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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Twelve O'clock High

One of Gregory Peck's five Oscar nominations came for 1949's Twelve O'clock High, which many World War II Air Force veterans claimed was the most true-to-life war film ever made. I had never seen it before, and was amazed to find that it had very little combat in it, and it was mostly about leadership. Not surprisingly, it is shown at service academies when leadership is taught.

In the fall of 1942, the only Americans in action in Europe were pilots flying out of England. In this film the 918th is a bomber squadron hitting German industrial targets. The commanding officer is Gary Merrill, but he has become too close to his troops and is relieved, replaced by his superior, Brigadier General Peck. Peck brings a no-nonsense approach to command, immediately angering just about everyone, and almost all the pilots want a transfer.

Along with his faithful adjutant (Dean Jagger, who won an Oscar for the role) they hold up the paperwork to see if a few successful missions will improve morale.

A lot of this is based on real people and events. Some thought that what they were doing--daylight precision bombing, some of it without fighter support--was nuts. A major raid on a ball bearing plant, called Black Thursday, is represented here near the climax of the film. The footage is real, taken from both American and German planes, so when a plane explodes it's not special effects. There's a moment when Peck watches one of his planes obliterated, realizing his air exec is on board. He can only take a moment to let that sink in before he goes on.

The upshot of the film is that, in the military at least, you can't coddle your men. Peck tells them that they might as well think of themselves as already dead--don't think about going home, that will make it easier. But after being in command for a while, he starts to take pride in them and see them as individuals, the same fate that befell Merrill.

I was expecting a much more action-packed film, but I got a much more thoughtful, if sedate, film. It was directed by Henry King, who made five pictures with Peck (including The Gunfighter, reviewed below).

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