I'm not such a huge fan of war movies, but I tend to endure them if actors that I like are in them. Nothing but pure unadulterated adoration for Michael Redgrave could get me to watch the likes of The Dam Busters. And so it is with Gregory Peck in Twelve O'Clock High as well, except that Twelve O'Clock High is actually a good movie! Made in the late 1940s its a much more frank look at combat than something that could have been made in World War II. The movie begins, after a leisurely opening in modern day England, with the results of a failed bombing mission. After the plane lands, one man has had the back of his skull blown off ("You can see his brain" the doctor observes), another a broken leg and there is a stray arm inside the plane cabin. The fourth member of the crew is obviously traumatized by the two hours he spent keeping what was left of the team alive and flying the plane. The ill-fated mission is just the latest in a series of "hard luck" incidents to face this daylight bombing unit.
The unit's commanding officer Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) is distressed to learn that not only has he lost five planes, he will only be receiving three replacements and he has another mission to fly the next day. To further add to his troubles, the mission is directed to be at a much lower altitude than previously. Thinking the whole thing a mistake, he goes to his friend at headquarters, General Frank Savage (Peck). Savage tells him that mission is possible and in the interview he decides that the strain of command is getting to his buddy. He arranges to have him relieved and he takes over command of the unit. Of course this is a hugely unpopular move and he doesn't gain any friends by being extremely strict about regulations on the base. Half the base is put on report of one kind or another and there are demotions as Savage puts his tough love plan into action. His one ally turns out to be his clerk, Harvey (Dean Jagger) an older man who is a self-described retread from the last war. In civilian life, he's a lawyer and he helps his boss navigate base politics. Their friendship is the most interesting part of the film I think because it humanizes Frank and because it gives the an audience a character in Harvey with whom they can identify. Harvey has a really great scene where he gets drunk because he can't remember the faces of the pilots who've died recently. It's such a great speech they ripped it off for Battlestar Galactica. (The more I watch war movies the more I realize that all the best bits of that show were ripped off from films from the 40s and 50s.)
Of course Frank whips the unit into shape and of course he has lots of great scenes of chewing people out. Seriously, Gregory Peck yelling at me would probably motivate me to do just about anything. These are usually followed by a scene in private where he proves that the command is getting to him. There are a few scenes where he shows his enthusiasm and pride in the men and those are just too adorable. You can see why he has to keep all that under wraps.
For a war movie about bombers there is refreshingly little time spent inside the actual planes. What is there is well-done, easy to follow and director Henry King wrings as much tension as possible from these scenes. When Frank has his inevitable meltdown at the worst possible time, all the men whose he pushed so hard are there to cover for him. I guess his tough love plan really worked then, but the viewer is left with a sense of fragility in the hero that is pretty atypical in war movies. Well, actually if you look at the war movies of the pre-code era, usually set during WWI, that is a very common theme. It took Hollywood almost twenty years and another war to be able to be even marginally realistic when it comes to war.
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