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USA 1949
Directed by
Henry King
132 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Twelve O'Clock High

War is difficult subject-matter to deal with ethically and since the Vietnam we are used to viewing it as thoroughly compromised. This was not the case in 1949 and though right and wrong were clearly apportioned then, Twelve O’Clock High is a rewarding film because it concentrates on war's psychological aspects rather than the heroics (although there is a fine air battle sequence that deftly mixes archival material with the purpose-shot footage from D.O.P. Leon Shamroy) and chooses honest analysis (suicide even gets a mention) over propaganda.

Although at the ideological level ultimately King’s film, based on the novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr., who also wrote the screenplay, maintains the necessity of the soldier’s duty of self-sacrifice in time of war, there are no grandstanding speeches about good versus evil, freedom, The American Way etc. to justify this, but rather a study of the job at hand – that of clobbering the Hun – and how commanders get men to willingly go to their probable death (FYI: assume that you’re already dead).

The story of the American Air Force’s  918th Bombardment Group stationed in the English countryside is told in flashback via the memories of Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) who recalls the time in ’42 when  the 918th were undergoing severe morale problems from flying daytime precision bombing raids (the British did the night-flying) which was resulting in heavy casualties. When commander of the group, Colonel Davenport (Gary Merrill) finds himself unable to push his men any further, the hard-line Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) is called in to replace him.

Peck, is not the man one would immediately think of to play a hard-ass and the standards of the time never let him be anything less that gentlemanly but he gives a terrific performance in dishing out the tough love (the film fairly reeks of manly love). Dean Jagger picked up the Best Supporting Oscar for his avuncular performance and a solid troupe of familiar studio faces fill in the lesser parts.




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