Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

This is a must-see film.

Twelve O'Clock High ranks alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, Saving Private Ryan and The Great Escape as one of the finest films movies ever made about war. The 132-minute drama earned four Oscar nominations and won two for supporting actor (Dean Jagger) and sound.


Most of the combat we see in this fine 1949 drama from director Henry King (The Gunfighter, The Song of Bernadette) is in the minds of the American bomber crews. These men were tasked with early daylight bombing raids against German targets. Casualty rates were high. The demands to fly more missions was relentless.

Audiences only see one actual combat sequence at the film's end. The rest of the drama is at 918 Group's base in England.

918 Group is going through a tough stretch. Its men are dying. Objectives are not being hit. Leader Col. Ernie Davnport (Gary Merrill) is given the boot because he's spending more time worried about his men than reaching the air force's objectives. Discipline isn't enforced because he feels bad about what his men are enduring.


His friend, Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), takes his place and quickly clamps down on what he sees as too many lax attitudes around the base. A guard is demoted. Davenport's second-hand man is arrested and called yellow. The worst of the lot are assigned to a bomber dubbed The Leper Colony. Savage brushes away suggestions of taking it easy on his men. He drives them harder, determined to build pride in the unit through success in the air.

The pilots bristle at Savage's demands and ask for transfers. He turns to his assitant, Maj. Harvey Stovall (Jagger), to tie up the paperwork for as long as possible.

The group starts to achieve success, but Savage soon faces the same conflicts as Davenport. The inevitable deaths of his men are starting to take a toll on him too.

Peck delivers an outstanding performance which rightfully earned him an Oscar nomination. His Savage is curt and driven, determined to get the job done despite all the flack he gets from his men. He has a wonderful chemistry with Jagger, whose Stouvall was a First World War veteran who wanted to fight again against the Nazis.

Millard Mitchell is solid as Maj. Gen. Pat Pritchard. This military leader sees how problems with 918 Group could spread to other units and cripple the American war effort.

Made four years after the Second World War ended, Twelve O'Clock High doesn't dance around war's impact on combatants. Within the film's first five minutes audiences learn of a gunner losing his arm and another man losing part of his head. This ain't no rah-rah war movie.

Watch for Savage's reaction as he leads a raid into German territory. He gets a bad case of the sweats, similar to Tom Hanks' hand that won't stop shaking in Saving Private Ryan.

See this movie. That's an order.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Gary Merrill's final two credits were for episodes of the Canadian television show The Littlest Hobo in 1980.

Millard Mitchell died in 1953 of lung cancer (Thank you Internet Movie Database). He was 50.

Dean Jagger was Maj. Gen. Thomas Waverly in White Christmas.

Robert Arthur, who appears as the often promoted and demoted Sgt. McIhenny quite acting in the 1960s. His last credit was in television's Gomer Pyle in 1966. Twelve O'Clock High was nominated for best picture, but lost to All the King's Men.

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