Thursday, August 9, 2012

"12 O'Clock High" with Gregory Peck (1949)

When I was kid my parents were good friends with a couple named Ruth and Terry Vine. Terry had been a tail gunner aboard a B-17 bomber in the Second World War, which elevated him to a status usually reserved for the Gods. He was a real live combat veteran. He still had his leather flight jacket hanging in the garage, twenty years after his last bombing run. He didn’t speak much about the war, except to tell me how it was okay to be scared sometimes, as he was in the tail section of the B-17, where there was no room to wear a parachute.
This film, “12 O’clock High”, was released in 1949, and garnered an Academy Award Nomination for Gregory Peck as Best Actor. In addition, it is also one of the earliest movies to realistically deal with the issue of combat fatigue, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as we now call it. Up until that point; with the exception of “All Quiet on the Western Front”; most war movies were blood and guts stories about the glory of war. In this film, writers Sy Bartlett and Beirne, who also did the screenplay, dispel that notion. In that sense, this is a very important film.
Gregory Peck plays the seemingly unfeeling General Frank Savage, who has been assigned to a bomber squadron flying out of England. The squadron has become a joke, with more men on the sick list than flying missions. General Savage has been sent to turn the squadron around. He finds them to be the victims of low morale, and sets upon a course to re-invigorate the squadron. His initial efforts are considered too tough and unfeeling by his assistant, Lt. Gately, played by Hugh Marlowe. Lt. Gately feels that the men have been pushed beyond their limit, and like most of the squadron, has become a hard drinker. This puts him at odds with the General, who insist that everyone fly if they are physically capable of doing so. He is not concerned with morale; only results.
As the story unfolds, and the losses in the squadron mount, two things become abundantly clear; as the men get stronger and more confident, the weight of command begins to take its toll on the General, who feels each loss deeply, while struggling to maintain his sense of command.
A brilliantly conceived and filmed story of the men who flew the bombing runs which enabled us to win the war in Europe, this film goes further than any other film of the time in assessing the damage done not only to the enemy, but to our side as well. This is a gripping film about the price of war, and the limitations of the ordinary men who are called upon to fight it.

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