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Twelve O’Clock High

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The beginning of Twelve O’Clock High has one very distinguishing scene: a bomber crew member has been shot in the head and somebody remarks that his brain is showing; another was parachuted out over France in the hopes that he’d get faster medical attention…even though his arm — which was blown off– is still on the plane. Nothing is actually shown, but this kind of graphical detail was usually avoided by older Hollywood films. It’s necessary to the plot of this film, however, because it establishes what men face when they fly off on bombing missions. Other than that, the first thirty minutes of the film are relatively average: Colonel Davenport (Gary Merrill) worries about pushing his squadron crews too far; the doctor (Paul Stewart) wonders how much a man can take mentally; and General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) — on the advice of Brigadier General Savage (Gregory Peck) — replaces Davenport for fear that he’s become too attached to his men.

The movie eventually takes off, and the exact moment occurs during an initially innocuous scene, after Savage has been chosen to replace Davenport. As he is driven up to the airfield, he stops and gets out of the front passenger seat. He offers his driver a cigarette and then slowly walks around the car. As he stands there smoking and staring off into the distance, you can’t help but think, “What is this slow, pointless scene doing here? Get on with it.” Suddenly, Savage and the driver put out their cigarettes and Savage gets into the back seat. It’s an effectively understated moment that tells us Savage has consciously and deliberately just taken on the mantle of the tough guy commander. And sure enough, the first solider he meets (Kenneth Tobey in a bit part) gets chewed out for lax security.

What follows is a series of scenes in which Savage brings discipline to the squadron. (These “whip the troops into shape” sequences are not foreign to war movies, but they never seem to get old.) Savage is so unpopular — especially compared to Davenport — that all the pilots ask for transfers. In more private moments, Savage reveals his need to have the pilots change their minds about him, to have them realize that his strictness is good for the squadron. But Savage seems too needy. It’s too much of a contrast with the coldness he usually shows as the commanding officer. But this sharp contrast is only setting up the viewer for what happens later.

In the meantime, this initial plotline has to play out. At one point, Davenport visits and advises Savage to ease up on the men. Savage feels his methods are necessary and sticks to his guns. Sure enough, casualty rates drop and the pilots, finally realizing that Savage was justified, withdraw their transfers. Now in the clear, Savage suddenly turns on one of his men and gives him an undeserved chewing out. At first it appears to be out of place, an inconsistency in his character. You almost think Savage was pretending to have a softer interior until he was sure he was in the clear.

But the point of the film isn’t to ask which methods are best when dealing with bomber crews. The real point is that though they have different styles, Davenport and Savage are very much alike; they are both doomed to share the same fate: anybody who has to knowingly send men to their death can’t help but think of them as people, instead of more conveniently as numbers. While Davenport was too relaxed with his discipline, he was also more demonstrative with his emotions. This outlet was necessary, for Savage is the alternative: an officer who only hurts himself by keeping things bottled up. We watch him shrug off the death of a man while in front of others, but we’re also privy to his real private feelings.

There are two major disappointments with Twelve O’Clock High. Firstly: the climax revolves around one of those pat, temporary mental breakdowns that only happen in the movies. Secondly: given the nature of the film, it’s understandable that the bombing missions occur off-screen; but when a major one is shown near the end, it consists mostly of stock footage (some of which will be familiar to anybody who watches war documentaries). There is some impressive footage of men actually bailing out of planes, but for the most part, the contrast between footage and studio-shot film is too sharp and obvious. The fact that even the shots of gunners are stock footage indicates that this was a budgetary decision, not a desire for authenticity.

For the most part, Twelve O’Clock High manages to stay on target. There are no contrived romances, no extraneous family dramas. It remains a film about the dangers bomber squadrons face and the turmoil those who command them must endure.

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