A compelling and endearingly unsentimental look at the Army's Eight Air Force, which ran high-risk bombing runs across the English Channel in the early days of WWII, Twelve O'Clock High ('49) is just a wisp of an action film, preferring instead to focus on the tough, tumultuous command of General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) and his messy and tattered 918th heavy group.
20th Century Fox, 132 mins.
Like Edmund Goulding's The Dawn Patrol ('38), the action takes places almost entirely inside and out of the air base, dealing with the functions and psychologies of high command. Twelve O'Clock High creates a greater division between the decision-makers and the grunts, examining the intricacies and dual-nature of leadership and the small margin between detachment and over-identification towards your men.
Tough, cold and yet susceptible, Gregory Peck's performance (I really haven't seen a bad one) is the backbone to the film, as he struggles to keep up his disciplined and confident approach without associating himself too much to his men.
Besides stress, fatigue and fear, one of the psychological issues weighing on the pilots is motivation. In one of the many good scenes that have nothing to do with flying, a private openly questions to Gen. Savage (Peck) the disappointment with risky, strategic bombing raids in the ultimate quest to take down Berlin - a goal that may not be seen through to its conclusion by anybody in the 918th.
Directed anonymously by Henry King (who was somewhat of the 20th Century Fox equivalent to Michael Curtiz, only less active and less celebrated), Twelve O'Clock High relies heavily on its cast - including Dean Jagger and Millard Mitchell - and leaves whatever aviation dogfights there are to the historians, utilizing reels and reels of archival footage.
King and his triumvirate of writers utilize an intriguing framing device, showing an elderly gentleman on his bicycle (who is revealed to be a former officer of the 198th) cross a field of cows to reveal an airstrip, now defunct and rotted, the story of this undervalued yet unshakable unit committed to memory. [B]