Twitter Plot Summary: World War 2, and an American bombing group are put back in shape by a stern General.
Five Point Summary:
1. A Toby mug
2. This unit lacks discipline. The bar’s closed!
3. Daylight precision bombing. Whose daft idea was that?
4. The General’s getting a little too hands-on.
5. He’s on the flight with them…
Some years after the war, a man spots a Toby mug in a shop window and buys it immediately. Flashing back to the Second World War, it becomes apparent that the same Toby mug was his unit’s mascot and symbolic of when a raid was called for. The group in question, the 918th, were involved in near-suicidal daylight precision bombing runs – there’s a good reason for the majority of bombing taking place at night, you know. You might survive a couple of bombing runs, for a starter. Twelve O’Clock High marks that rare occasion where a war film focusing on Americans isn’t a massive flag waving exercise, instead choosing to demonstrate that the constant need to head up into the skies and fight in the Second World War had a lasting psychological impact on those involved in the fighting, and specifically bomber crews who suffered some of the highest fatality rates in any theatre of the war.
Gregory Peck is General Frank Savage, the man given the task of bringing the bomb group back into shape, taking over from the previous commander who, whilst well liked and supported by his men, is starting to show the signs of burnout. Savage removes all of the privileges available to the crews in a bid to snap them into shape. Understandably all of the pilots put in for transfer to another group, and it’s then up to Savage to change their minds before the transfers can go through. It wouldn’t be much of a film if the transfers had succeeded, and it’s then a case of Savage trying to win them over to his way of thinking. As time passes and the group become more and more successful in their raids – all thanks to the hard work of General Savage, no less – we come full circle and he falls into the same trap as the previous commander. This is all told superbly through Peck’s performance, strict at first but slowly softening his approach as the group get result after result.
Being positioned so close to the end of the war and being shot in black and white, Twelve O’Clock High benefits from using real archive footage of air battles to add to the air of authenticity. This is enhanced by the airfield location and the solid performances from the remaining cast. They all invest themselves thoroughly in their characters and you can almost believe that you’re watching documentary footage rather than a film. Almost. Dean Jagger is in excellent form as Major Stovall, a man who had turned to drink; Hugh Marlowe is equally superb as Lt Col Gately who, in the face of cowardice and the possibility of upsetting his high-ranking father, is given command of the Leper Colony and the wash-outs within the group.
As one of the first films to showcase the psychological effects of wartime combat on pilots, Twelve O’Clock High is a triumph. It works as a war film certainly, but the focus on the lives of the pilots on the base rather than their exploits in battle is one to be commended.