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.
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