Twelve O'Clock High
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Twelve O'Clock High (1949) steps into the cockpit of the traditional World War II movie and flies it in unexpected directions. It's traditional because it has many of the usual ingredients for a story about American soldiers in the European theater - a bomber unit, tension between superior officers and subordinates, tense missions to distant targets, aerial dogfights with German planes, and the rest. Yet it's refreshing because the emphasis is on psychology and human drama rather than harrowing combat and guts-and-glory spectacle. It thoroughly merited its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of 1949 - it lost to Robert Rossen's political drama All the King's Men - and star Gregory Peck, who lost to Broderick Crawford in Rossen's film, would have been a worthy winner for Best Actor. Well-deserved Oscars® did go to Dean Jagger for his marvelous portrayal of a gentle old officer and to the sound department's excellent work.
The bulk of the story takes place in 1942. The location is an American airbase in the English countryside, and the characters are soldiers in the 918th Bomb Group, flying a steady run of missions aimed at destroying German-held targets. It's an arduous assignment, and the men have been stretched to their physical and psychological limits. A crisis arises when fatigue causes a conscientious young flyer to make a serious mistake. The highest-ranking officer, Major General Pat Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), declares that errors are unacceptable and insists that the stressed-out flyer leave the unit. This sets up a conflict between Pritchard and Colonel Ernie Davenport (Gary Merrill), the group's commander, who treats his men as equals and feels their pain as if it were his own.
Pritchard prevails - he is a general, after all - and then replaces Davenport with General Frank Savage (Peck), an "iron-tailed" desk officer who believes that a properly run unit has no room for sympathy, empathy, or sentiment of any kind. He sees his job as pushing every member of the group to what the rules call "maximum effort," an ill-defined concept that even the unit's physician, Captain "Doc" Kaiser (Paul Stewart), finds vague and potentially dangerous. Savage sets to work, determined to heighten the courage, improve the stamina, and adjust the attitude of every man in his outfit. This means pushing himself as hard as he pushes the others, and in a remarkable plot twist, it turns out he isn't able to meet his own high standards, leading to a surprising climax. The relatively small amount of combat depicted by the film comes in the later scenes, and even then the story makes human drama its highest priority.
Peck turned down Twelve O'Clock High the first time Twentieth Century-Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck tried to enlist him. Peck thought the project was too much like Sam Wood's somewhat similar Command Decision, which lost a good deal of MGM's money in 1948 even though it had Clark Gable at the head of a cast including Van Johnson, Brian Donlevy, Walter Pidgeon, Edward Arnold, and other solid actors with familiar faces. Zanuck waited a year, according to Peck biographer Michael Freedland, and then came up with a convincing argument. There were too many stars in Wood's picture, Zanuck told Peck, and the audience couldn't help seeing them as stars rather than characters. By contrast, he continued, Twelve O'Clock High would have just one star - none other than Peck, of course - plus Jagger, a great character actor who had "promised to play it without his toupee on." Apart from those two, Zanuck said, "I want to make it with unknowns." This was something of an overstatement - today at least, movie buffs have no trouble recognizing Millard Mitchell, Hugh Marlowe, or Paul Stewart - but Peck bought the argument and signed on.
If the $2 million picture was to be as authentic as Zanuck hoped, the Air Force had to sign on as well. Accordingly, the producer wrote a letter requesting cooperation, sending it to the Air Force chief of staff and dropping some big names, including "Ike," better known as Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 1943 until the end of the war. Zanuck added that the screenplay would be based on an eponymous novel (by Beirne Lay, Jr. and Sy Bartlett) that was popular with Air Force officers. He also claimed that the "powerful, sincere, and dramatic story" would be "tremendous propaganda" for the service. Again his argument worked, although the Air Force reserved its right to approve the screenplay before kicking in with help.
After reading the completed script, officers at the Pentagon were uncomfortable about Savage's breakdown under excessive strain, saying they would "prefer not to indicate to the public that a commanding general...became as irrational as indicated." Such a high-ranking officer might suffer from "physical ailments, nervousness, short temper or just plain fatigue," the Air Force reasoned, but he would never "burst out hysterically or have a complete mental collapse." By some accounts, Savage's character in general, and his mental-health problems in particular, were modeled on Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., an Air Force major general who led the first daylight Flying Fortress raids on the European Continent, as Savage does in the film. Still, the screenplay was modified to give Savage a "quieter, more subtle breakdown," in Freedland's words. Other revisions made at the Air Force's request included toning down the heavy drinking and having the chaplain watch other men playing poker, not joining in the game himself.
Keeping its end of the bargain, the Air Force supplied the production with assistance and equipment, including a dozen used B-17 bombers gathered from the Air-Sea Rescue Service and retrofitted to their combat configurations. The airborne combat scenes were created with actual wartime footage taken by cameras on both American and German planes, which meant that only landings, takeoffs, and close-formation maneuvers had to be shot expressly for the film. The studio bought a new B-17 for the scene displaying the crash landing of a badly damaged plane; it was flown by Paul Mantz, a top-flight stunt pilot with almost a hundred Hollywood crashes already to his credit. Henry King, the Hollywood veteran who directed the picture, blended all the ingredients into a harmonious yet hard-hitting whole, aided by Leon Shamroy's crisp camerawork and Barbara McLean's impeccable film editing.
Hearing some of Savage's dialogue out of context, you would think he was as mean, callous, and uncaring about human values as the most unpleasant old commander in a conventional war movie built around deadly face-offs and ferocious firefights. In his first big speech to his unit Savage says, "Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it [the dangerous mission] won't be so tough." Dressing down Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gately (Marlowe) for stepping away from his post, he goes beyond discipline to sheer humiliation: "I want you to paint this name on the nose of your ship: 'Leper Colony.' Because in it you're going to get every deadbeat in the outfit....If there's a navigator who can't find the men's room, you get him. Because you rate him." And so on. The wonder of Peck's superb performance is his ability to make every word hit hard without letting us lose sight of the commitment, dedication, and devotion to his men that motivate him far more than the lust for power and domination that drives many officers in war pictures. Decades after its premiere, Twelve O'Clock High still packs a powerful dramatic punch.
Director: Henry King
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr.
Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, Maurice Ransford
Music: Alfred Newman
With: Gregory Peck (General Savage), Hugh Marlowe (Lt. Col. Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (Col. Davenport), Millard Mitchell (General Pritchard), Dean Jagger (Major Stovall), Robert Arthur (Sergeant McIllhenny), Paul Stewart (Capt. "Doc" Kaiser), John Kellogg (Major Cobb), Bob Patten (Lt. Bishop), Lee MacGregor (Lt. Zimmerman), Sam Edwards (Birdwell), Roger Anderson (Interrogation Officer)
by David Sterritt