Thursday 9 May 2013

Movie Review: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

A predominantly psychological drama about American bomber crews flying dangerous missions over Europe, Twelve O'Clock High is a war story about the emotional toll of dealing with the pressure to doggedly perform despite the constant threat of death.

It's 1942, and the American 918th Bomber Group, based in England, is the only unit flying daring daytime precision bombing missions over Europe. Without fighter support and easily exposed to German anti-aircraft fire, the 918th is suffering heavy losses. When the Group's commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) complains of low morale and insists that his men are being pushed too hard, he is relieved of command and replaced by Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck).

Savage finds the 918th suffering from poor discipline, sloppy habits, and inadequate training. He sets about instilling renewed professionalism and mission focus. He also castigates Group Air Executive Officer Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe) for cowardice, before demoting him to a bomber branded  "Leper Colony" and staffed with other under-performers. Initially Savage's methods cause the pilots to seethe and they all ask for transfers. But with the administrative help of Group Adjutant Major Stovall (Dean Jagger), Savage eventually earns the respect of the pilots and the performance of the Group improves, although the painful losses continue. But with ever more dangerous missions assigned to the 918th, including daytime bombing raids on Germany itself, Savage begins to feel the pressure of command.

A war movie with very few combat scenes, Twelve O'Clock High has its focus firmly set on the impact of deadly conflict on the emotions of men holding the responsibilities of command. The script by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. (with contributions by director Henry King) does not much care for the strategic impact of the bombing missions or their outcomes. What matters is the grinding toll on men who are asked day after day to strap themselves into bombers and fly into missions with significant odds of getting blown out of the sky, and the commanders who have to push them to keep going regardless.

Davenport and Savage are presented as polar opposites. Davenport is close to his men, covering for their mistakes, and unwilling to push them too hard into harm's way if he does not believe that they can take it. Savage is cold, goal-oriented, does not care if the pilots hate him as long as the group regains its pride and fulfils the assigned missions. The men love and trust Davenport; they never warm up to Savage, but they do eventually learn to respect him. Ironically, at the end of their tenure Davenport and Savage functionally end up in the same place, each having fulfilled his mandate using a different style, and both savaged by the combined stresses of war and responsibility.

In an all-male cast, Gregory Peck is a rock of self-confidence as Frank Savage, and his performance exudes a full understanding of the discipline needed to win a war. Peck stands physically and morally tall as men around him succumb to internal or external forces, leading by example and ensuring that group goals are higher than any single man's comfort or worry. Gary Merrill as Col. Davenport has an interesting decompression arc, starting the movie in severe turmoil but recovering his bearings once relieved of command, and able to offer advice to Savage based on his own, direct experience with the trajectory of stress. And in a relatively small but key role, Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his turn as the tacitly effective Major Stovall.

With the movie set almost entirely in and around the fictional Archbury airfield, King finds most of the drama in the tense interaction between men trying to remain stoic as the world around them is consumed by war and the threat of death in the sky emerges as a most reliable companion. Twelve O'Clock High ends with two excellent chapters of carnage. In the first, the cameras finally join the bombers on a critical mission to bomb industrial targets in Germany, King using real footage of aerial combat and bombing operations to capture the risks and rewards. The second climax is equally grim as the cameras stay behind and wait for the bombers to undertake a subsequent mission. The damage caused by the bombs over Europe is secondary: the eternal human damage is evident, back at the base.

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