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I have written numerous times about movies that I consider perfect, movies that should be held up as examples of what film can be.
I wiped the dust off of my DVD the other night of “Twelve O’Clock High” and it belongs in that group.
The 1949 film, based on a novel published the year before, is the story of the 918th Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Force as it flew bombing missions from England into France and Germany during the first two years of the United States’ involvement during World War II.
Gregory Peck plays Brigadier General Frank Savage who is sent to the 918th to restore discipline and morale to the unit after it has a streak of bad luck and the popular commanding officer, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), burns out from the tension of the job and getting too close to his men.
Savage vows not to make the mistakes of Davenport and makes the 918th an effective unit again. But he realizes that it’s not so easy to not care about those under his command and he pays a price like Davenport.
There are reasons why “Twelve O’Clock High” belongs in the group of perfect films.
First, there is not much action in the film. There’s a couple of scenes of missions, but that’s it. Most of the action takes place on the 918th base. Yet, there’s no lack of dramatic tension nor action. It’s just a different type of action. Director Henry King and the cast deserve the credit for making the film riveting despite minimal flying scenes
Secondly, every performance in “Twelve O’Clock High” is intense from beginning to end. The cast left nothing in front of the camera. Peck was nominated as he should have been for an Oscar for best actor. But he lost to Broderick Crawford in “All the King’s Men.” If I had been a voter, I would have given it to Peck, but Crawford’s performance as a Huey Long-type politician is not far behind.
Dean Jagger did win as best supporting actor. He plays Major Harvey Stovall who is behind a desk for World War II having seen combat in World War I and whose character is likely the oldest in the cast and too old for combat. Stovall is weary about again seeing the death and destruction of war and he still feels the cost of it through his activities as Peck’s adjutant.
Finally, the best review for the movie comes from air veterans who were on the planes during World War II who said that “Twelve O’Clock High” got their experiences right.
I will always marvel at movies such as this because they reached a level of excellence that makes them a credit to the world of film.