Classic Flix Review: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Greetings and welcome to all and sundry. It’s my great pleasure to offer a Guest Review of a film I grew up with and have seen many, many times on television. With and without commercials. Though only a few times on the big screen. One of the great World War II films.

Winner of two Academy Awards. From 1949. Directed by Henry King. With Gregory Peck, Dean Jagger and stalwart of many 1950s Science Fiction films, Hugh Marlowe the focus of a large cast of seasoned, well versed character actors depicting life in a B-17 heavy bomber squadron attached to the Eight Air Force in the thick of Daylight Bombing Missions in 1942.

The film begins with mild mannered Dean Jagger’s Harvey Stovall stepping out of a post war London Haberdashery after spending ‘A splendid hour and a half.’ selecting and purchasing a Bowler Derby. Satisfied, Harvey passes by an Antiques Shop and notices something in the front display window. A keepsake from a bygone era. Another purchase is made and Harvey rides his bicycle out along far off paths and roads. To what once was USAAF Archbury, home of the 918th Heavy Bomber Squadron.

The scene dissolves into the return of a group of B-17s. Fewer than had gone out. Some flying well. Others damaged and straining to keep in the air. Crash crews and ambulances are scrambled as one bomber bellies in. Slides and grinds and comes to a stop. Hatches open and the crew escapes. One seriously wounded airman is stretchered out and a medic enters the stricken hulk and brings out something wrapped in a blanket. Another bad day after another tough miserable mission for the 918th. One of the 8th Air Force’s ‘Hard Luck Outfits’.

Arguments ensue during a somber debriefing. While just outside London a newly promoted Brigadier General Frank Savage is in discussions with Generals of even higher rank. It seems that the 918th and other squadrons have hit the point of diminishing returns. Losses on bombing missions are bad to staggering. Unit cohesion is suffering. Savage’s new orders are to relieve the 918th of its Commanding Officer, Colonel Keith Davenport and do whatever is necessary to get the 918th back in the plus column.

Savage arrives with little aplomb to see just how bad things are. Lax security at the front gate. The squadron’s Executive and Air Operations Officer, Lt. Colonel Ben Gately, is Absent Without Leave (AWOL) after Davenport has been relieved. Savage orders Gately be put under arrest and goes over the assigned staff records until Gately arrives and reports  for a private dressing down.

Savage demotes Gately from Air Exec to Aircraft Commander and orders him to paint ‘Leper Colony’ on the nose of his assigned bomber. To be crewed by Gately and any complainers, malingerers and those whose work is far below par. Because Gately rates them. The only way off ‘Leper Colony’ is improvement!

There’s a new sheriff in town and the officers and crew discover the next morning as Savage lays down the law. Leaves are canceled. No more combat missions until things improve. So, it’s back to fundamentals. Formation flying. Very tight. Very close. And lots of it! The crews gripe and groan as they are dismissed.

The crews revolt of course, and the Orderly Room is flooded with Transfer Requests. Enter Major Harvey Stovall. A lawyer in civilian life. Magnificently underplayed by Dean Jagger, who’s been sitting on the sidelines and slowly sizing up his new C.O. after having been earlier read the Riot Act. What he has seen, he likes so far. And an important alliance is formed as the bomber crews continue their griping and training.

Improvement occurs slowly but surely. Combat missions are scheduled. The officers’ Club is reopened and the keepsake from the Antique Shop takes its place on the O Club’s mantle. Facing those inside when there would be mission the next day. The missions go out and the crews practice what they’ve learned about tight box formations of eight planes and utilizing each plane’s ten machine guns to keep German fighters away. Military Air Doctrine at work when long range escorting allied fighters were still months away.

The missions go deeper and deeper into France and finally, Germany! By now the crews feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves. Morale has improved and the squadron can hold its own with the enemy and takes bigger and bigger chances. Peck’s General Savage may still not be loved, but he is respected in spades! Men in unpressurized steel and aluminum  bombers will tempt death for him. Which was the overall objective of Savage’s assignment in the first place.

