This week’s pick salutes the valiant fliers of United States Army Air Corp in the 1949 release of director Henry King’s 12 O’Clock High. The film stars Gregory Peck (Brig. Gen. Frank Savage), Hugh Marlowe (Lt. Col. Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (Col. Keith Davenport), Millard Mitchell ( Maj. Gen. Pritchard), Dean Jagger (Maj. Harvey Stovall), and John Kellogg (Maj. Cobb).
12 O’Clock High was one of the first post World War II studio projects that was made on a grand scale and depicts the hardships of America’s earliest campaigns of daylight precision bombing against German held targets in Europe. The film opens in London in 1949 where Maj. Stovall (Jagger) discovers a toby jug in the window of a London antiques shop. He asks the shop keeper the price and demands that he must have it.
Stovall then proceeds by train and by bicycle to the fictional town of Archbury, England where the 918th Heavy Bombardment Group’s base of operations was. The camera pans off and the scene flashes back to the fall of 1942 when the USAAF first came to England to assist the British in bombing campaigns.
The 918th HBG has suffered major casualties as they begin to meet heavy German opposition over Fortress Europe. The group commander, Col. Keith Davenport (Merrill) has become too emotionally attached to his men and is affected by the losses the group has suffered. Maj. Gen. Patrick Pritchard (Mitchell) believes that Col. Davenport should be relieved of his command and that a new CO take his place and turn the 918th into an effective fighting force. Gen. Pritchard believes that Gen. Savage is the man for the job.
When Savage arrives at the airbase, he finds everything in complete disarray. Upon entry to the base the sentry waves his staff car through and the car grinds to a halt. Savage leaps out of the car and demands that the sentry ask him for is ID card. The sentry explains to the General that he didn’t believe it was important because he was able to tell that it was an officer. General Savage tells Sgt. Keller (Kenneth Tobey) that he is to check all ID cards from every single entry to the base from now on.
When Gen. Savage arrives at HQ he finds that no senior officers or air staff are present, except for Maj. Stovall who had been drinking the night earlier and is drunk on duty. Savage asks who the senior most ranking officer is and demands that he be placed under arrest for AWOL and brought back to the new Co’s office. Lt. Col. Gately (Marlowe) had been the senior ranking officer since Davenport’s demotion and is brought to Savage’s office by MPs and asks why the general has placed him under arrest.
Savage drills into Gately hard and wonders how a man from such a prestigious military family is a yellow coward who has flown the least amount of missions in the group thus far. Savage decides to stick Gately with the worst men in the group and that the name of his plane is to be referred to as the “Leper Colony” because they are the worst of the whole bunch. Savage begins to address many of the discipline problems and is quickly detested by the men of the 918th after a squadron meeting where the general delivers a speech which he tells the men to think of themselves as already being dead and that they are to devote all their time to bombing missions in order to win the war.
A spokesmen for the group, a Medal of Honor candidate Lt. Jesse Bishop (Robert Patten) informs general Savage that all of the men in the outfit want to transfer out of his command because they resent his behavior and lack of commitment to their well being. Savage asks Maj. Stovall to delay processing of the group’s transfer orders and that he needs time in order to see whether or not his actions will pay off and that the group will become a crackerjack unit.
Not before long, the 918th proves their worth and leads a successful bombing mission on a German target when all other units turned back due to heavy opposition. Savage lands himself in hot water with Gen. Pritchard who doesn’t believe that Savage didn’t hear a recall order over the radio to return to base. When the men in the squadron realize that Savage stood up for them and recommended that the unit be given a citation, the group reverse their opinion and quickly respect Savage.
As the war escalates, men die and it begins to take a toll on those who return after every mission. The fact that they survive is a grim reminder that their number may be up any day. Savage too becomes affected when he sees Col. Gately laid up in the hospital due to a chipped vertebra that has bothered him for three missions. Gately kept it to himself and never told Doc Kaiser about it. Savage tells him to get well and that he and the Leper Colony are badly needed. Gately becomes teary eyed after Savage leaves the recovery ward. Savage and Gately put aside their previous opinions of one another and respect each other immensely.
My favorite part of the film is towards the end when Gen. Pritchard orders a bombing campaign against a German target which manufactures ball bearings. As one of the missions is underway, Gen. Savage is to take the lead plane when all of a sudden, he can’t bring himself to hoist himself into the plane. Gately tries to help him and asks Savage what’s wrong. Stovall and Col. Davenport help Savage into a jeep and Gately takes the lead plane in the bombing mission. Savage is taken back to HQ and remains in a catatonic state for the duration of the mission. After all his hard lining and devil may care attitude, Savage cracks under pressure as would any man in the same situation. Davenport and the doc can’t figure how it came to be, but Stovall tells them that he had seen Savage bury his feelings under the rug for a very long time. When the group returns and Savage learns that Gately is safe and that the group hit the target perfectly, Savage snaps out of his state and decides to get some sleep. The story then flashes forward where Stovall is still walking the grounds at Archbury. He hops back on his bicycle and pedals away.
12 O’Clock High was a huge success for 20th Century Fox when it debuted in Hollywood on December 21, 1949. The film had the full support of the U.S. Air Force which also allowed the use of certain footage that was shot by them and German Luftwaffe during the war. Famed 20th Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck paid a tremendous amount of money (over $100,000) in 1947 so that director William Wyler couldn’t purchase the rights to the film for Paramount Pictures. The screenplay was written by both Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr. who also wrote the novel in which the film was based. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and won for Best Supporting Actor (Dean Jagger) and for Best Sound Editing. The film was also selected by the Library of Congress as an American classic, and is preserved as a culturally significant part of American history.
12 O’Clock High is available on 2 disc Special Edition DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.