Directed by Henry King
Screenplay by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr., based upon their novel
Starring Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger
There’s no point in beating around this bush – Twelve O’Clock High rating a Best Picture nom seems to have more to do with the era of the film than the film itself, i.e. the nomination is more a product of its time, than a product of the film. By that I mean that while the film is good, it’s the confluence of the subject of the film (war) coming so close in time to some other event (war) that somehow makes it more than what it is. Make the film in the middle 1950s or middle 1960s and it comes and goes without much fuss – it becomes another John Wayne war film shunned by the Academy. Make the film just four years after the end of WWII, and suddenly you got a Best Picture nomination on your hands.
Needless to say, it’s appropriate it didn’t win Best Picture.
What’s It About
Twelve O’Clock High is a war story – as if you hadn’t figured that out already. Anyway, this one is about a U.S. bomber group, based in Britain. At the beginning it’s under the command of fellow named Davenport but, due to a serious of bombing runs resulting in heavy casualties, and the higher-ups being convinced the casualties are the product of improper discipline, he’s replaced. Gregory Peck (as Frank Savage, one of the greatest character names ever) is assigned the command.
From the get-go, Peck does what Peck does. He shows up, lays down some tough love and starts to whip the men into shape. Of course, the men resent him and all want to transfer out, but after a particularly bombing run where Peck ignored an order from a superior officer – he says the radio broke – the men start to come around on him. Afterwards, the two sides come to respect one another.
Eventually the bombing missions make their way into Germany, which is obviously dangerous – the longer the mission, the higher the chance of being shot down – and eventually there are casualties amongst the best men. As a result, just as the group is about to head off to bomb Berlin in their longest run yet, Peck cracks – oh, yeah, I probably should have mentioned that while Peck is the head of the group, he also flies with them, which is apparently standard operating procedure – and is left behind.
The bombing run goes well, the ragtag group regains some respect and the movie ends.
And How Were The Moving Parts?
The biggest moving part of the film is Peck – in the poster above, the title of the film is above his name, but given he’s in about 95% of the shots of the film, his name being below the title hardly seems fair. After all, if you lifted Peck’s scenes and shots from the film, you’d have nothing left but a man buying a Toby Jug.
As Peck is the main piece of the film, it obviously lives and dies on the strengths of his performance, and it’s a bit ironic because Peck’s performance is about strength. Not in the sense he completes feats of strength like you would during Festivus, but rather in the sense of intestinal fortitude and moral strength. Of being a man with a strong jaw, tight lips and a backbone.
Of course, strength is what you expect from Peck in a Peck movie, and it’s what you expect from a Peck movie itself. You don’t go to his films expecting him to give you a lot of emotional complexity and nuance – those aren’t the things he does. And if you read those things into his performance it’s less to do with him, than it is with the things around him. His part here is really no different than in Gentleman’s Agreement or To Kill A Mockingbird, the only difference is how those films move around him.
And Peck is good here, but only because that’s what the film calls for. He’s called on to be tough and no-nonsense as he whips a ragtag bunch of losers into shape. And by being tough and getting the best from them, they will come to love him. Or respect him. And because those are things Peck can do, those are the things Peck does.
That all being said, Twelve O’Clock High is about bombing and bombardiers and planes and if the best part of that kind of movie is Peck and the acting ensemble – and the ensemble is good at what it does – then you’ve got a problem. People don’t see Transformers for the acting and if that’s what they talk about when the movie’s over, somebody has failed. Ultimately, in a film about flying and war, the emphasis should be on the flying and war and here, it’s not.
Nearly everything that happens on screen in this film happens on the ground or in a barracks or some office or mess hall. In other words, indoors. For the first three quarters of the film, the only time we see planes at all are when they’re coming in for a landing, or taxiing around to park.
Then when we finally do get off the ground and see some fighting, half of it is shot with the camera outside the cockpit pointing in. Now and then snippets of documentary footage sneak in of aerial battles – the footage is exciting, but given the different film grain and shooting style, it’s a bit jarring when it drops in – but otherwise, there’s nothing. It’s an action movie about the dangers of daytime bombing runs without any action. It’s what Top Gun would be if you scrubbed all the homoerotic stuff, anything that happens inside an airplane, and made sure most of it takes place inside.
Under normal circumstances, the movie would merely fail as an action more. However, because we’re asked to believe war is hell and stressful and that the hell and stress explains why Peck cracks at the end, not having seen the actual hell and stress means that his breakdown from ‘combat fatigue’ comes out of nowhere and is completely unmotivated by his experiences. So, not only does it fail as an action movie, it fails as a film about combat stress. Of course, as the film came out in 1949, when the war was fresh, I expect people brought their own recollections of the war and read their own personal insights into it. To me, though, that seems like cheating – it’s not fair to judge a film, or give credit to a film, for anything non-textual, i.e. pieces of the narrative that don’t exist. And since I don’t believe in cheating, I’m not going to do it. Though, I will give the film credit for at least not shying away from combat fatigue/PTSD issues.
Worthy Loser or Hidden Winner
The winner that year was All The King’s Men, which is what it is. You can see my thoughts on it here. Is Twelve O’Clock high a better film? Arguable. Does that mean it should win Best Picture? No.
If you want the true Best Picture of 1949, seek on The Bicycle Thief (Bicycle Thieves) – a much better and much more moving film.
Dean Jagger won a Best Support Actor Oscar for his role here as the former WWI flyer assigned to ground duty who really wants to get back up in the air, at least a little. He also plays the part of the guy buying the jug that sets up the framing device. While Jagger is perfectly good here and I have no real gripes with him winning the Oscar – he has a decent drunk scene, plays a little bit of sentiment, is very upstanding – he’s far more memorable to me as General Waverly in White Christmas, one of the best Christmas movies ever. When he holds inspection at the end of that film, I always get goosebumps.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.
 To be honest, every time the documentary footage dropped in, I wondered what film it all came from and wished I was watching that. Think about that – when the documentary footage dropped into your film to help make it more interesting and exciting is more interesting and exciting than the movie it’s meant to help, there’s a problem.
 For instance, you can’t assume that just because Scarlett O’Hara owned slaves that the slaves were mistreated – yes, it’s a safe assumption in general, but in specific there’s nothing in the film to show it. Similarly, you can’t assume they treated them well. Because the only thing in the text of the movie Gone With The Wind is that the O’Hara’s owned slave, it’s not fair to bring anything else to the party for interpretation when it wasn’t part of the text of the film. In other words, a film must be judged purely on it’s own merits.