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Twelve O'Clock High
Reviewer: Ricardo Barberini
Director: Henry King
Cast: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell, Dean Jager, Robert Arthur

During World War II, US bombers based in Britain were responsible for the so called daylight bombing raids over German held territories. They suffered tremendous losses and the crew moral was always an issue. The men were flying the magnificent B-17 Flying Fortresses. Their tour of duty was only 25 sorties over enemy held lands. Very few made it. Many base commanders burned out witnessing such suffering by their men and had to be replaced by tougher more aggressive men.

Col. Ernie Davenport (Gary Merrill) is one such commander. He has become a nervous wreck and is so into identifying with his subordinates anxieties that he is deemed a softie and a liability. The suicide of a Jewish navigator sends him over the edge.

The commander in chief of US Air Forces in England, General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) is an anxious man. He is constantly worrying about public relations, and panics over lack of support from Washington. He decides to relieve Davenport from command and send his own chief of staff, General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) to run the air base and kick the men into shape.

Savage is a harsh no-nonsense taskmaster who makes his presence felt the minute he arrives at the base by berating the sentry guard for negligence in checking his credentials. He runs roughshod over the base hero and second in command, Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlow), by calling him a coward and assigning him to lead a group of misfits. Savage believes in hard discipline and soon there is a rebellion brewing as most men ask for transfer out of this division. With the help of his chief of staff (Group Adjutant), Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), a career lawyer, he delays the transfers long enough to build pride and a sense of superiority in his division. However, eventually, he succumbs to the pressures of war and losing his men and suffers a physical breakdown.

This wonderful film was based on a war novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr. Dean Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance of the canny lawyer in this movie. The movie is retold through a series of flash backs by Major Stovall who as the administrative officer was privy to everything that was going on. There are also moments of devil-may-care abandon by the denizens of this base such as when Stovall and the base chaplain secretly fly on a combat mission without permission, for the thrill of it all.

There are not many outside shots in this movie. The aerial combat scenes are probably stock footage. The strength of this movie is the script, the acting and the direction. Twelve O' Clock High bears a striking resemblance to “Command Decision” starring Clarke Gable and Walter Pidgeon, which was made about the same time. In today's world, the movie studios would have been suing each other before the movies were released.

There is a lot to be said about this movie. What is great about this movie, apart from the fine screenplay, is the way the director brings about these complex characters and their fears of death. Despite their bravados, they are all afraid of dying and even the heroes yield to fear eventually.

Henry King, one of the icons of the Hollywood film industry was the director. He made many movies during his long Hollywood career. Some of the memorable movies were “The Gunfighter” “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing”, “The Bravados” and “The Sun Also Rises. In this film, he manages to bring out the best in his actors. In addition to Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger, we must mention Paul Stewart as Captain Kaiser, the chief medical officer. Paul Stewart was one of the many talented but underrated Hollywood actors. Here with a deadpan face, he expresses emotions and deep feelings of a medical doctor who is forced to be a psychoanalyst and a father confessor to his men and a sometimes unwelcome adversary to his commanding officer.

This following is for those interested in the background of this story.

During World War II, there was a belief (to be proved wrong eventually) that bombing the enemy cities and armament factories and indiscriminate killing of civilian population would bring the enemy to his knees by creating unrest and moral problems. This was clinically called “High Altitude Precision Bombing.” This demonstrated to be wrong for a number of reasons. In Germany, the output of airplanes and tanks actually increased during the last year of the war.

When America entered the war against Germany, the US Army Air Force as it was known then, sent its best bombers to England to fight against the Germans. The British who had inferior bombers and were losing a great number of men flying over enemy held territories, suckered the Americans to take over the daylight bombing while the British would conduct bombing at night. Daylight bombing at high altitude was never successful in the war. The night time forays by the British killed many more civilians and Royal Air Force personnel without any impact to the outcome of the war.

The Americans lost an incredible number of men over German held territories during the early 1940's. Each member of the US Army Air force crew was supposed to fly 25 combat sorties over enemy territories (France, Holland, Belgium.) At the end of that period, they were sent back home. The attrition rate was very high. As few made it to the end of their tour, morale sank to extremely low levels with many crew creating excuses for aborting the missions or terminating them early by dropping their bombs before reaching their designated targets and returning to base. Aircrews who reached their 23 rd or 24 th mission became extremely fidgety and panicky for fear of dying on their next mission.