Friday, October 7, 2016

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

No, Twelve O’Clock High is not, as I’d always thought until now, a high-school version High Noon. It is actually a woefully overlooked (by modern audiences at least) WWII film about American bomber pilots in England, and the particular kind of battle fatigue that afflicts them when they are pushed to their absolute limit. Catch 22, of course, would explore this topic years later with postmodern irony and surrealism, but High does so more conventionally, just as profoundly.

Through flashback by a man revisiting one of the airfields, we are introduced to the men of the men of the 984th Airborne Division – a weary lot, getting wearier by the second thanks to several documented cases of shock and the mental inability to go up again on the next mission. The military brass, needing the crew more than ever now that they’ve implemented daytime bombings at lower altitudes, blames Col. Keith Davenport, the C.O., and reassigns him on the grounds that he’d been getting too close to his officers – not enough of a authority figure. They send in General Savage (Gregory Peck), a calm, sensible man with air combat experience, but when he takes over the division – look out! He whips the outfit into shape with an iron fist, and informs the boys to toughen up in the missions. “Do you fear death?” he scolds. “Don’t. Consider yourself already dead.”

The rhetoric, understandably, does not go over well with the men, already missing Davenport’s friendlier rapport and proving it by requesting transfers – all of them – to another unit. But Savage gets the company clerk, Major Stovall, to delay the transfers long enough for morale to hopefully improve. Not so at first; Savage is still met with more suspicion than welcome, but after their first mission together camaraderie tightens and a sense of purpose returns to the group. And after one mission, ending with a successful bombing of a German munitions factory but the loss of one plane, Savage feels like is one of the flyboys himself. Perhaps too much like one –the general himself succumbs to the paralyzing shell shock that required his presence there in the first place, and the film ends with his infirmity, eased only by the fact that his last-minute replacements all returned home safe after yet another successful mission.

When High was first released, it boasted of using authentic aerial combat footage from the war (only four years old at that point), but, truth be told, it’s not seamlessly used, looking more faded and battered than the more studio-polished stock it surrounds. And in actuality, the battle footage as a whole, which occupies most of the final act of High, is rather dull. We’ve seen it before. What we haven’t seen is the sharp, authentic-sounding dialogue that comprises most of the story – almost play-like given its claustrophobic setting. It’s a fine-tuned drama that never really shows its hand: at first we think Davenport’s the hero, the well-meaning everyman, and then Savage comes along, and we suspect the theme will turn patriotic, that an “ends justifies the means” message will take over. And ultimately, it becomes clear that the primary polemic has to do with the stress and emotional ravages of air-combat, regardless of politics or patriotism or anything like that. And that, ultimately, is what makes Twelve O’Clock High a level-headed, important film about any war, not just WWII.

And the lynchpin of the whole thing – the true dynamic character that imparts the film with its driving force – is the performance of Gregory Peck as Gen. Savage. It’s a career work, no doubt about it, as he showcases a true spectrum of emotions, latent and otherwise, in a man who knows turret gunning and problem solving, but faces his greatest challenge with a new kind of warfare, a new kind of problem. Peck conveys the kind of class you only got with movies from this era, but he also commands the screen, not simply with his dialogue but with his attitude. And oddly, it’s the same kind of class he carried with him as Phillip Green from his previous film, Gentleman’s Agreement, worlds apart in nearly every aspect except quality.

But High is not an antiwar film- it forces us to confront the less-glorious aspects of battle, yet accedes that battle must still be fought, if necessary. It will be interesting to compare/contrast future Fox war movies like M*A*S*H, most decidedly antiwar, for a look at changing mores, changing wars, changing times.

Flashback bookends are effective too, reminding me of the same technique in Saving Private Ryan. The way the drones of the warplanes is used as a transition device is clever, and a bit haunting.

Ok, not a high school film - no teenagers (or at least 18 and under), but a riveting drama, and the fact that it’s a war film makes no difference. Fine characters, serving a deliberately told but solidly entertaining, affecting story.

                            Rating:  ****


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