Monday, February 21, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Twelve O'Clock High" (1949)

"Twelve O'clock High" is a terrific war movie, one more concerned with the toll combat takes on men than any fleeting glory it might bring. But the title is spectacularly misleading.

Given a moniker like that, I think most people would believe it was a movie full of dogfights and aerial combat. There is in fact one fairly long fight sequence -- made up largely of actual combat footage from World War II taken by both American and German personnel. But this 1949 film is more about what happens on the ground in between combat missions.

What strikes me most about this film directed by Henry King -- who had a long career spanning the silent era through the Golden Age, from 1915 to 1962 -- is that it's not structured anything like other war pictures of that era, or most Hollywood films in general.

The main character, played by Gregory Peck, doesn't show up until nearly a half-hour in. The supporting characters aren't just there to make the star look good, but fit organically into a group dynamic. The hero doesn't die gloriously in the end, but suffers a nervous breakdown and is unable to take part in the most important mission of the war.

Indeed, the framing device of one the U.S. Eighth Air Force Group 918 members returning to their old, abandoned airfield at Archbury features not the guts-and-glory commander, but his mild-mannered adjutant (a job title that's essentially military-ese for secretary). He finds the old Robin Hood toby jug that had been used at the group headquarters -- turned outward on the officer's club mantle to indicate a mission the next morning -- for sale in a thrift store, buys it and returns to the grown-over field to reminisce.

Even the poster for the film is misleading. It shows Peck toking on a cigarette wearing flying goggles, with the faces of the other cast mostly obscured as they're arrayed behind him. It even features Peck with a nurse at the bottom, implying some sort of romance. In actuality, this is the only woman who appears in the movie, and it's for about two lines of dialogue.

The set-up is the 918th is part if the early air war against Germany in late 1942, and have been stuck with the label of the cursed group that always seems to suffer the highest casualties. The commander, Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), is beloved by the men and they by him -- too much so, in fact. Davenport is accused of "over-identifying" with his men, too concerned over losing them than accomplishing their critical missions.

They even have to endure the taunts of "Colonel Haw-Haw," a German radio broadcaster very much in the tradition of Tokyo Rose, who seems to know how many planes the 918th lost during that day's mission, and even the names of the planes and their captains. Things have recently grown much worse with the advent of low-altitude daylight missions -- "precision bombing" is what the brass (inaccurately) calls it.

Davenport is relieved of his command in favor of Brigadier Gen. Frank Savage (Peck), who's determined to be a by-the-book man who lights a fire under his pilots and crews. He gives them a rousing greeting speech -- so rousing, in fact, that every single pilot in the group asks to be transferred out.

"Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it won't be so tough," Savage thunders. Not exactly inspiring stuff.

The movie spends quite a lot of time contrasting the different leadership styles of Savage and Davenport, with plenty of faults to be found in each. Savage's harsh methods eventually pull the 918th out of its nosedive, but not before nearly ending in disaster when an inspector general is dispatched to find out why all those transfer requests have been held up.

And Savage bends his iron ways somewhat to accommodate the needs of the men. In fact, by the end he's the one arguing to the boss, Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), that his crews are not just faceless numbers but human beings -- a virtual copy of Davenport's earlier perspective.

"Twelve O'clock High" is based on the novel by Berine Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett, who also wrote the screenplay (with some alterations by King). Real events and people highly influenced both the book and the movie (not to mention a short-lived 1960s television series).

Most notably is the character of Jesse Bishop (Robert Patten), who received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions, which is where the movie begins. A B-17 crash-lands into the Archbury field -- Hollywood stuntman Paul Mantz piloted the plane by himself to achieve this amazing shot -- after a harrowing ordeal. The captain's head had been split open by an enemy shell, causing him to go into a crazed state and try to wrest the controls away from Bishop, his co-pilot. Bishop flew another two hours, flying the plane with one hand while fighting off his deranged commander with the other, and completing the bombing run.

This is an almost exact account of Lt. John C. Morgan, who really did win the Medal of Honor under these circumstances. Bishop is later killed on a subsequent mission -- one of the events that help send Savage over the edge -- but in reality Morgan survived the war, though he was shot down and was interred at a P.O.W. camp.

In the movie, Bishop is the only man on the base who Savage intitially respects, and uses him as his liaison to reach out to the other pilots, convincing them to drop their mass transfer request. Over time, though, Savage grows closer to some other offers, notably Maj. Joe Cobb (John Kellogg) and Maj. Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), the aforementioned adjutant.

Stovall is an interesting odd duck. He's an older bald man, a "retread" from the first World War who gave up a successful law practice to reenlist, but was told he was too old for anything but desk jockeying. Stovall loved Davenport perhaps more than any other man in the group, but his first loyalty is to the 918th, so he becomes Savage's first conscript in the battle to gain the men's trust.

It's a terrific, understated performance, and Jagger deservedly won an Oscar for it.

The other major character is Lt. Col. Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe), the number two man under Davenport. The son and grandson of war heroes, Gately is labeled a coward and malingerer by Savage, who demotes him from Air Exec to crew captain. He orders Gately to paint his plane with the name "Leper Colony," and has every sulker and misfit in the outfit assigned to him. Gately shows his true stripes in the end, though, hiding a cracked spine through three successful missions.

It's a rather unique role for Peck, in that there's not a trace of cuddliness or Atticus Finch-esque nobility to Frank Savage. He's a man with a job that needs to get done, and everything in his existence is subservient to that goal. We never find out a single thing about Savage other than his military duties -- does he have a wife? children? -- as he exemplifies sacrifice and self-reliance.

Like "Battleground" and other WWII pictures I've been privileged to discover, "Twelve O'Clock High" is a war movie with more soul and depth than I'd have ever guessed capable of Hollywood of that era.

3.5 stars out of four

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