Twelve O'clock High
There have been many films about the intrepid military men that took to the skies to protect their nations. In fact the very first movie to earn the Academy Award for Best Picture was from this specific genre, ‘Wings (1927)’. There are a lot of films that followed this tradition but few have ascended to the quality set by the movie under consideration here; ‘Twelve O'clock High’. It has been over 63 years since this film was released to the theaters but it still retains every iota of production quality and emotional impact that it provided only a few short years after the events it depicted. This film remains memorable because of its production values and the amazing skill of the actors, writer and director. It was a groundbreaking story that redefined the very nature of the Hollywood war movie forever. Up until then films set in the midst of armed conflict between nations tended to focus on the heroic feats of an individual or perhaps a small tight knit group of men. Only a few years before the release of these films we were in the grips of World War Two and Hollywood turned its efforts to jingoistic movies that could raise morale both in the field and on the home front. The Allied forces were strong, resolved and determined to win at any cost while the opposing Axis powers were pure evil bent on draconian global domination and destruction. Only four years after victory was achieved over the last of these nations, Japan, This film returned the audience to the European theater specifically the constant battle fought by American and British aviators to dominate the skies and turn the tide of the war from the dreaded Nazi Luftwaffe. The incredible story told here was one not frequently told during war time; it would have been considered by most to be demoralizing and counterproductive to the war effort. ‘Twelve O’clock High’ took on the psychological tool these brave men faced as they flew mission after mission over enemy territory. Here there courage was not in doubt but the film realistically depicted the emotional wounds inflicted on these men by the constant stress and unrelenting mortal danger they faced on a prolonged basis.
I usually provide an admonition at this point about dramatic license cautioning viewers to seek legitimate sources of historical details. In this particular instance the script written by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr. has been hailed as doing justice to the men and events and has been embraced by the men that were the foundation for the characters seen here. The performance of Gregory Peck of Gen. Frank Savage was hardily approved of by the man the character was based, Gen. Frank Armstrong. The men became close friends after the film was made. The director Henry King had a huge number of films to his credit going back World War One and the dawn of the silent film era. Many of his most noteworthy movies were those taken from popular novels such as ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro, ‘Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing’ and ‘The Sun Also Rises’. He was one of the founding fathers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and flew as a military pilot in WWII. This deep respect for combat pilots is a fundamental aspect of this film and the reason why he choose to slice together footage of actual combat missions for the action scenes used here. This film is respected by the men who flew those missions and remains a testimony to their sacrifice. Few movies today could blend this degree of firsthand experience with such a gripping drama. Because of this it has been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation as a historically and culturally significant film.
The focus of the story is the 918th Heavy Bombardment Group. The men there have one function; to fly heavy bombers over the English Channel to Germany were they are to inflict as much damage as they possibly can. Recently they have been suffering losses far heavier than normal. The demoralizing effect of such devastation was exasperated by the Nazi propaganda radio broadcasts of ‘Lord Ha-ha’. Commanding this flight group was Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) but his close afflation to his men causes the losses to weigh heavily on him as his men are branded a hard luck group. He is ordered to fly at low altitude to increase effectiveness but rushes to headquarters to complain. It is determined that Davenport’s inability to distance himself from his command is at fault. Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). The Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations is sent to take over the group personally. Immediately Savage shakes things up drastically. He designates one squadron as ‘The Leper Colony’ and places the men with the worse performance records. Savage drives his command extremely hard forcing them to fly practice runs when not on missions. The men balk and almost the entire group formerly requests transfers. Savage has managed to secure one ally, his Adjutant, Major Stovall (Dean Jagger. As a lawyer in his civilian life he is exceptionally adept at the creative use of red tape and postpones the transfer requests until Savage has a chance to whip the group into shape. He begins be getting a man the entire group respects, a Medal of Honor recipient. From there Savage is able to restore pride and precision back in his command.
As men began to return from the war it became obvious than many of the wounds inflicted were not restricted to missing limbs or battle scars. A significant number of troops came home with deep psychological damage. Then it was called battle fatigue instead of post traumatic stress disorder and it was barely understood even by the experts. This was one of the first films to consider the emotional devastation war inflicted. My father-in-law, a WWII naval vet once told me the difference between WWII and Vietnam is the Vietnam soldiers had a fixed tour to survive; they could mark off days on the calendar. In WWII the men were in it for the duration no matter how long it took to defeat the Axis nations. This prolonged immersion into combat is at the heart of this film. The men of the group were constantly flying missions with no end in sight. The toll this took on their emotional stability formed the foundation for the conflict here not the actual war. This movie saw the Allied combatants for what they were, human beings pushed beyond their limits on a constant basis. They were brave and devoted to the need to vanquish Germany but they were also breaking under the strain. This film took the super human hero usually shown during the war and changes the presentation to real men deeply affected by the stress inherent in their duty. This is a film as important to see now as it was 63 years ago.
Commentary with Historians Rudy Behlmer, Jon Burlingame, and Nick Redman