Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

I was brought up on a diet of Commando Comics, Biggles and Alistair MacLean’s war novels. My greatest wish, when I was ten years old (and rated David Westheimer’s Von Ryan’s Express as the best book ever written), was to see the film version of the book. More about that in a later post, when I’m scraping the barrel for films to review. World War II is an obsession with me (well, almost: it shares space with Westerns, Mughal history, gelato, and a couple of hundred other things). So, a war film, and that too one starring Gregory Peck, was bound to arouse my interest. And am I glad I saw it.

Twelve O’Clock High is a war film that examines the relationships, fears and psychologies of the men who went into battle—and yet it never topples over into melodrama. The action is sparing, the acting excellent, the atmosphere very real.

a bomber lands

The film begins in London in 1949, when a bespectacled American (Dean Jagger) comes across a battered and chipped Toby Mug in a shop window.

An unusual discovery in a shop window

The mug stirs memories for the man, and he buys it, has it packed, and then goes far out into the countryside to a deserted old airfield called Archbury—you can just about make out the name spelt out in white stones on the ground. The runway is wet after a shower; the buildings are weatherbeaten; and cows graze at the far end. The grass is knee-high, and even as the man stands looking out over the airfield, the grass ripples as in the prop wash of a plane, the roar of engines fills the air…

At Archbury airfield

…and we’re back six years, in late 1942. The US Army Airforces 918th Bomb Group’s bombers are landing after a mission, and they’re a mess. There have been casualties left, right and centre, and those who’ve survived are at the end of their tethers. Lt. Jesse Bishop (Robert Patten), for example, struggled for two hours to take over the controls from a pain-maddened pilot with the back of his head blown off. After two hours of constantly wiping the pilot’s blood off the windscreen, Bishop’s gone to pieces.

Jesse Bishop cracks up

The extremely popular Group Commander, Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is hauled up soon enough by his boss at Bomber Command, General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell). Davenport’s friend, and General Pritchard’s second in command, Brig. General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) is there when Pritchard tries to find out the reason behind the day’s debacle.

Pritchard has a talk with Davenport

Davenport says the men have been flying one mission after another; they’re men, not machines. And the missions they’ve been on—daylight precision bombing, all requiring `maximum effort’—is suicidal. Davenport blames it on the group’s hard luck, and even tries to take the blame for a wrong decision made by his navigator.
At the end of it all, General Pritchard tells Davenport he’s relieved of his duties as Group Commander; instead, he’ll report to Pritchard and someone else will take over the 918th.

Pritchard relieves Davenport of his duties as Group Commander

Savage, in a talk with Pritchard, gives it as his view that (friendship aside) Davenport has made the mistake of bonding too closely with the men who report to him. Pritchard, after some thought, agrees; and ends up asking Savage to take over the 918th.

Savage is asked to take over the 918th

Savage knows he’s being dumped with the dirty job of reviving a bunch of dead beats, men who’re demoralised and just about ready to give up—and they’ve been deprived of their hero and mentor, Davenport. But Savage (and what an apt name!) isn’t one to mollycoddle people. Arriving at Archbury airfield, he first ticks off the lenient sentry…

The sentry gets it in the neck...

…demotes the half-dressed Sergeant McIllhenny to private…

...and so does Sergeant McIllhenny

…and has a brief but cold chat with the intoxicated Group Adjutant, Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger again—so this is where our man in 1949 was during the war!). Stovall is a World War I veteran, and has been given a desk job because they think he’s too old to go into combat. He’s a sharp, outspoken man, and admits to Savage that he’s drunk.
And that isn’t all; the Ground Exec is in hospital with mumps; the navigator (whom Davenport tried to shield) has committed suicide, and the Air Exec is AWOL. Savage quickly gives Stovall his orders, which include finding the Air Exec and arresting him; and cancelling all leaves and passes.

Harvey faces Savage

The Air Exec, Lt Col Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe) is found soon enough. Some questioning and it turns out Gately had left the station to go out and get drunk. A glance though Gately’s personnel file, and Savage discovers he’s a Westpointer, with distinguished military ancestry, and—as Savage describes it—“a yellow streak a mile wide”. Savage demotes Gately to an airplane commander. He’s to paint the words `The Leper Colony’ on the nose of his plane, and anybody who’s a loser—navigator, gun crew, pilot—automatically gets assigned to him.

