Monday, May 30, 2011

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

Starring: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill
Director: Henry King

Based on the novel of the same name by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr., the film (after two brief scenes in the "present day") starts out in 1942 England, where the American 918th Heavy Bombardment Group is suffering heavily losses against the Germans during World War II. It is determined by Brigadier General Fred Savage, played by Gregory Peck, that the unit's commanding officer, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) has become too emotionally attached to his men, making him reluctant to criticize or endanger them in anyway and thereby inadvertently hurting the 918th as a whole. Davenport is released from duty and Savage takes over in order to get the men to develop the mentality needed for war and to put in their "maximum effort". Despite intense resentment from the group at first, he wins them over as their performance begins to improve and their fatalities go down. He also receives a lot of help from the Group Adjutant, Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) and a few of the 918th's best combatants. As the war goes on, however, tragedy becomes inevitable, and even the tough and disciplined Savage starts to develop the same problems as his predecessor. To make matters worse, his psychological health begins to deteriorate as he find out for himself just what putting in your "maximum effort" really means.

I was looking for a word to describe this film, and I finally settled on an appropriate term: "honest". I say that because it does an impressive job of portraying the two unfortunate correlating aspects of war: the cold-hearted but necessary tactics that are needed to win and the horrific emotional costs that are inflicted on those who fight it. Savage does not believe that his men are like toys being carelessly tossed around in a sandbox, but he also knows that the only way that any of them are going to get out of this conflict alive is if they set aside their personal attachments and fears and focus on their importance to the unit. At the same time, the war takes its toll on Savage as more of his men are wounded or killed (he personally flies on a number of the missions and witnesses a number of their deaths first-hand). He puts up a brave front, but it becomes clear that no matter how well you plan your strategy and how determined you are to preserver, there is no denying the fact that war is, in fact, hell, and there is no way of getting around it.

Overall, it is a really solid and well-balanced story-line. It may not have as many action scenes as some other war movies (though the ones it does have use real footage from Word War II), but it excels in showing what goes on inside the minds of the fighters themselves. While this is pretty common place nowadays (it is almost required for movies about Vietnam), this is the first time I have seen this technique used for a WWII picture that was made when that conflict was still fresh in a lot of people's memories and I give the filmmakers a lot of credit for taking on such difficult subjects as mandatory sacrifices and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is not mentioned out loud but vividly shown onscreen. In addition, it has a great cast, particularly the always-enduring Peck and Jagger, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance (I admit that I mistook him for Karl Malden for almost the whole film, though to be fair they kind of look a lot alike).

This is truly a classic war film and I recommend it.

Happy Memorial Day.

I do not own the rights to the poster above; it is being used for entertainment purposes only. Please do not sue me.