OPENING : The film opens in 1949 with a Major Stovall (Dean Jagger) in London. He spies a Robin Hood mug in a store and immediately buys it. It inspires him to visit his old air base at Archbury. To the tune of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” (the movie does a good job of including some vintage songs), he strolls the weed-covered runways and flashes back to 1942.
SUMMARY: Bombers are returning from a mission. One has to make a “wheels up” belly landing (done by acclaimed stunt pilot Paul Mantz for the unprecedented sum of $4,500). The pilot, Bishop, is later awarded the Medal of Honor for this act of heroism. The unit is the 918th Bomber Group and it has a reputation as a “hard luck’ outfit having sustained substantial casualties in America’s new daylight bombing campaign. Its commander, Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill), feels the unit is being pushed too much. When he hears that they have to go on a fourth mission in as many days and at a dangerously low altitude, he goes to headquarters to visit his friend Col. Savage (Gregory Peck) to complain. Savage reports to Gen. Pritchard (Milliard Mitchell) that Davenport is “overidentifying” with his men and is about to crack.
In a visit to the base, Pritchard confirms Savage’s diagnosis as Davenport refuses to can a navigator who was incompetent. Pritchard remarks that “a man has only so much to give and you have given it”, so he relieves Davenport and replaces him with Savage. Savage is told that the success of daylight bombing is hanging in the balance and he must shape up the unit pronto. Savage decides on a tough love approach and immediately starts pushing the men to the limits. (Reminiscent of Patton’s arrival in that film.) He is one tough bastard. When he learns the navigator committed suicide, he doesn’t even flinch. Savage reams the slacker executive officer Gately and assigns him to a bomber full of misfits which will be named “Leper Colony”.
When Savage meets with the crews he tells them that they will be better off by realizing they are already dead and should stop making plans for the future. In a meeting with the unit’s doctor, Savage accuses the doctor of coddling the men and insists that any man who is physically capable of flying must go up. The doctor is appalled by Savage’s lack of sensitivity and unconcern for the mental aspect of combat. Savage believes that what the men need is not a shoulder to cry on but pride and grit. The unit’s initial reaction to Savage’s discipline is close to a mutiny. Even Bishop requests a transfer. Savage sneakily slows the transfer process to give his tough love approach time to bear fruit. Stovall, the group adjutant, dislikes his new boss, but gradually warms to him. Jagger does a great job as the good angel on Savage’s shoulder.
At one point, Savage disobeys orders to turn around and goes on to successfully bomb a target when all the other groups had turned. However, the pilots (represented by Bishop) continue to question the bombing of German targets in broad daylight which is akin to suicide in the long run of trying to survive 25 missions. Savage plays the duty card, but with seemingly no effect. The Inspector General arrives to meet with the pilots about the transfers and Savage packs his bags. Surprise, the men have changed their minds! (cliché #19 war movie cliches) Savage’s reaction is relief and a quick return to being a hard-ass.
The movie now begins to focus more on the missions. We get the familiar ground crews awaiting the return of their charges and the ground personnel (including Stovall) stowing away on board for a little combat action (cliché #36). Bishop’s bomber gets blown up, but Savage can’t show any emotion although it obviously tears him up. Gately redeems himself by flying several missions in terrible pain from an injury (cliché #2). Savage visits him in the hospital and, in a refreshing scene, they have a very awkward conversation during which Savage cannot bring himself to apologize. Surprisingly (but realistically), Gately does not thank Savage for forcing him to be a man.
The first combat scene comes in a mission to destroy a ball-bearing factory. The integration of archival footage is flawless. There is realistic radio chatter. There is no intrusive sound track and the actual sounds of air combat justify the Academy Award for Sound. Numerous bombers go down, but the target is hit. Upon return to base, Savage is strangely cheery and does not react to the death of his second in command Cobb. Stovall is drunk and laments that he “can’t see their faces” referring to his deceased comrades. A return mission is scheduled for the next day, but Savage cannot lift himself into the cockpit and suffers a breakdown that leaves him so catatonic that he refuses a cigarette! (There is a lot of smoking in this movie, naturally.) The doc remarks that a lightbulb is always brightest before it burns out.
