Firm film, peak Peck in this Henry King-directed drama about the physical and emotional stress that results from giving the "maximum effort" day after day. The film opens obscurely and hauntingly as a bald, bespectacled man, Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), wanders through postwar England, arriving at the edge of a former American air base, now overgrown with...read more
Firm film, peak Peck in this Henry King-directed drama about the physical and emotional stress that results from giving the "maximum effort" day after day. The film opens obscurely and hauntingly as a bald, bespectacled man, Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), wanders through postwar England,
arriving at the edge of a former American air base, now overgrown with weeds. As the onetime major looks into the sky, his memory takes over: bomber squadrons return from the daylight missions in Germany. The 918th Bomber Group is under the command of Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), a likable
leader who operates as a friend to his men. However, it is Col. Davenport's identification with his men--boys really--that leads to his downfall. Overly concerned with their health and well-being (after a seemingly endless succession of dangerous bombing missions, the squadron is a jumble of
wounds and jangled nerves), the colonel is unable to meet the demands of his superiors, Gen. Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) and Gen. Frank Savage (Peck). Davenport is relieved of his duties and replaced by Gen. Savage, a callous martinet who tries to whip the men back into shape, immediately cutting
back on three-day passes, closing the local bar, demanding that he be saluted and that everyone be properly uniformed. Most of the pilots put in for a transfer; however, one confused but heroic young pilot, Lt. Bishop (Bob Patten), rallies them. Moved by his men's show of unity, Savage becomes
increasingly friendly, identifying with them even more than his predecessors had.
One of the first films to take a complex look at WWII heroism, TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH is not afraid to show its fighting men as vulnerable. Four years after the war's end, audiences no longer needed the blatant propaganda that filled wartime screens. Instead, Savage's character (based on the real
life and nervous breakdown of Air Corps Maj. Gen. Frank A. Armstrong) is entirely human--a man with real emotions, fears, and inadequacies. Peck gives a flawless portrayal of Gen. Savage, but the film's pivotal performance is Jagger's Maj. Stovall. Stovall is an introspective, older military man;
friend and assistant to both Davenport and Savage, he has lived through one world war and now holds together the frayed ends of the 918th Bomber Group. In addition to the fine acting, TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH features some gorgeous camerawork by Leon Shamroy and one of the most horrifying aerial attack
sequences ever put on film. Judging from this picture alone, the subsequent devaluation of King's work is a gross injustice.
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