Twelve O’Clock High

Twelve O'Clock High

How much can a man take?

Okay, now let’s see if I can keep the snowball rolling. It’s 1949, so now’s about the time we’re bound to get a handful of nominated war films about the glory of the Allies’ victory and the brave sacrifices those young boys made to ensure evil did not prevail and so on and blah blah etc. We’re not in the war anymore, so now instead of straight propaganda films, we’re going to get a trickle of nostalgic patriotism instead. Twelve O’Clock High, featuring Gregory Peck in one of his Oscar-nominated roles, somehow manages to be a quintessential nostalgic war film with only four years having passed since the end of the war itself. I can appreciate a film like this, and I can even appreciate that the Academy appreciated it, but the selection of this film for Best Picture doesn’t exactly age well with the nostalgic war films that would follow in the years to come.

It’s WWII, and the Allies are desperately trying to figure out a reliable and efficient way to undertake daylight bombing raids against Germany without their fleets getting ripped apart, and the brave men of the 918th air squadron are the primary subjects of the military’s endeavors. Well, brave may be a bit generous; the 918th is known as a “hard luck” squad, and they’re so broken down and demoralized from flying daily missions that nearly all of them have put in for sick leave. Their commanding officer, Colonel Davenport, can’t bear to see his men in their state, and one of his higher-ups and a personal friend, Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, thinks the men have such so-called hard luck because Davenport is so lenient and identifies with them too much. When Savage shows his commanding officer his theory is correct, Davenport is relieved of command, and Savage himself is given the position. It’s now up to Savage, in a deliberate attempt to not make Davenport’s mistakes, to act hard and whip the men into proper shape, so they can withstand the rigors of the job up to and past the point where Savage will be looking over them. First off, for a war film, there is decidedly little fighting or war action here; most of the film is the upkeep and training that takes place at the base in prep for the actual flying missions. I will add that the film does do well to lead up to the one actual aerial dogfighting scene near the end of the film; special mention is made in the film’s opening titles that the combat footage used is actual combat footage filmed by the Air Force and the German Luftwaffe, which is an interesting tidbit. Slight tangent aside, I bring up the lack of action to shine a light on this film’s pointed lack of what most people might come to this film looking for; so, what does this film have to bring people in to watch it? Honestly, not that much. The storytelling is rather stretched, and not very elaborate, making the film seem like one that could have a good half hour chopped from its running time to make it a little easier to get through; it’s a good 20 minutes into the film before Gregory Peck even appears on-screen, and up to then it’s difficult to know who’s who or even who we should be aware of with the film’s lack of proper character introductions. It even opens with a framing device that, by the end of the film, is rather easy to tell is extraneous and unnecessary (and not even affecting, either). The acting is okay, with Peck’s natural stern charisma providing much of his ‘character’, and the supporting players blending in so much that you can’t really tell anyone apart if they’re not directly named in whatever scene they’re in. All this, along with the total lack of a score, makes the film seem like one of those “smear of grey” films that is annoying to have to sit through and is so prevalent across Best Picture’s early years.

So, what I think the problem with Twelve O’Clock High is, is that it has its intentions not exactly in the right place. If I were to guess, I’d pose the theory that the film wants to inspire, or at the very least pay tribute to the men who actually did what the film depicts, and so the director and producers opted for a strong sense of realism in how they depicted life on these air bases. True enough, this is likely how living and working on these bases ultimately shaped up to be (for WWII), but the problem with this is that it is ultimately not that entertaining to watch. Past propaganda films knew they had to inflict emotions onto the audience to get them to support the war effort, and future war films would largely do the same to get people to feel how they needed to feel about the effort and sacrifice that went into winning the war. With Twelve O’Clock High, there is no emotion, and even a hastily contrived breakdown of one of the characters that serves as the film’s climax just doesn’t make us feel anything; this is a record of life in this job, instead of the pro-war-effort remembrance it should have been. I don’t know how many war films were released in 1949, but aside from the stark realism and production effort involved in this one, I’d be surprised if I couldn’t find at least one other war film from 1949 that wasn’t more worth the nomination, and certainly more entertaining, than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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