Twelve O’Clock High: Dying in the Sky

A STORY OF TWELVE MEN AS THEIR WOMEN NEVER KNEW THEM…

twelveoclockhighProducer Darryl F. Zanuck paid a lot of money for the rights to make a movie out of WWII veterans Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr.’s account of life with the Eighth Air Force bomber units in England. Zanuck, who represented Fox, wanted to make sure that William Wyler didn’t lay his hands on the rights for Paramount – and after learning that the United States Air Force would support a screen adaptation, he became further convinced that it would work out well. Twelve O’Clock High has become a classic, and one strong reason is its credibility.

A few years after the end of World War II, former Air Force officer Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is vacationing in England when he spots a familiar object in the window of an antique shop. He buys it and heads out to a now-abandoned airfield where his memory takes him back to the war. At that time, Major Stovall was a non-flying adjutant serving with the 918th Bomb Group under Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill). Morale was low because the daylight precision bombing over Germany caused a great deal of losses; Davenport had grown too close to his men and become unable to make hard decisions based on reason, not emotion.

Eventually, Davenport was removed of command and replaced with Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) – whose no-nonsense approach to leadership infuriated the men…

War experiences going into the movie
Lay, Jr. was one of the pilots who flew in the 1943 Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission, which aimed to destroy the Nazi aircraft industry. Director Henry King also served as a captain at a Civil Air Patrol base in Texas during the war. All of these experiences went into the movie. Part of the credibility, which later critics have been quick to hail, is the fact that bravery isn’t a knee-jerk reaction among these soldiers. Throughout the war, Hollywood mostly served up simplified adventures meant to inspire a war-weary audience and celebrate bravery. Depicting what war is actually like was not seen as a priority, on the contrary. But this story begins with the 918th doing a bad job up in the sky and dying because of it, led by an officer too weak to live with the consequences of his decisions.

When Savage takes over, the film falls into a formula where a capable officer tries to get his new men into shape, ends up with a rebellion on his hands and later on (after proving his mettle in battle) earns their respect. But that’s not the end of it, and the final third of the movie deals rather courageously for its time with battle psychology. Peck delivers one of his finest career performances as the Brigadier General who’s friends with his predecessor but knows that a different approach is needed; he gets low-key but excellent support from Jagger as Stovall, who’s an attorney in civilian life and knows how to help the general defeat red-tape problems. Some of the actors portraying the fighter pilots stand out a little, but most are not really given a chance to do that as individuals.

The film is more remarkable for its atmosphere and break with previous Hollywood traditions when it comes to depicting the war than its story, but the longer it goes on the darker and more moving it gets. One of the most memorable parts of it is how seamlessly actual combat footage (shot by U.S. and German forces) is fused into the air strike that bears similarities with the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission.

Those horrifying, larger-than-life images of warfare among the clouds (and the impact of bombing) add to the realism that Zanuck knew he’d get when he found out that he had military support to make the movie. 

Twelve O’Clock High 1949-U.S. 132 min. B/W. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by Henry King. Screenplay, Novel: Sy Bartlett, Beirne Lay, Jr.. Cast: Gregory Peck (Frank Savage), Hugh Marlowe (Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (Keith Davenport), Millard Mitchell, Dean Jagger, Paul Stewart.

Trivia: John Wayne was allegedly considered for the lead. Later turned into a TV series, Twelve O’Clock High (1964-1967).

Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Jagger), Sound Recording.

Last word: “We built technical backgrounds on the field, and briefing and interrogation rooms. At Eglin [Air Force base] we used the experience of men who were members of squadrons actually represented in our story – a story, incidentally, I prefer to think of as one exploring the responsibilities of officers to their men rather than as merely a phase of aerial warfare.” (King, “The 12 O’Clock High Logbook”)

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