Twelve O’Clock High (1949)


I wanted to finish the year in style and a review of the black and white movie Twelve O’Clock High seemed fitting. This is one of the most highly acclaimed war movies and while I wouldn’t exactly give it a five-star rating, like so many critics did, I still think it’s a very important movie and the acting is superb.

Most air combat movies I have seen so far, with very few exceptions, showed the point of view of the British or the Germans. This is one of the rare depicting the American side.

In 1942 the US Air Force conducted daylight bombing raids. They thought that the precision of daylight bombing would speed up things and end the war earlier. However this put the pilots under a lot of additional pressure. 918th Bombardment Group was one that took much higher casualties than others. Their morale was pretty low, their squadron leader on the brink of a breakdown. Their explanation for their losses was “bad luck”.

Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) doesn’t want to hear any of this. He believes that leadership or rather the lack thereof is the main reason. The squadron leader is too attached to his men, identifies with them which clouds his judgement.

When Savage takes over the command he faces open resistance. The men don’t want such a hard and seemingly unfeeling leader and want to be transferred. Savage won’t let go. He works on their morale, assigns new leaders, regroups the men, even has the change their sleeping quarters. While they are hostile in the beginning, the first raids show, what he teaches makes sense as there are fewer casualties. On top of that he flies every mission with them.

Outstanding leadership, unflinching command, show results and soon the morale is high again and the men start to admire and even like Savage. Unfortunately the intensity of his assignment comes at a high cost.

While the beginning of the movie is extremely wordy, the second half is perfect. A lot of original footage heightens the authenticity and Savage’s character is one of the most interesting in any war movie. As said before, I wouldn’t exactly give this 5 stars (I found the beginning too slow) but it’s certainly a very good movie and Gregory Peck’s acting is outstanding.

Don’t let the poster fool you, by the way, Twelve O’Clock High is a black and white movie.

10 thoughts on “Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

  1. Guy Savage says:

    Haven’t seen this one, but Gregory Peck films are usually well worth catching.

  2. the war movie buff says:

    Good review. I will be using this movie for my War Movie Leadership Watchalong in 2013 which I hope you and your loyal readers like Guy will participate in. I used to show it in my Military History class, You might want to watch “Command Decision” as a companion to it.

    Peck is great (as usual), but Dean Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

  3. nem baj says:

    Glad you liked this one as well. Personally, I would grant five stars considering that the context – bombing (French) cities – is highly un-sexy, and that the main and only theme – leadership – has been the subject of so many over-dramatized treatments.

    The direction is fortunately well restrained, and the absence of easy pathos in the shots, editing and music allows the actors to give their full measure – plus, the archive footage blends seamlessly. Obviously, this isn’t the typical ‘aviator movie’: there aren’t much fighting scenes, and there’s a remarkable lack of daredevil panache (something usual in so many aviation movies since the twenties).

    I guess the two scriptwriters (whose short bios are telling) knew very well what they were dealing with, and that the many challenges of leading a team of men in a war (or even in other critical, although less lethal, circumstances) are perfectly rendered. And so is the strain that falls upon the men themselves.

    When I first watched it, I hadn’t yet seen the original poster tagline: “the story of twelve men as their women never knew them”. The line may sound corny, but more than once throughout the film I found myself wondering how indeed the folks and friends of these men at home could understand afterwards what an experience they had been through.

    • I thought there were a few very long shots in the beginning where we see him doing nothing for too long. I donßt mind that there are no more fighter scenes. On the other hand, I find it is much more about the command than abouit the pilots. I think there are movies which show the stress and horror for the pilots better, mostly WWI, still. I could not give it five but 4.5 stars. It is not perfect for me.

      • the war movie buff says:

        If you think about it, the movie could easily have been a play. If you want the air combat aspect, pair it with “Memphis Belle” (not the documentary – although that is great and the Hollywood version is corny).

      • That´s true. It really had the feel of a play. I didn´t realize. It´s very wordy.
        I really did like it but I would have minded a few cuts, not many.

  4. B57 says:

    This movie is used in Navy Cheifs school tp teach about leadership.

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