be surprised by this film’s frank discussion of war’s most difficult issue: the complex moral issue of killing a massive number of civilians. Although every war film includes killing, many focus on the Allies’ victories and deaths while avoiding the individuality of enemy soldiers.
Not so with “Above and Beyond,” which openly discusses the horrific reality of killing fellow human beings. The magnitude of the death and destruction the atomic bomb unleashed was neither depicted nor discussed at great length. Instead, we see the reactions of the men, before and after they dropped the bomb, as they thought of the women and children who would die because of their mission to end the war.
One night, when gazing at their sleeping children, Lucey tells Paul, “You know, every time I look at them asleep, I get sad. … I keep thinking of this war and how, somewhere at this very moment, bombs are being dropped, and children like that are being killed.”
Knowing the bomb he will drop will kill children, Paul snaps, “Lucey, don’t ever say that again, not to me.” Paul tensely explains, “Look, let’s clear up one little piece of morality right now. It’s not bombs alone that are horrible; it’s war. … [yet] to lose this war to the gang we’re fighting would be the most immoral thing we could do to those kids in there.”
In the previous scene, General Brent asks Paul if he still has the nerve to go through with the project: “You know for a moment there, I thought I caught you looking a little uncomfortable.”
“I was,” Paul confesses, explaining,
“When I was flying B-17s overseas, before every mission I used to walk through the bomb bay on my way to the cockpit, and I could reach out and touch those bombs. Every time, I knew that even though our targets were industrial, there’d be people down there who would be killed by those bombs, and I felt uncomfortable. … Sure, I felt uncomfortable just now. I wouldn’t think much of myself if I didn’t.”
A Meaningful, True Story
This is one of the best war films I have ever seen, although it features little combat footage. Most of the runtime focuses on testing and troubleshooting on military bases, where Paul Tibbets and his crew and comrades perfect the technology and equipment which will win the war for the allied armies.
Screen-time is also dedicated to Paul’s struggles to find moments for his family between assignments. These scenes have little to do with his military life, but they are deeply intertwined with his personal life. After all, he is fighting for his wife and his two little boys. He wants his sons to live in a better world after the war, and he is willing to sacrifice time with them and risk his life to achieve that goal.
Seventy years later, this is a story that people need to know more than ever. This Memorial Day, why not enhance your barbecue or pool party with viewing a meaningful movie? Maybe you know some veterans who would appreciate the respectfully patriotic topic. Maybe young people among your friends and family don’t know much about World War II and would be fascinated by this drama. In any case, this is the perfect film for inspiring patriotism in Americans of all ages on Memorial Day or any other day of the year.