Ben Gately's turn...

That evening, Savage goes to the bar and orders it shut down indefinitely:

Savage orders the bar shut down

And the next morning, at his first briefing of the men, he tells them in no uncertain terms that death is a way of life; they better get used to it. The briefing’s short and sharp, and brings the men’s simmering resentment to a boil.

At the briefing

Back in office, Savage meets the new Air Exec, Major Cobb (John Kellogg) and the doctor, Kaiser (Paul Stewart). Cobb assures Savage that he’ll do his job; Kaiser confides that more and more men are reporting sick—with colds and other complaints that are a sure sign of shirking.

Kaiser and Cobb meet Savage

And then another visitor comes calling: Lt Bishop, now much more in control of himself. He’s been elected a spokesman for the pilots, and he’s come to let Savage know that all of them are applying for transfers out of the 918th.

Bishop comes to bell the cat

How does Savage deal with this? What happens to the 918th? What makes for Stovall’s nostalgia, six years later?

Ultimately, if I look back at Twelve O’Clock High, I don’t see anything exceptional in the plot. Hard taskmaster takes over a group of losers and whips them into shape: it’s been done before (The Desert Rats and Von Ryan’s Express, to quote just two examples). What makes this film special is its sensitivity and its excellent characterisation: Savage, hard and no-nonsense, but with a conscience that drives him to make amends to a man he’s misjudged; Stovall, wise but ready to take his one last chance at glory; and Davenport, bitter at being sidelined, but eventually Savage’s friend. And Gately, trying desperately to redeem himself from the mess he’s got himself into.

The actual battle sequences in this film cover just a few minutes; it is emphatically not about blood and gore (in fact, I don’t recall seeing any blood anywhere), or guts and glory. Just about a man who pushes and pulls at the men below him, knowing he will be hated for it. It’s more human drama than anything else, and it’s very well done.

What I liked about this film:
Gregory Peck: such superb acting. Dean Jagger won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Peck got nominated for Best Actor—but honestly, I think Peck deserved an award for his role as Savage: harsh, friendly, humorous, unsure, traumatised: he is everything a man with such a burden on his shoulders would be.

Gregory Peck in Twelve O'Clock High
The screenplay: taut and just so, mixing silences with action, leaving as much unsaid as spoken out aloud.

What I didn’t like:
Up to the point when Pritchard finally assigns Savage to the 918th, the film moved perhaps a tad too slow. What made it a little confusing was that the names to the faces came too late. Cobb, Kaiser, McIllhenny, Stovall, and Gately are all shown in the first half hour, but they’re introduced by name and designation only when Savage takes over: at least for me, this made their initial interactions puzzling—I struggled a bit to figure out exactly how each of them was concerned with what was happening.

But, leaving that aside: this is a superb film. If you like war films, don’t miss Twelve O’Clock High.

Little bit of trivia:
The air combat scenes are all actual footage from the US Airforce and the Luftwaffe.

[Lastly, a very special thank you to Ross Rainwater, who kindly pointed out some mistakes I’d made in this review, and corrected them. Thanks, Ross!]

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15 thoughts on “Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

  1. World War II is on the same plane as gelato?!!! ;-D

    No matter how often I hear about this on TCM, I always think of 12 O’clock High as a Western and since on TCM that usually means John Wayne or the singing cowboy – I’ve never seen it. Now I just need to remember “Gregory Peck” and I’ll watch it next time it plays! :-D

    There is something about war movies made during and just after the war. They were more gritty and real. The modern retellings have so many special effects (especially bombs going off every two seconds) that the grimness of war just doesnt touch you.

  2. Yes, WWII is definitely on the same plane as gelato!! ;-)

    `Twelve o’clock high’ is actually a pilot’s term, you know – specifying direction and height (“enemy planes, 12 o’clock high” means planes approaching above you, at a position straight ahead – if you were standing at the very centre of a giant clock with the 6 behind you, the spot where 12 o’clock would be). …Ouch. Am I telling you things you already know?

    And yes, I so agree with you about the old time war films: somehow stuff like Saving Private Ryan – though an excellent film – is just too gory. This one (or even The Desert Rats, for that matter) was very realistic but not bloody. Or am I just biased towards old films?

