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
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): ****/****