CLOSING: Savage sits in a daze awaiting the return of the mission. As the number ticks up to 19 of 21 successfully back, he comes out of it. His mission is accomplished as the unit has been able to carry on successfully without their belt-wielding daddy. He is put to bed and tucked in by none other than Davenport. We are left to wonder about his fate.
Acting – 9
Authenticity – 9
Accuracy – 8
Action – 5
Plot – 8
Overall – 8
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably. It has no graphic violence. It is a character study and the issues of stress and leadership are interesting. The actors are appealing. However, there is no romance and not a single female character (a romantic subplot in the novel was decided against by the producers). It should lead to a good debate after because most men will probably side with Savage and most women will lean toward Davenport.
ACCURACY: The screenwriters, Bartlett and Beirne, were associated with the 8th Air Force during the period the movie is set in so they know of what they wrote. This gives the movie a special authenticity. Most of the main characters (with the notable exceptions of Stovall and Gately) are based on real people. Davenport was Col. Charles Overacher who was removed from command of an underachieving 306th Bomber Group. The writers treat Davenport better than his real-life counterpart deserves, ironically. It appears that Overacher was actually a poor leader and disciplinarian (the scene where Savage is not saluted or identified when he visits the base is based on an actual incident). His last straw was turning back from a mission for no good reason. He was shipped back to the states after criticizing Gen. Eaker (Pritchard in the film).
Savage is close to Col. Frank Armstrong who did take on the task of straightening out the 306th. Like his character in the film, Armstrong had earlier led the first B-17 strike in Europe. A major departure from the truth is that the real Armstrong did not suffer a nervous breakdown. The incident was based on another respected commander. After his short ship-up task was accomplished, Armstrong returned to headquarters. By the way, in the book, after his breakdown Savage is promoted to command of 2nd Air Force. Bishop was based on John Morgan who won the Medal of Honor for a landing similar to that shown in the film. That’s the only similarity, however. For you history buffs, Cobb resembles Paul Tibbets of “Enola Gay” fame.
CRITIQUE: “Twelve O’Clock High” is the best movie of its type ever made. Of course, there are not that many movies about leadership and stress in WWII bomber operations. But you can compare it to the inferior 1948 “Bomber Command” starring Clark Gable to gauge its quality. You might also want to compare it to “Memphis Belle” to see how newer is not necessarily better. (“Belle” does make a good companion piece to “High” because it gives more of a crew perspective). TOH is so good at its subject that for years it was shown in American officers’ courses as a study in leadership. The military calls the ability of a leader to send young men to their deaths for the greater cause “moral courage”. Savage is meant to exemplify this command trait. The contrast between Davenport’s style and Savage’s is instructive and can lead to productive discussions on how to handle an underperforming unit in a stressful environment.
The movie gets the little details right. Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is a good stand-in for the fictional Archbury and the producers found a weedy old tarmac in Alabama for the take-offs and landings. The use of B-17s in the filming is a big plus and is obviously preferable to CGI. In a related note, Technicolor was available for the movie, but the makers wisely decided to go with a crisp black and white so they could blend in the combat footage.
The acting is outstanding across the board, especially Peck and Jagger. The story of a hard-ass that drives himself to a breakdown seems possible. The complete change of attitude of the transfer-requesting pilots is a bit pat, but typical of a movie plot. The cliché of the desk-bound officer (Stovall) stowing away on a mission is to be expected and is based on reality.
The movie is admirably nonpatriotic. This is probably a reflection of the timing of its production. The war had been over for four years and the soul-searching could begin. The mental toll of the war on the warriors could be examined. However, the movie was made too soon after the war to reflect the later questioning of the daylight bombing strategy. The movie basically accepts the Air Force line that the daylight, precision bombing of Germany was a war-winning proposition. Recent scholarship has called this into question. The Davenports have had the best of the recent arguments.
CONCLUSION: “Twelve O’Clock High” is the gold standard for movie about the stress of command. It is well-executed and based on actual events and people. This makes it not only authentic historically, but also true to human nature. It pulls no punches with several main characters perishing and the protagonist suffering a nervous breakdown. Although not overtly patriotic, it does give Americans a sense of pride in what our boys went through in the aerial war with Germany. If you ever wondered why air crews were allowed to go home after 25 missions whereas the infantry were in it for the duration, this movie clues you in to the role of stress on combat effectiveness. It also makes it clear that 25 was an unreachable goal for many.
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