  3. OMG I always thought I was going to grow up and marry Biggles. And Ginger would fight Biggles for me. Biggles you see was so manly and so resourceful! He gave good plane!

    Commando comics were another vice. I could draw all the battle scenes and all that and thought I spoke German… gott in himmel, englander, achtung etc. Not usual for a little girl in India, but I was addicted. But then I also belived wrestling was real.

    I keep looking for commando comics and have come across any at all!

  4. I’m so glad to have found a kindred soul! All the other girls in my class would be reading Nancy Drew, I’d be reading Biggles and Commandos. So I can sympathise completely.

    Incidentally, Commando have just launched (a few months back – maybe up to a year ago) collected editions of their best comics, arranged by theme. Each edition has 12 stories, and they have names such as Anzacs at War, Jungle War, True Brit, etc… my favourite is Bandits at Twelve O’Clock – superb. All the big bookstores in India have them; I’m sure you’d also be able to order them online.

  5. There is a wonderful moment in “State and Main” when the writer explains that the audience doesn’t need to see anything for themselves, they need to see the characters’ reactions to things… We don’t need to see McKesson’s brain, we only need to see the doctor’s reaction to it. Although Dean Jagger won his oscar as a supporting actor, he really is the star. But Gregory Peck does add a lot.

  6. I wish a lot more filmmakers would remember that… spelling out everything for the audience is not needed, not even desired. Just seeing reactions, as you point out, makes the viewing of the film a far more interesting experience.

    Yes, I suppose you could say Dean Jagger had more of a role than a mere supporting actor, but I think for him to have been the star, he perhaps merited more screen time… and I have to admit to being a Peck fan!

  7. Great website honoring one of my favorite movies. My dad was an 8th USAAF B-24 crewmember who completed 35 missions in 1944.

    Some minor corrections needed, based on my just having seen the film again for the umpteenth time in prerparation for showing it to a group of friends:

    o The movie flashes back to late 1942, not 1943, and finishes in 1943. You can see the time passage on the missions and dates painted on the Quonset hut ceiling in several scenes in the movie.

    o The flight surgeon Kaiser was at least a major, not a captain (you can see his oak leaves on his uniform in BG Savage’s first briefing and in one of the pictures on the website; if gold, he’s a major; if silver, he’s a LT Col; can’t tell in a B&W movie).

    o The opening credits cite actual film footage from the US Air Force and German Luftwaffe. The RAF is not mentioned.

    Minor points, to be sure.

    o Trivia: The gate guard who fails to challenge Savage’s car is played by Kenneth Tobey, who later starred in “Whirlybirds”, 1957-60.

  8. Ross, thank you so much for correcting me on those points! I’ve seen a lot more war films since I reviewed Twelve O’Clock High (including two more that were largely concerned with air battles – The Battle of Britain and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, but I still feel Twelve O’Clock High is sui generis.

  9. Pingback: Twelve O’Clock High (1949) | Old Old Films

  10. The B-17 918 Bombardment Group (Heavy) was created by trippling the 306 BG (H) actual unit number to get that. The people who wrote the book were part of the 306th which had lots of losses early in the war due to bad some bad luck and lack of training in tight formation flying which was required in the ETO due to the Luftwaffe. Formation flying was not given much time due to needs to get pilots over to the UK faster from 1942 thru early 1943 and had to be OTJ’d in combat.

    Once you lost a lot of people on a mission, and the next mission came around with replacement pilots who did not have the option of spending a month learning new formations and flight rules of the ETO, you flew a loose formation, the Luftwaffe would spot it and attack the loosest formation – leading to more losses and it continues.

    After the war the 306 BG (H) put out a book with pictures of all the crews (that they could find) with a complete listings of all the men that actually were in it by the time the war ended. I have one of them.

  11. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

  12. Once again I see that we have the same opinion. I agree with everything that you have written right to the fact that the film was a tad slow in the beginning. Yes Gregory Peck definitely deserved an award for this one. I really liked his performance particularly towards the end.

    • I must watch this again – it was such a good film (and, in some ways, a little similar to Only the Valiant, in that there too Peck plays an officer who has to make do with men who hate him). Personally, though, I like Twelve O’Clock High more, both for the story and for Peck’s performance.

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