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REVIEW: Seven years after the war ends, former U.S. Army Air Force officer Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is vacationing in Great Britain where he discovers a Toby Fillpot Jug in an antiques shop window. He buys it, sure that it is one he knows well from when he was serving at Archbury Air Filed in 1942. He has the jug wrapped and takes a train north to the old Air Force base, now abandoned and overgrown, and steps onto the cracked and heavily stained runway. From there, the veteran lets the memories wash over him and we slip back in time as the sky fills with B-17 Bombers returning from missions.
Considered one of the greatest war films ever produced, Twelve O’Clock High doesn’t take the route most films in this genre and time period gravitated to, avoiding the over-glamorous war hero stories with grand, epic scale and triumphant, morale-boosting propaganda. Instead, it strives to be dark and realistic, making the pilots and crew of these massive bombers seem genuine, honest, and tragic. Recounting the American Air Force 918th Bomb Group, the story details the dangerous daylight precision bombing runs over Germany and the heavy losses incurred as superiors pushed for lower and lower attack heights. Based loosely on real events and featuring composites of real people, the film feels authentic. Using actual air combat footage from both sides of the conflict, the scenes on the ground are just as powerful as the men, in extended dialogue tell their stories.
The story really begins with the Group’s commander, Colonel Davenport, (Gary Merrill) who grows too sympathetic towards his men as they return to base, their planes in tatters, with each mission losing aircraft and crews. He’s let the men get soft and so, is relieved of duty, replaced by his polar opposite, the aptly named General Savage (Gregory Peck). He sees the group of “hard luck” fighters as undisciplined and sets about demanding more from the men, canceling passes, closing the drinking tavern, and ordering full military regulations into effect. Of course this plummets morale even further. Peck is exceedingly good here, giving a towering performance as the base leader, revealing a depth and humanity in the character that makes it easy to see why men would follow.
The real honors go to Jagger, who plays Stovall. He won a deserved Academy Award for his passionate and compelling role, being the right-hand man for Savage, understanding the men in his command, and knowing how to play both in order to bring peace among the troops. There actually isn’t a bad performance in the film, and once begun, is almost impossible to stop watching, despite its near lack of a score, brief (but thrilling) aerial combat scenes, and preachy approach. Incredibly moving and still impactful. Twelve O’Clock High is a masterpiece that must be on any film lover’s list.
Scene Setup: Savage has been brutal on the men. On his first briefing, he told them all they were already dead, and to stop thinking about coming home while in the air. It’s the kind of sacrifice the war effort needs and the sooner they let it go, the better they’ll be. Of course, they reject the philosophy and every pilot in the Group requests a transfer. Savage works with Stovall to delay the paperwork, and in so doing, gains the time he needs to show the men he knows what he is doing. He concentrates on practice runs, which improves their skills, and after a bombing raid goes as exactly as planned, things begin to change. The issue now is, his superiors begin to wonder if Savage is falling into the same pattern of the man he replaced.
The Scene (Timestamp 01:44:45): Savage has joined the men, piloting his plane, the Piccadilly Lilly, a B-17 Bomber with the Group. They are on a run over the German coast. Savage is Group leader and drives the low-flying squad deeper into enemy territory as flack and fighters try to slow them down. Casualties on both sides mount but Savage bravely leads his men and successfully hits the target.
The scene is the first real bomb run in the film and finally gives the viewer a first hand look at what it is like. The footage is a mix of staged and actual firefights and it’s remarkable how effective that is, with images of real bombers and fighters engaged in combat, with many ending in disaster. In one harrowing moment, we seen men leaping from their doomed aircraft as it plummets, enveloped in flames. It is distressing. In others, we see less fortunate men as their planes are literally blown out of the sky in brilliant plumes of white light and smoke. All the while, Savage is relaying orders and keeping his battered caravan of bombers on track.
The cinematography is gripping, as if we are really in the planes, and there is a great sense of height and speed, but mostly danger. The award winning sound effects tremble as gunfire and jet engines blast from every corner. While it lacks the polish of modern films and the enhancements of computer technology to give it the style many of us are accustomed to now, because it is authentic, it is far more compelling and leaves the viewer breathless. After nearly two hours of tense set up, the payoff of in-flight aerial fighting is riveting and shocking. It completely legitimatizes the film and its message, making every scene before it suddenly that much more impressive.