Which sets the table for a strategically important mission to bomb a ball bearing factory in Germany. All parts of the squadron are functioning as a well-oiled machine. The planes are scarred, but are ready to go. The crews board their B-17s and…. I won’t go further than that. Lest we get into Spoiler Territory.

Now. What Makes This Film Good?

Ramrod straight, spit & polish Gregory Peck playing a by-the-book officer, much to the alarm and dismay of his newly-assigned squadron. Who believe they have it rough until Peck’s General Savage shows them what rough really is! Peck’s Savage knows he’s not been given the 918th to be loved. He’s been given it to punch holes in the sky until its B-17s stand a better than decent chance of  survival against the Luftwaffe. Then punch more holes in the sky to bomb Fortress Europe. If that means closing the Officers’ Club until further notice. And telling your men to forget about going home or someplace better and consider yourself already dead.

Savage is more than willing to do that. Since Savage understands that he is but one large sprocket in a much larger machine. With even larger sprockets above and smaller ones below which all need to mesh for the machine to operate.

The film’s beautifully lit, B&W photography fuses subtly with the sunlight lit, spartan offices and adds to the overall power of the film. That meshes smoothly with the stock gun camera Dogfight footage of German Messerschmitts and Focke Wolf fighters for the brief times the 918th’s B-17s are airborne and over enemy territory. Some of the best aerial photography in film.

A large and impressive cast of secondary characters and their actors. Specifically, Gary Merrill’s Colonel Keith Davenport, Hugh Marlowe’s Lt. Col. Ben Gately and Paul Stewart’s ‘Doc’ Kaiser. Merrill’s Davenport is near to being burned out as the film begins. Only to return on a later visit to see that Savage starts showing small signs of being where he was before being relieved.

Marlowe’s Lt. Col. Gately is a spoiled, privileged son and grandson of Army generals as the film begins. Though through many weeks of the Savage Method, becomes his most ardent disciple. Even flying multiple combat missions with a chipped vertabra that later results in bed rest and Traction. His transformation is subtle, but intriguing to behold.

Paul Stewart’s ‘Doc’ Kaiser is the quiet one in the group, Watching and discreetly reporting to Savage and later, Air Exec, Major Stovall on the overall fitness of the crews and probably to the Big Brass in London on Savage’s fitness as well. Stewart is a past master of under statement and doesn’t disappoint.

What Makes This Film Great?

Everything that makes it good. Plus Gregory Peck firmly wrapping himself around a figure of authority that will be visited time and again in future films. Particularly Captain Horatio Hornblower and Captain Newman, MD. Though much more rigidly as General Frank Savage. The scenes Peck shares with Dean Jagger are sometimes humorous, though completely believable and a treat to watch. As is the dialogue and Technical Direction. Kudos to the film’s director, Henry King for making parts of Eglin Air Force base in Florida and its Auxilliary, #3, Duke Field, which is in the middle of nowhere, for filling in for USAAF Archbury.

On an historic note, Twelve O’ Clock High has been used for decades after its release as a case study and training aid  in countless military and private sector leadership seminars throughout the United States and the world. Specifically used to stimulate discussions regarding authority and respect for the chain of command. The film was nominated for the National Film Registry in 1949 and was selected for the Registry in 1998.

Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews

Have you seen this film? Thoughts are welcome in the comments.

30 thoughts on “Classic Flix Review: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

    1. Hi, Nostra:

      Thanks for dropping by and starting the conversation.

      12 O’Clock High is definitely an interesting film that hits the right tone with so many people.

      Not entirely focused on the planes’ crews and the intercom chatter between pilots and gunners as they repel attacking aircraft. Though there are admirable chunks of film devoted to that.

      Also not entirely fixated on the strains of command that Clark Gable hammered home in Command Decision a year later. 12 O’ Clock
      covers all the entire spectrum and does so with great attention to detail and even greater confidence.

