A masterpiece of a movie starring Gregory Peck, Twelve O'Clock High has been described by World War II veterans as the only film that accurately captured the emotional trauma they went through during the war.
Twelve O'Clock High tells the story of the daylight bombing campaigns undertaken by the United States Air Force in Occupied France, and later in Germany, in 1942. More significantly, it was one of the first war movies to deal with the effects of stress and battle fatigue on American troops - and from all accounts, it was pretty accurate about it. Twelve O'Clock High was made with the cooperation of the United States Air Force, and the footage of the aerial battles came from the filming of actual combat missions. It also continues to be used as a leadership training tool by the USAF as well as the Navy.
The film opens with Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), a former Air Force officer vacationing in England visiting the site of his old headquarters and reminiscing. We then transition to 1942, where the 918th Bomb Group has been suffering heavy losses, which are taking a toll on the men. The 918th's commanding officer, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is relieved of his command for being too familiar with his troops, which could lead to him falling apart from the pressure and burden he puts on himself. As a result, Davenport is replaced by Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck), who instills ruthlessly rigid discipline and demands maximum effort in order to instill a degree of pride in the 918th without them feeling like they need to be coddled. However, over the course of the film, Savage likewise begins to feel overly attached to his men, and the stress of one bombing run after another and sending his men to their deaths takes its toll on him as well.
The acting in this film is top-notch all around, and when Oscar-time came around, the Academy thought so as well; Gregory Peck was nominated for his performance, and Dean Jagger actually won for his. (Twelve O'Clock High also won for Best Sound Recording). It's a very different role for Peck, compared to films like Gentleman's Agreement (1947) or To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). However, while his character's methods may come off as heavy-handed, he's not wrong for what he's trying to do. He's not being a jerk for the sake of being a jerk; he's doing what he recognizes has to be done in order to get the 918th in the shape its supposed to be. In the process, Peck delivers an excellent, subtle performance, with Peck conveying his anger with a hard stare and by infusing his voice with a cold edge. One awesome moment is Peck not returning the salute of a junior officer he's displeased with - or even looking him in the eye. He just stares down at his paperwork as he admonishes the poor guy.
On a technical level, Twelve O'Clock excels as well. The importance of the careful use of sound in a film is also on full display here, demonstrated in the scenes of Stovall remembering the songs of his comrades in arms and the roar of B-17s as he stands amidst the remains of the 918th's headquarters, or the ticking of a clock as nervous officers await the return of their planes and dread receiving the word of how many of their boys didn't make it back.
Twelve O'Clock High is a must-see, both for its excellence as a film and as a reminder of an all-too-often overlooked price of war. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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