The Big Lift is a 1950 drama film shot on location in the city of Berlin, Germany, that tells the story of "Operation Vittles", the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift, through the experiences of two U.S. Air Force sergeants (played by Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas).
The film was directed and written by George Seaton, and was released April 26, 1950, less than one year after the Soviet blockade of Berlin was lifted and airlift operations ceased. Because the film was shot in Berlin in 1949, as well as using newsreel footage of the actual airlift, it provides a contemporary glimpse of the post-war state of the city as it struggles to recover from the devastation wrought by World War II.
Off-duty American airmen of the 19th Troop Carrier Squadron in Hawaii are ordered to report to their squadron in July 1948. What is briefed as a temporary "training assignment" in the United States becomes a flight halfway around the world to Germany for the C-54 Skymasters of the 19th, where the Soviets have blockaded Berlin in an attempt to force out the Allies by starving the city. Tech Sgt. Danny MacCullough (Montgomery Clift), flight engineer of a C-54 nicknamed The White Hibiscus, is immediately ordered to fly with his crew from Frankfurt into Tempelhof Airport to deliver a load of coal. His friend Master Sgt. Hank Kowalski (Paul Douglas), a Ground-Control Approach operator, hitches a ride with them to his new station. Hank, a POW during World Way II, resents the German people and goes out of his way to be rude and overbearing to them. Danny on the other hand is frustrated by not being able to leave the airport because of the necessity of quickly offloading and returning to Frankfort.
Months later the crew of call sign "Big Easy 37" renames their airplane Der Schwarze Hibiscus because of the grimy soot that has accumulated in it from hauling coal. They become temporary celebrities on a mission when they are the 100,000th flight of "Operation Vittles" into Berlin. Danny is immediately enamored of Frederica Burkhardt (Cornell Borchers), an attractive German war widow chosen to thank him on behalf of the women of Berlin. When a news correspondent covering the ceremony recruits Danny for a public relations stunt, Danny jumps at the opportunity as a means of getting a pass in Berlin and seeing Frederica again. During a tour of the city, Danny's uniform is accidentally covered with paint, forcing him to wear civilian working clothes while his uniform is cleaned. They meet Hank and his "schottzie," the friendly and intelligent Gerda, at a night club, where Hank is rude to Frederica and treats Gerda as an inferior. Hank chances to see the former prison guard who tortured him as a POW and nearly beats him to death. Danny is able to stop Hank only by knocking him down and mistaken for a German attacking Hank, is chased into the Russian Sector by MPs.
Danny and Frederica barely escape back into the American Sector, where Hank is waiting for them at Frederica's apartment and has unexpectedly befriended her neighbor and Danny's friend, Herr Stieber (O.E. Hasse). Danny falls in love with Frederica, despite learning from Hank that she lied to him about the backgrounds of her dead husband and father. She exploits Danny's feelings as an opportunity to go to America, where her German lover is living. When Danny receives notice that he is due to rotate back to the United States soon, he arranges to marry Frederica. Herr Stieber suspects duplicity in Frederica and intercepts a letter she has written to her German lover, confirming that she intends to divorce Danny back in the United States as soon as she legally can—and see her lover behind his back until that happens.
In the meantime, Hank, in trying to teach Gerda the meaning of democracy (and deeply ashamed of the beating he inflicted on the former guard), comes to see that he has been hypocritical in his own actions toward Germans. He begins treating Gerda as an equal and with affection as they meet Frederica to be witnesses to the wedding. When Danny arrives, he tells Fredrica she will have to wait a long time, if ever, to get to America. Herr Stieber has given Danny the letter she wrote. Hank reveals to Danny that he is not going home but has switched his temporary assignment in Berlin to permanent duty. Danny's flight out departs amidst rumors that the Russians will soon end the blockade.