      A film well worth the effort of seeking out and enjoying.

  1. Great review of a classic, Kevin. I love the old black & white films, especially when deftly shot like this one and with performances that stand out. Peck always did roles like this with ease. Well done and thanks.

    1. Hi, le0pard:

      Thanks so much for taking a look and commenting!

      Gregory Peck seemed tailor made for his role as Gen. Savage. Showing great courage and confidence in playing a character that would be despised at first, but knowing that distinction comes with the territory of command. Not just on the ground, but also flying the Lead Bomber in a formation over enemy territory.

      B&W has always seemed to work better for me in WWII films than color. Couldn’t begin to contemplate what color would have done for this film, The Longest Day, They Were Expendable or Hell Is For Heroes .

  2. Hi, iluv!

    I was hoping you’d drop by.

    War films are not made for everyone, but there is much more well executed drama in than one may think at first glance. Peck is is fine form as a stalwart
    that he would return to in Cape Fear and To Kill A Mockingbird
    opposite a splendid cast offering some of their best work!

  3. Great review, Jack. I’m only familiar with modern world war films – I think the oldest war film I’ve seen is 1990’s Memphis Belle! – so it would be interesting to compare modern war films with those from the 1940s and 1950s.

    When this film was being made WWII would have been very recent history. I’m sure that affected how it was directed and the actors’ performances.

    1. Welcome, Claire!

      Thanks for dropping by and adding such intriguing comments.

      You seem to have a knack for finding and raising salient points others may not have seen!

      The 1940s and 50s were truly the heydays of WWII films. Due to the ready availability of equipment. Ships, rifles, tanks and aircraft. Plus directors who had served in uniform. John Ford and Robert Montgomery leap to mind. Utilizing the assistance of a uniformed service, stock camera footage and cast members who had been in uniform, to help create superior products.

      Memphis Belle was a decent enough film for its time and told the story (with a bit fledgling CGI and poetic license) well and dramatically. Though pales in comparison to an In Which We Serve, The Battle of Britain, Objective, Burma! or Sahara .

      1. Thanks for your kind words, Jack.

        Good point, ships, tanks and the like would certainly have been at hand. This afternoon I was researching a feature about Titanic that I’m writing for work and I think I read somewhere that an ex-military ship was used for some scenes in 1958’s A Night to Remember.

        Oh and I’m used to reading how certain actors served in the military when they were younger but never thought about the directors!

  4. Thanks so much for this review, Kevin, you made me watch clips of this movie last night and I appreciated it all the more. The acting, script, etc is just brilliant, and this coming from someone who aren’t into war films. Of course I bought this film because of Gregory but I’ve come to enjoy all the other actors’ performances, esp. Dean Jagger’s, so his Oscar win is definitely well-deserved.

    1. Hi, Ruth:

      The pleasure was all mine!

      12 O’Clock High is a solid film all the way around that clears the bar on all levels.

      I especially like the dressing down that Lt. Col. Gately receives from Savage.
      Having had to report to and ‘Stand Tall Before The Man’ in my misspent, uniformed youth and hold a salute for a long time before having it returned. Gregory Peck’s performance screams of authenticity and the deft use of authority to get one’s way.

      His discussion with Den Jagger’s Maj. Stovall over the sudden inundation of Transfer Requests and Stovall’s solution is subtly believable and rings surprisingly true.

    1. Welcome, JustMeMike!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      I have the idea for a review of ‘The Hunters’ with Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner from 1958 playing around in the back of my head.

      Red Tails looks interesting and I hope it helps get Cuba Gooding Jr. back in the game. Though I get a distinct feel that Lucas, the cast and crew are there to service the tool that is CGI. Instead of the other way around.

  5. i agree, this is a really great movie although it’s been a while since I saw it. I just remember Peck being so stern, he definitely gave the impression of somebody you wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of. As you said, it’s a team effort for sure. Even in Golden Era Hollywood you don’t always see such performances and attention to detail across the board.

