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 were 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 group of people to get a tough job done will understand the stress factors involved.
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 because he identifies too closely with his men to make mission success his first priority. Frank's reward is to take over the command himself. 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 Gately (Hugh Marlowe), as a scapegoat. He slowly wins over his command by weathering a wholesale 'transfer mutiny' from his pilots, while pursuing Pritchard's elusive goal of 'maximum effort.'
Twelve O'Clock High is more than 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. Instead of dying, he just went nuts and had to be forcibly restrained while the damaged plane limped back home.
Veterans liked the tough attitude taken toward one of the war's strangest combat experiences. American pilots left the relative safety of their English camps for 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 decides which planes come back intact and which are 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 dish out rewards and knows he must find a way to motivate his men 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. The men love him but he directs the unit's energy 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 with the navigator, 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.
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 Savage 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.
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.
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 joy rides.' 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.' It gets lonely when his own closest buddies 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, 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 unlikable 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 Cinema Classics Collection DVD of Twelve O'Clock High is a third sortie over the same target -- earlier discs came out in 2002 and 2005, and their transfer quality was every bit as good as this encoding. The solid B&W image is backed up by a beefy, dynamic soundtrack.
Having apparently suspended its earlier Studio Classics line, Fox is essentially following Warners' lead by converting three and four-year old releases into 2-disc Cinema Classics sets. Previously, Fox would include an extra or two and a commentary by a specialized author or film expert. When appropriate, a Backstories or Biography TV show would share a single disc as well. This first batch of Cinema Classics reuses many of the same commentators and packs on too many slack featurettes to fill out its second disc. The commentary by Rudy Behlmer, Jon Burlingame and Nick Redman is good, especially the remarks by Behlmer. And the main making-of featurette Memories of ... is quite well done, an assured mix of studio politics, location difficulties and comparisons with the real fliers that the authors 'adjusted' to become their fictional airmen. The other featurettes are not much more than padding. WWII and the American Home Front is a generic overview that uses familiar newsreel footage wherever it will fit. Inspiring a Character: General Frank A. Armstrong and The Pilots of the Eighth Air Force are mostly collections of interview bites that needed a different context to have a proper impact. And how many times can the editors cut back to the same two minutes of air-to-air combat footage?
Also included are a still gallery and one of Fox's impressive "Interactive Pressbooks." A paper insert carries more publicity-oriented text on the film and four miniature stills in an envelope marked 'lobby cards.' The new DVD of the excellent Twelve O'Clock High is the same exact experience as older releases, with a good commentary and one very good making-of featurette.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Twelve O'Clock High rates:
Supplements: Featurettes Memories of Twelve O'Clock High, WWII and the American Home Front, Inspiring a Character: General Frank A. Armstrong, The Pilots of the Eighth Air Force; Still gallery, Interactive Pressbook, Miniature stills
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: June 14, 2007
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. In most company and corporate situations these days a war-like workload stress is the normal state of affairs. 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' 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 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 get to be too much. Return
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson