The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Twelve O'Clock High

Right there with the stories of the soldiers on the front lines and the efforts on the home front, war movies can usually take solace in another genre staple; the trials of command. How does it wear on one individual to continually send their men into battle knowing that some -- if not many -- won't make it back? It has to be a emotionally draining, even destructive process, like it shows in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High.

It is still early in WWII in 1942, and Allied forces have turned to daylight precision bombing raids to help slow down the German war machine. The casualties are high though, and the effect on morale is easily seen, the men struggling to get from day-to-day. In the 918th Bomber Group, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), is being replaced by General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), a squadron commander with plenty of flying experience. The men are weary, suspicious and not excited at the prospect of a driving commanding officer. Can Savage whip them into some sort of shape? Can the men realize he has their best interest -- survival -- at heart?

From director Henry King, 'Twelve' makes an interesting choice, one that ends up making this movie particularly memorable. This is a war story, but it isn't a front line war story. Almost the entire 132-minute movie takes place at the 918th's base in England. Even their bombing missions are kept in the background. The mission is presented, and then we see the aftermath; the surviving pilots returning to base. It is a surprisingly simple device, one that makes the final 30 minutes that much better when we actually go along with the B-17s on a daylight raid over Germany. We see the effect on the men from their commander, Savage, to his command staff, to the support crews on the ground.  What pilot and crew will return? Will any?

Nowhere is that more evident and in some cases, more powerful, than the performance delivered by Gregory Peck. I've long been a fan of Mr. Peck, but he continues to impress me. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (losing to the showier, more obvious Broderick Crawford for All the King's Men), and it's easy to see why. As a commanding officer, he's forced to do things that are naturally unpleasant. He's replacing an officer who became too worried about his men, getting close to them, becoming friends and ultimately respecting them. To make them the best pilots and crews they can be, Peck's Savage has to keep pushing and pushing. Peck does a great job humanizing this part. We see what his men don't see. He's doing this for their benefit but at expense to himself.

Joining Peck in the 918th Bomber Group are familiar stock characters but tweaked to make them far from too familiar. Dean Jagger won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part as Major Stovall, Savage's aide and a former lawyer, working hand in hand with his commander to strengthen the bomber group. Merrill is also very good as Davenport, a very capable pilot who becomes too emotionally involved to command. Some other pilots/crew include Gately (Hugh Marlowe), an effective pilot Savage is forced to call out, McIllhenny (Robert Arthur), the oft-promoted and disciplined assistant to Savage, Kaiser (Paul Stewart), the group physician, Cobb (John Kellogg), a hard-nosed pilot Savage appoints executive officer, and Bishop (Robert Patten), the youngest and best pilot in the group, one all the other pilots look to. We're given little to no information about them, but even then, these actors do a great job making them feel real. These characters resonate in a way that honestly surprised me.

Making this movie a classic as opposed to just a really good movie are a handful of scenes that strike all the right emotional chords. In bookends at the beginning and end, Jagger's Maj. Stovall walks around the deserted base some four years since the end of the war. The scenes are perfect, the soft echoes of the men singing hanging in the air. Peck's Savage has an early run-in with Marlowe's Gately, accusing him of cowardice. Gately takes it to heart, making a later scene between the two men heart-breaking in its honesty, Savage seeing Gately as he really is. Peck earns his nomination for me in that scene alone. The most moving parts are saved for the end as we see a daylight raid over Germany. The violence is startling and quick, the emotions as real as any war movie I can think of.

This doesn't feel like a 1949 WWII movie. It doesn't pull any punches, instead opting for realism and honesty. The intro to the squadron -- a bloody aftermath of a raid -- doesn't show the violence and gore. It hints at it off-screen as we hear about the debacle that took place up in the air. It's one of many moments that help make this WWII movie a classic. By the way, the above poster makes no sense. What 12 men? Eh, overthinking it. It looks cool.

Twelve O'Clock High <----trailer (1949): ****/****


  1. Nice review. I only caught the first hour or so of this but was really impressed by what I saw. I'll note Henry King also directed Peck in one of my favorite Westerns, The Gunfighter. The Bravados is also worth a look.

  2. Definitely worth checking the whole thing out if you get a chance. Haven't seen The Gunfighter, but it's long been on my list, and The Bravados I thought was a highly underrated adult western from the 1950s. Good twist especially.