    1. Welcome, Paula!

      Thanks so much for your great comments:

      As with every chain of command, Peck’s Gen. Savage plays the father. Stern, aloof. A stickler for protocol and definitely not one to cross or make angry. While Jagger’s Maj. Stovall is the mother. The one everyone comes to complain to while Stovall listens and quietly enforces Savage’s will.

      What I do enjoy about this film is its attention to detail and everyone wanting to get things to look, feel and sound just right. Kudos to Sy Bartlett who wrote the screenplay and had been a bombardier and dropped the first bombs on Berlin during WWII.

      Hope to see you around more often!

      1. Thanks Kevin! I see what you mean about the chain of command…I think that sometimes even in a workplace, it seems that for it to be effective, it almost has to be like a family, for better or for worse.

        It would be odd for me to be on a set where they were kind of recreating my life, but that’s what it was for probably a lot of the people involved.

        I hope to be around more often 🙂 i started my own blog & have been really crazy-busy at work & home, so it’s been out of control. But I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel (that isn’t an oncoming train 🙂

    1. Hi, Scott:

      Thanks so much for your generous comments!

      12 O’Clock High is a classic full of memorable moments and superlative acting. Very much like Thief in that regard.

      Getting my thoughts arranged on the keyboard created a very fun few nights and weekend delving into a pair of films that need the extra loving and attention they deserve.

  6. It appears Ruth’s Gregory Peck kick is rubbing off on everyone!

    “Ramrod straight, spit & polish Gregory Peck playing a by-the-book officer, much to the alarm and dismay of his newly-assigned squadron. Who believe they have it rough until Peck’s General Savage shows them what rough really is!” I love that. Sums it up perfectly. We need to get that on the DVD cover.

    Saw this movie for the first time this past summer and enjoyed it.

    1. Hi, Nick and welcome!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and leave such a delightful comment.

      That descriptive paragraph kind of flowed out without a pause and in retrospect, kind of says it all.

      My guest review is my gift to Ruth. Who has been waxing long and nostalgic for Mr. Peck. I’ve had 12 O’Clock High in the back of my mind for awhile, Since I had some time, the choice seemed rather serendipitous.

      Who knows? If IMDb gloms onto this review and links it its home page. Your dream could come true.

      Hope to see your comments more often.

  7. Excellent review Jack. I haven’t seen this (and probably haven’t seen any GP movie to date) but this would be my first choice, when I finally get down to it.

    1. Hi, Castor:

      Thanks for dropping by!

      Can’t disagree with your first choice. Followed closely by To Kill A Mockingbird. Cape Fear and Captain Newman, MD .

      A friendly word of advice for when you ‘get down to it’. Very few handle presence and delivery better than Peck. As easily as we mere mortals move through air. Once you’ve seen a few of his films. You’ll eventually want to seek out the rest.

  8. FUNK

    Great, Great review Jack, of a Great movie.
    If I was younger I’d be out the door to join the AF..
    Always look forward to your reviews, and the nuggets of recommendations you sprinkle throughout your posts…

    1. Hi, Funk!

      Thanks for the compliment and comments.

      Having spent more than three decades in variants of the Active and Reserve Air Force fatigues. Tending, launching and recovering 4 engined cargo and refueling aircraft in all kinds of weather and places. This film speaks to me on many levels.

      Command Decision pales in comparison. As does A Gathering of Eagles from 1963. Only Strategic Air Command with Jimmy Stewart from 1955 comes close. And that’s due in part to Edward Binns’ take on General Curtis E. LeMay, the Grandfather of SAC.

    1. Hi again, 3guys!

      I only added the lobby poster a few photos with my review. The photo of the B-17 in mid-air and shot from above is all Ruth’s work. And ties the presentation together wonderfully.

      Definitely a film worth checking out!

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