“…poor little lambs who have gone astray…”
With the end of World War II in 1945, the film-going public had become tired of war films, at least those that dealt with the actual events of war. An appetite for stories dealing with the returning soldiers lingered, however, so that such films as Till the End of Time (1946, RKO), Homecoming (1948, MGM), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, Goldwyn) were popular. The latter, in fact, has become an enduring American classic. By late 1948, war films per se began to be popular once more and remained so for at least the next 25 to 30 years. Among the first of the renewed slate of such films and one of the best war films of that or any era was Twelve O’Clock High (1949, Fox), starring Gregory Peck.
Fox has now released a DVD version as part of the flood of war-related films that are appearing this May and June.
The 918th Bomber Group of the U.S. Eighth Air Force located at Archbury, England appears to be a hard-luck component of the U.S.’s daylight bombing activities over Europe in 1942. Losses of planes and men are mounting and morale is sinking. Col. Davenport, the popular leader of the Group, is deemed too close to his men and near breaking point himself, is replaced by his superior, General Frank Savage. Savage approaches his new task by emphasizing discipline, hard work and practice. He singles out one of the flyers, Lt. Colonel Ben Gately, for his lack of support of Davenport and assigns all the poorest crew to him, designating Gately’s plane “The Leper Colony.” All the flyers are at first resentful of Savage and all request transfer out of the Group. Through the connivance of his executive officer, Major Stovall, Savage is able to stall the transfer paperwork until he is able to begin seeing a new spirit of pride in the Group. But the stress of the job soon begins to affect Savage and he reaches his own breaking point.
Twelve O’Clock High is essentially a study on leadership. How do you restore the morale and personal and collective pride of a group of men whose every day may be their last, and in the course of so doing, how might such efforts affect you? The approach taken — that of focusing on discipline, practice, and leadership by example — is very familiar to us now. It was less so at the time of Twelve O’Clock High‘s release, so that the basic story with the resolution of the problem that it depicted was a distinct reason for the film’s success. Other important contributors to that success were the realistic depiction of the command interactions of an air force unit; an impressive ensemble acting troupe anchored by Gregory Peck’s spot-on portrayal of the commanding officer; a script that blended the lyrical with the real; and the well-integrated use of actual air combat footage.
Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett wrote the screenplay from their novel of the same title. Both had experience in the U.S. Army Air Force in the war, particularly with the daylight bombing that the film depicted. Consequently, the story had a strong sense of reality and believability about it. The lead character “General Frank Savage” was largely based on General Frank Armstrong Jr. who commanded the real-life 306th Bombardment Group at Thurleigh field in England. That character is very much the focus of the film from beginning to end. In developing the project, 20th Century Fox devoted considerable resources to first obtaining the rights to the novel and then in massaging the script into its final form. Interestingly enough and contrary to the usual Hollywood approach, a romantic subplot involving Savage, which was present in the original novel, was dropped as script preparation progressed. William Wellman was at one point connected with the project, but in the end, studio workhorse Henry King was assigned to direct. The result was typical of King’s economical and unobtrusive style of work.
The reality of the vast majority of the film lies in the depiction of the routine of airfield life and the interactions of military command personnel. An effective contrast is provided by the use of aerial sequences of allied bombers being attacked by German fighter planes. These sequences consist of actual combat footage photographed by both U.S. and German air personnel. Aside from the judicious integration of this material into the film, the high degree of interest that is sustained by the material is very much due to the work of the various actors who portray the various officers of the command structure. Ideal as the ground executive officer Major Stovall is Dean Jagger, a veteran everyman sort of actor. Lending strong support are Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell, and Paul Stewart. The actor that carries the picture, however, is Gregory Peck as Frank Savage. He is as equally convincing projecting the seeming invincibility of Savage the disciplinarian as he is conveying Savage’s vulnerability shown in the character’s breakdown at the end. Peck’s work in Twelve O’Clock High is for me among his finest efforts on film. The New York Film Critics agreed and selected him as their best actor of the year.
