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TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (director: Henry King; screenwriter: Sy Bartlett/Beirne Lay Jr./based on their novel Twelve O’Clock High; cinematographer: Leon Shamroy; editor: Barbara McLean; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Gregory Peck (General Savage), Hugh Marlowe (Lieut. Col. Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (Colonel Davenport), Millard Mitchell (General Pritchard), Dean Jagger (Major Stovall), Paul Stewart (Capt. Doc Kaiser ), Robert Arthur (Sgt. McIlhenny), Bob Patten (Lt. Bishop); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1949)
“Solid WWII drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Henry King (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”/”The Gunfighter”/”The Sun Also Rises”) directs this solid WWII drama, a provocative character study, whose major fault is that it lacks action (though the camerawork by Leon Shamroy captures one of the great aerial attack sequences ever shot) and is too verbose. It’s based on the novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr., who are also the screenwriters and whose script deals with why the brave flyers are stressed-out and many of the other problems that confront the flyers in a combat zone. It was a box office hit because it was more realistic than the usual Hollywood war film, as it veered away from the wartime propaganda films made during the war to dig deeper into some of the psychological effects of combat.

It opens in 1949, in London, when derby wearing middle-aged American tourist Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) stops off in an antique shop to buy a battered Toby jug, which brings back memories when he served in the village town of Archbury, in 1942, with the Air Force 918th Bombardment Group. In flashback, while Harvey is visiting his old base, the Eighth Air Force bomber base, he remembers the day he was a major and the imposing Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) recommended that the popular former commander of the group, Colonel Davenport (Gary Merrill), be replaced because he identifies too much with his men and is too soft to get them to perform the daytime precision raids required of their mission (the British did the night flying). Because of their lack of success (heavy losses), their group has become known as a ‘hard luck outfit.’ Savage’s superior, Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), goes along with the recommendation to relieve Davenport of his command and appoints Savage to take his place.

The no-nonsense disciplinarian Savage is stern with the men and requires they give him their best effort or else. He immediately busts a soldier for not being in uniform, switches to a new executive officer and finds an ally in desk jockey Major Stovall, a retread from WWI, who stalls the transfer requests of all the flyers until Savage can begin to turn things around. Those who are deadbeats, misfits or malingerers are segregated into a crew known as ‘The Leper Colony.’

The first half of the film has Savage as a martinet taming the men to perform their missions, in the second half Savage sweats as he now identifies with the gung-ho men who have turned things around and worries about their safety much like his predecessor.

Peck gives an outstanding performance as the hard-nosed general; Jagger deservedly won a Supporting Oscar for his introspective performance; Hugh Marlowe’s performance as the hazed lieutenant colonel won him a contract with the studio; and, Paul Stewart made a fine Air Force doctor who cares about his men and knows how to play ball with the brass.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”