Twelve O'Clock High Review
There are several traditional formulas which a war film can follow and the most popular is probably the "Firm But Fair New Commanding Officer Licks Platoon Into Shape And Overcomes Initial Suspicion To Become Deeply Beloved." From Allan Dwan's marvellous Sands Of Iwo Jima to variations such as Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen, this particular blueprint has become a staple of the genre. It's a hard one to mess up but what makes Henry King's airbourne drama Twelve O'Clock High a particularly fine example is that it emphasises character over cliche and manages to renew some of the more familiar aspects of the formula.
If we ignore a rather redundant framing device set in 1949, the film is set in Autumn of 1942 when the War was reaching a point of stalemate and an edge was needed if the Allies were to fight on successfully. The key proved to be daytime bombing raids on German industry undertaken by a range of allied pilots, but the film - understandably if irritatingly - concentrates on the part played by the US airmen flying from airfields in England. I'll put the whole question of the Hollywoodisation of the Allied Victory to one side; it's always an issue which leads to strong feelings but one could certainly argue that the British have been just as lacking in this quarter - watching a number of British war films from 1940 to 1955 one would be forgiven for thinking that the war was won by Sir John Mills. Gregory Peck, on top form, plays General Frank Savage who is asked to take over the command of the 918th Bomber Squadron based at 'Archbury' when their commanding officer proves unfit to keep his post. His approach is, as you'd expect, firm but fair and he gradually wins over the men as he proves that his way is the right way. But the nerve-wracking business of bombing German industry during the daylight hours begins to take its toll, but on the men and their General.
Although this is, in essence, familiar war movie territory, there are some nice touches which make this more than just another generic Hollywood product. Peck's performance is particularly impressive as he refuses to turn Savage into a sweetheart to get easy sympathy. He's a hard bastard, to put it bluntly, and his unwillingness to show emotion means that we're spared the usually inevitable sentimentality. Even more intriguing is the way his character develops, so that towards the end of the film this unyielding martinet becomes an emotional wreck as the realities of war and the number of men lost under his command suddenly become too much for him to cope with. This is nicely underplayed - rather than ranting and raving, Savage becomes virtually catatonic - and very effectively brings a real sense of the horror of war into the film. Indeed, there isn't a lot of misplaced patriotic fervour here - the men at the top are shown as being efficient but soulless men who see the men on the front line as statistics rather than people while the business of bombing raids is presented as difficult work which ends in relief rather than euphoria. The whole question of when a man should be regarded as burnt out is raised too, something rather more controversial in 1949 than it is now when America was about to enter the huge mess that was the Korean War. The film asks what 'maximum effort' is, how it can be gauged and when simple compassion requires a commander to pull one of his men out of the firing line. Rather serious and po-faced this might be, and the discussion of the issue is rather stretched out, but in it one can see the confrontational attitude towards the nature of military strategy and discipline that became the basis of Joseph Heller's "Catch 22' 13 years later. There's some blackly funny humour here too. Tearing one lazy Colonel to shreds in his office, Savage demands that his plane be renamed "Leper Colony" and manned with all the worst airmen in the outfit and, in reponse to the entirely reasonable concern of his men that they might be shot down by the German war machine, Savage says "Consider yourselves already dead... that should stop you worrying about it !" Above all, the film gives us a poignant reminder of all the young men who would go off to war with such high hopes but who would never grow any older and whose voices still echo over the deserted air fields throughout Europe.
The performances are all excellent, something unusual in itself for this genre which relies on stock characters and a familiar team of actors. Peck is splendid throughout but he's well matched by Gary Merrill as Lt.Col Keith Davenport who is replaced for "overidentification with his men" and Paul Stewart as the aforementioned pilot of the "Leper Colony" whose zest to prove himself lands him in hospital. Best of all though is Dean Jagger as Major Stovall, Savage's administrative assistant and eventually Ground Exec. Stovall is a touching character, too old to join this war and pained by memories of the last one, and Jagger is simply marvellous in the part. He won a well-deserved Oscar for the part and its certainly the best work he ever did on film (although I have fond memories of him in White Christmas and as the Sherrif in Sam Fuller's wonderful Forty Guns). His measured, subtle work in this film is testament to what makes a good supporting performance; always memorable but never consciously grandstanding. A slightly odd aspect of the film, and perhaps a welcome one in this context, is the absence of any significant female roles. This is realistic for the setting of course but particularly welcome in that it means we are spared the customary romantic interest for the star - remember how so many war films grind to a halt while its established at interminable length that the main character is heterosexual ?
This is a fine example of Hollywood professionalism in all aspects of the production. Henry King was never the most inspiring director but he did do some very solid work and occasionally rose to unexpected heights. Along with this film he made Jesse James and The Gunfighter, also with Peck and one of the most unusual and interesting Westerns ever made. His direction here is well paced and intelligent, serving the performances without indulging in empty stylistics. His decision not to film combat footage but to rely on that filmed during the War is double-edged. On the one hand, the quality of the footage is generally poor and isn't always well integrated into the scenes. On the other, it has a documentary truth which you couldn't get any other way and it does have a peculiar, if morbid, fascination. The script, based on a well known bestseller of the time, is functional but has its moments. There's nothing to criticise about the technical aspects of the film since they are all top-notch, although Alfred Newman's music is characteristically overstated and sometimes needs to be mentally edited out. It attempts to hype up the emotions when it doesn't actually need to do so. A word should be said for the excellent location shooting, a hallmark of Fox productions of the era.
If you're a fan of war films then you will probably be familiar with Twelve O'Clock High but anyone who appreciates good storytelling and acting will find much to enjoy in it. It is a little dated in certain aspects - there is a noticable absence of violence and the language is considerably more moderate than would be the case now - but it delivers a strong sense of the way war can affect the men who fight it and that's always something worth commending.
Fox haven't gone to much trouble to make this release anything special but the technical aspects of the disc are above average.
The film looks very good on this release, certainly better than I had anticipated considering the age of the film. There is some print damage in places and the poor quality of some of the WW2 footage is all too obvious in comparison to the rest of the film. But this fullscreen transfer is generally very good. There is a fairly good level of detail and excellent contrast. Shadow detail is also good. A certain amount of restoration appears to have been undertaken. This isn't up there in the Citizen Kane class of forties transfers but it's certainly more than competent.
The soundtrack is English Dolby Stereo 2.0, remixed from the original mono soundtrack and is entirely acceptable. There is not a great deal of stereo activity although some sound effects are spread across the left and right channels. The dialogue is fine as is the music and there is no hiss or distortion. There isn't much here that a mono soundtrack couldn't have done just as well to be honest.
There are no extras at all on the disc. This strikes me as rather odd although the film is good enough to stand on its own. There are 16 chapter stops and static menus.
A very good film, one which seems to have been rather forgotten, has received a bare-bones release from Fox. The disc is acceptable however and might be worth considering if you can find it for a reasonably low price.