I spoke of the film’s lyrical nature as well. It may seem like a minor item, but the beginning of Twelve O’Clock High provides a wonderful counterpoint to what comes after. In fact, the story told by the film is a flashback that begins in 1949 when Major Stovall returns to England and eventually finds himself cycling in the countryside to the overgrown site of the original airfield. He leaves his bicycle and walks out into the middle of the old runway, noting the rundown buildings and control tower, and gradually stares off into the sky as he remembers. A beautiful melody by film composer Alfred Newman (also used with much of the title credits) accompanies part of the sequence, evoking the bittersweet memories of the past. As those memories become more concrete, this melody gives way to strident chords and snippets of wartime tunes.
It’s actually interesting to compare Twelve O’Clock High to another film with a somewhat similar premise, Command Decision (1948, MGM). That film caused some delay in the preparation of Twelve O’Clock High due to issues of plagiarism because it too dealt with the difficulties of command and the concern again was with daytime bombing. Command Decision was highly regarded partly due to Clark Gable’s strong performance in the lead role, but one is never convinced of the authenticity of what one is seeing. Unlike in Twelve O’Clock High, the supporting players (Walter Pidgeon, Brian Donlevy, Charles Bickford, among others) are unable to make the viewer forget that they are actors rather than real people. The film’s claustrophobic interiors also betray its stage origins and there are no real aerial sequences to provide relief.
Older viewers may remember that Twelve O’Clock High also spawned an interesting television series of the same title, which ran for three seasons in the mid-1960s. Robert Lansing portrayed Savage; Frank Overton had the Dean Jagger role; and Paul Burke portrayed Gately.
It would be nice to be able to report that an excellent film like Twelve O’Clock High has received a DVD treatment worthy of it. I certainly had high hopes given Fox’s fine efforts on their recent Marilyn Monroe film DVDs. Sadly, such is really not the case.
The film is correctly transferred full frame at its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and utilizes 16 scene selections. The image, however, is uneven in quality. Some sections look quite crisp with deep blacks and clean whites. Others, however, are rather soft. The source material was apparently in less than top shape, resulting in a DVD presentation that suffers from numerous speckles and some scratches. A thin vertical line visits the center of the image on a couple of occasions. Image contrast is fairly good but occasionally, shadow detail is lacking. It is a measure of the shape that the image is in that one finds the authentic World War II aerial footage included in the film looking little more the worse for wear than some portions of the rest of the picture.
Some redemption can be afforded Fox on its treatment of the sound. The original mono track is provided and it sounds quite fine, aside from some occasional age-related hiss. Music, dialogue and the noise of combat are all well conveyed and one can appreciate why the film won 1949’s Academy Award for sound, even if we don’t get the low basses that a more modern mix would have given the aircraft take-offs. Even better than the original mono, however, is a new surround mix that adds a subtle touch of dimensionality to everything while still preserving the spirit of the original track.
Then we look at the supplement package and find — nothing. Oh, there are five trailers for other Fox war films (The Longest Day, Patton, Tora Tora Tora, The Sand Pebbles, The Thin Red Line), but there is absolutely no material with any connection whatsoever to Twelve O’Clock High, not even a trailer. The film was deservedly nominated by the Academy as Best Picture and Gregory Peck as Best Actor, with Dean Jagger winning for best Supporting Actor, yet we don’t get cast notes for the two actors or even a mention of the Best Picture nomination. There is extensive production information available for the film also, but you’d never know it from this disc.
It appears to me that Fox just wanted to cash in on the current war film interest by rushing Twelve O’Clock High out there, rather than giving it the treatment it deserves. A real shame and a distinct disappointment, given it’s a film far superior to The Sand Pebbles or Von Ryan’s Express — two other Fox war films which seem to have been accorded considerably more care and attention in their recent DVD releases.
If you’ve never seen Twelve O’Clock High, Fox at least has now provided you with the opportunity to rectify a sad situation. For veteran appreciators of this title, however, especially those with the laserdisc version, Fox provides little reason to upgrade to this DVD version. The film is highly recommended, but as far as the DVD is concerned, it’s an opportunity sadly missed.