VAULTS: ‘Twelve O’Clock High’ a spellbinding account of war

“Twelve O’Clock High,” a tribute to the vanguard of American airmen who served with the 8th Air Force in England during World War II, remains one of the most clear-eyed and eloquent distillations of a theater of combat ever contrived in Hollywood. The movie’s first theatrical engagement, an Academy Award qualifying run, began in Los Angeles on Dec. 21, 1949.

The New York opening lagged a month behind, and other first-run markets also welcomed the movie during winter 1950. A clever national radio ad was timed for the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, anticipating “Twelve O’Clock High” as the picture to look for in the new year and decade.

The Oscar booking worked up to a point: The movie received four nominations. The two major ones eluded it - best motion picture and Gregory Peck as best actor; the other two panned out - Dean Jagger was named best supporting actor, and the sound recording unit won its specialty. Among the oversights, it does seem wrong that Henry King, a successful Hollywood director since the silent period, failed to secure a place among finalists for best direction; there are few better examples of deceptively straightforward, confidently “invisible” film direction. In retrospect, the Oscar annals would look stronger with “Twelve O’Clock High,” rather than “All the King’s Men,” as the major prizewinner of 1949.

When you rewatch a movie countless times, it becomes nearly impossible to isolate a first impression from repetitions, but “Twelve O’ Clock High” is one of the films, along with “My Darling Clementine” and “Song of the South,” which I think I can retrace to the very theater where I initially found it spellbinding. I think it’s also responsible for an abiding preference for movies that know how to start on a secure evocative footing. When that happens, it’s usually a reliable indication that the filmmakers know where they’re going and how to take you there.

The Jagger character, Harvey Stovall, is introduced in the prologue, shopping in London, circa 1949, and making two purchases, a hat and a Toby jug. The second, which has some kind of sentimental significance, leads to brief glimpses of a train journey to a town called Archbury and then a bike ride to a rural location. At this point, the evocation takes a turn for the brilliant, ushering in the extended flashback that depicts the body of the story.

Stovall climbs through a fence, crosses a pasture and suddenly steps onto the remnant of a landing strip. It’s a stunning revelation, disclosed in a left-to-right camera pan and foreshadowed a split-second before the sight of the abandoned runway by a rumbling musical passage, which you subsequently associate with a sound effect that becomes recurrent, the roar of aircraft engines.

A continuing pan takes us across the field to discover a crumbling control tower. A rush of wind stirs the grass and metaphorically transports Stovall into the recent past, when he was an officer with an American bomber group stationed at Archbury and the wind was being whipped up by the bombers returning from a mission in the fall of 1942. The beauty of this illustrative approach is that there’s no voice-over. Stovall never becomes a conventional narrator. We have ridden his memories into the past.

This flourish undercuts all the usual quibbles about how Stovall might know of events he could never have witnessed. The framing doesn’t limit us to a single point-of-view. Stovall does lend a hand to the immediate crisis being depicted: the crash landing of a B-17 Flying Fortress by wounded or dying crewmen. From the outset, it’s apparent that the costs of combat missions can be appalling.

As all admirers recall, the balance of the movie deals with a change of command that proves both effective and costly. Peck as Brig. Gen. Frank Savage agrees to replace a good friend, Gary Merrill as Col. Keith Davenport, as commander of the 918th Bombardment Group, a unit whose performance level has declined. Because Davenport is close to his fliers, Savage is not a welcome interloper, and he imposes forms of discipline and accountability that arouse resentment.

The audience is always privy to a fact that becomes evident to Stovall and the other officers Savage must take into his confidence: He armors himself with a stern taskmaster identity that is largely a charade. A convincing one, but only for the short term. Sustaining it beyond the point where Savage has transformed group morale and performance leaves him as vulnerable to a breakdown, predicated on “over-identification with his men,” as Davenport had been.

The material originated with two Air Force officers, Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett, who had served with the 306th Bombardment Group in England. They tripled that number while fictionalizing some of the growing pains they had observed from positions fairly high in the chain of command. Urged by Louis Lighton, one of his prestige producers at 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck acquired the Lay-Bartlett novel just before its publication in 1948. The co-authors were also credited with the screenplay.

Peck received four Oscar nominations in the early phase of his starring career, from 1944 to 1949. He didn’t win the category until the early 1960s with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but he deserved an earlier triumph with “Twelve O’Clock High.” Although a bad back disqualified Peck for military service, and he was conscious of this “liability” when contemplating the role of Brig. Gen. Savage, he may have taken courage from the thought that the general is overcompensating while running Archbury.

Peck is very persuasive within the range demanded by the role, from the seemingly hard-bitten outsider advising fliers to “think of yourselves as dead already” to the sympathetic insider who briefly loses his mind, on the eve of a mission that overwhelms his “maximum effort.” Peck is quite wonderful in his concluding scenes, coming out of a catatonic state while listening to the sounds of bombers returning to base. His hands unfreeze. Then his eyes and face. I’m not sure any exceptionally handsome actor ever looked better returning from stillness.

Savage’s release cues the exit from the flashback and Stovall’s departure from the ghost base at Archbury. An exemplary testing ground, this site repays cinematic time travel as commendably now as it did 60 years ago.

TITLE: “Twelve O’Clock High”

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