Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Twelve O'Clock High was one of the first movies after the war to revisit that conflict
with a new perspective. Hollywood gave the country a few years to decompress, with the idea that
audiences would be sick of the war-themed fare that had dominated screens for four years. A
superior drama, this story of the pressure of command isn't limited to the rigors of combat -
anybody managing a lot of people to get a tough job done will understand the stress factors
The film was nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture, and won for Supporting Actor
and Sound. But its highest approval rating came from veterans who acknowledged that it was both
respectful of the sacrifice of American flyers and accurate in its portrayal of the experience
of the B-17 bombing squadrons stationed in England.
Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) has already finished his flying
duty and is serving as a wing staffer under Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell). He
recommends that Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), commander of a 'hard luck outfit' be
relieved of his command for identifying too closely with his men to make mission success his
first priority. Frank's reward is to take over the command himself, which means skipping
Davenport's 'nice guy' tactics. He ruthlessly makes it known that sentiment will have no place
in the new order, and among other unpopular decisions picks out a flyer with a poor record,
Ben R. Gately (Hugh Marlowe), as a scapegoat. He slowly wins over his command and faces up to a
wholesale 'transfer mutiny' from his pilots, while pursuing Pritchard's elusive goal of
Twelve O'Clock High isn't just a war adventure; we actually see only one bombing mission,
presented (as a text title proudly proclaims) exclusively through real aerial battle footage from both
Allied and Axis combat cameramen. Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr.'s script starts out much tougher
than any other flying film to date, with the gruesome aftermath of a mission in which a beloved pilot
got the back of his head shot off. He went nuts instead of dying, and had to be restrained
forcibly while the damaged plane limped back home.
Veterans liked the tough attitude taken toward one of the war's strangest combat experiences. Pilots
left the relative safety of their English camps for daily raids over Europe in broad daylight
(the British did the night flying). They suffered heavy losses without seeing much in the way of
concrete results, and many returned with devastating injuries. A B-17 bombing raid has been
compared to a baseball game in which the team always performs perfectly, staying cool and doing
their jobs. Only blind luck would decide who would come back intact and who would be shot
to bits or felled by a lucky flak hit. It doesn't take long for the players to lose their desire
to take to the field.
Twelve O'Clock High takes on the issue of leadership under extraordinary circumstances.
General Savage has the authority to harass and humiliate as well as reward his men, and knows he
must find a way to motivate them to do their jobs - this is one WW2 movie that doesn't assume that
every soldier wakes up each day saluting the flag and happily going off to risk his life. A
heavily-decorated flyer named Bishop (Robert Patten) is one of
the first to say he doesn't know what it's all for, that he just wants out.
Davenport's 'nice guy' approach is shown to have severe flaws. His men love him but the energy of
the unit is directed toward personal loyalty instead of the missions. The film implies that this
'soft' approach invites slack performance when a stupid error by Davenport's navigator
costs the wing five planes. Instead of busting the navigator or transferring
him, Davenport protects the poor goof and backs him up. Frank Savage thinks that the pilots aren't
going to be happy flying under the guy's direction, and that Davenport is putting one man ahead of
the entire unit. As they say in the corporate boardroom, a little housecleaning is in order.
It's still debatable if tougher leadership can keep mistakes from happening. Perhaps a constant
threat of demotion will make the navigator recheck his figures ... or just make more mistakes.
Savage's hardball approach gets results by challenging each man to do his best, through both pride
and fear. Ben Gately's humiliation is so severe he has little choice but to bear down and prove
his SOB commander wrong, which he does. Savage lessens the unit's likelihood of making bad
decisions for sentimental reasons by having all roommate assignments changed. To win the approval
of his pilots (and to keep their threatened 'mutiny' from grounding the whole bomber wing),
Savage flies more missions himself, proving he's willing to take the same risks.
The squadron turns around, winning approval upstairs while establishing the viability of daylight
bombing (also debatable, depending on which analysts one reads). An element of valor creeps in as
Savage's ground staff disobeys orders and sneaks aboard aircraft for 'mission joyrides.' Savage
wants to bust young clerk Sgt. McIlhenny (Robert Arthur of Ace in the Hole) until he finds
out that the kid is a natural gunner and shot down two enemy planes his first time out. Savage
finally wins the approval of his pilots by disobeying a recall order and pressing on with the
mission anyway: They obviously like his show of guts.
But there's a price to be paid as Savage becomes more popular. He can't face the fact that he's used
Gately as a squadron 'motivational tool,' and it starts to get lonely when his own closest buddies
are men are lost over enemy territory, and he has to pretend he doesn't care. Davenport warns him
that there's more than one way for a commanding officer
to crack up, and Savage may be heading in that direction. 1
Twelve O'Clock High's cast earned high praise. Gregory Peck was nominated as Best Actor
for the fourth time in five years while Dean Jagger won a Supporting Oscar with his first and
only nomination. Among the other able cast members, one of the top winners was Hugh Marlowe in a
role that won him a Fox contract and five years of constant movie work, although he became sidetracked
as ineffectual supporting players and unlikeable villains
(Night and the City,
The Day the Earth Stood Still).
A great many WW2 movies now seem in questionable taste or too eager to glamorize the wrong elements
of combat. Twelve O'Clock High retains an air of unassailable integrity.
Fox's DVD of Twelve O'Clock High is a reissue of an earlier disc in this year's War movie /
Father's Day repromotion package, and the availability of a screener prompted Savant's review. It's
the same disc that came out in 2002, a good B&W transfer with very little damage and excellent
audio. There are no extras; Fox is nowadays giving many of its older library releases commentaries
and one from a film-savvy historical expert would have been welcome.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Twelve O'Clock High rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 5, 2005
1. It's not an irrelevant
tangent - Nowadays we can't see Twelve O'Clock High and not think about what it says about
business practices. You don't have to be in a company or corporate situation long these days to
be confronted with war-like workload stress. Absolute loyalty is demanded, as if the company
goals (often ill-defined
in mushy Mission Statements one is supposed to take as gospel) were as important as a war effort.
One is expected to keep one's mind on immediate work, stay tightly within the management
structure in all things and say nothing about business to outsiders. More often than not,
the loyalty is all one-way: The company demands more while expecting the employee to be grateful
for less. After all, 'you're lucky to have a job.'
It's interesting how many of the same situations
and motivational tactics in Twelve O'Clock High are a part of our work experience. Haven't
we all seen a 'nice guy' or 'buddy to his employees' person disappear in favor of someone who puts
bottom-line ambitions ahead of employee welfare? It's only natural. The difference is that in
wartime draconian measures can be justified because people's lives are at stake. Modern workers
are expected to make similar sacrifices just to polish the performance record of executives
who may never give them the time of day. No wonder workers crack up and executives break the law ...
the pressure can just get to be too much. Return
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson