The quote in the headline comes from The Hollywood Reporter, which also said of this movie, it “packs tremendous wallop.”
The movie is “Twelve O’Clock High,” the 1949 war classic that received a well-deserved Best Picture Academy Award nomination.
This Memorial Day weekend, if you only have the time to watch one movie, I would suggest you watch “Twelve O’Clock High,” as it is one of the best movies ever made. It also happens to be one of the finest pictures about war and about leadership we’ve seen.
“Twelve O’Clock High” is currently available for streaming at your convenience on Netflix or on Amazon Instant Video. All of these screenings are uncut and with no commercials. (TCM – Turner Classic Movies – also shows it periodically –in fact I notice it is just wrapping up an airing on TCM as this is being posted.)
The movie is surprising in how unsentimental it is, and in its brutal frankness about the psychological effects of war, especially on flyers, their crew, and the men leading them. That the movie was made with 100% cooperation of the U.S. military and was released as commercial product through the studio system (by 20th Century Fox) earns it even more kudos.
“Twelve O’Clock High” had its world premiere at Grauman’s Chinese theatre on Dec. 21, 1949 so it could qualify for that year’s Academy Awards. But it didn’t open in New York until January, 1950, and then was rolled out nationally.
For a film basically celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, it is remarkably contemporary and has no signs of being a relic. The movie resonates more than ever today because it’s primarily about unrelenting, life-threatening stress and pressure and how we react and deal with those stressful situations.
Before I turn you off by thinking “Twelve O’Clock High” might be too heavy for you, let me add that the film tackles its serious themes in the context of a great Hollywood movie drama that is also a riveting, absorbing entertainment.
As Mark Grimsley wrote in the journal World War II in March of last year, “‘Twelve O’Clock High,’ a justly celebrated film about the air war over Europe, shows barely any high-altitude violence. Even so, director Henry King and his actors expertly illuminate the complex burden of commanding personnel engaged in the brutal grind of repeatedly flying into combat as the odds of survival shorten. The portrait they render of men under pressure achieves a timeless, unblinking clarity.”
Grimsley adds that the ethical reasoning talked about and displayed in the film can easily translate to the real world.
New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther, in his Jan. 28, 1950 review of the movie, says that heretofore there hadn’t been any Hollywood movie about World War II flyers “which could compare in rugged realism and punch to ‘Twelve O’Clock High.’”
Added Time magazine, the movie, “successfully blends an artistry all too seldom shown by Hollywood and the high technical skill that only Hollywood commands.”
Time continues, saying that “Twelve O’Clock High” “has the uncommon merit of restraint,” which I think is one of its greatest assets. Furthermore, as Time also notes, the movie “avoids such cinemilitary traps as self-conscious heroics, [and] overwrought battle scenes.”
The title of the movie, by the way, refers to the position flyers used to identify enemy aircraft. They would imagine a clock was drawn in the sky in front of them. Thus an enemy approaching from twelve o’clock high would be one that was approaching from directly above them.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the superb cinematography in the movie by the great cinematographer Leon Shamroy. Much of the movie is dark and almost claustrophobic. In many ways the film, both in subject matter and look, plays like a deeply psychological noir, and I can’t think of another movie about the Air Force (or Army Air Corps) that is like it in that way. (There is one great air-battle scene in the movie, which is done by the seamless blending of studio work and footage actually taken by both American and German flyers during the war.)
“Twelve O’Clock High” is also a master class in fine acting. Notes Time, in its unsigned review, nothing about the film “is better than its performances.” Dean Jagger, as the air corps unit’s adjutant, Major Harvey Stovall, won a richly-earned Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Gary Merrill (Colonel Keith Davenport), Paul Stewart (Major “Doc” Kaiser), and, especially, Hugh Marlowe (Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gately), to name three other cast members, are at the top of their game. Finally, Gregory Peck, upon whose shoulders the film really rests, is stellar. As Time put it, Peck, as Brigadier General Frank Savage, gives a “strong, beautifully modulated performance that never lets the role down.” Personally, I think it’s a career-best performance by Peck.
Finally, a nod to the screenplay, by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr., based on their best-selling novel of the same name. Much of “Twelve O’Clock High” is based on Bartlett’s experiences during World War II with the U.S. 306th Bomb Group that was based in Thurleigh, England. The script is everything a grand entertainment should be: an exciting drama illuminating important themes, told in an honest way with dialogue and plot points that are in turn lively, sometimes humorous and almost always unexpected, yet just right.