Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Twelve O'Clock High’: An Early Portrayal of War’s Effects

Ian Kane

Not Rated | 2h 12min | Drama, War | 1949

There was a concerted effort to move toward more realism in war movies during the years following World War II. This is not to say that all Hollywood films became more realistic, but many of the top productions embraced a more sobering perspective of war and eschewed many of the tropes of earlier films. “Twelve O'Clock High,” from 1949, is one film that led the charge into this new, more realistic era.

“Twelve O'Clock” bucked many of the trends of previous war movies, such as including numerous action scenes—in fact, most of the action in this film is played out among the characters and their motivations, hopes, and shortcomings. Their actions aren’t motivated by the conventions of that time, but rather embued with fascinating depth and nuanced connotations.

This film earnestly delves into how war takes its emotional and psychological toll on both enlisted men and the officers who command them. It thoroughly examines the pressures and anxieties of giving “maximum effort” day in and day out.

 Maj. Stovall (Dean Jagger) reminisces about his former unit, the 918th Bomb Group, in “Twelve O'Clock High.” (MGM)
Maj. Stovall (Dean Jagger) reminisces about his former unit, the 918th Bomb Group, in “Twelve O'Clock High.” (MGM)
Based on a 1948 novel of the same name by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr., the film is about a World War II bomber squadron that carries out precision daylight bombing sorties over high-value German industrial targets. The certain grittiness to it is due to the fact that both Bartlett and Lay Jr. served in bomber squadrons and had witnessed firsthand the effects of chronic fatigue and all manner of trauma.

Told in Retrospect

The film’s first scene opens in 1949 London and is haunting. In an antique shop, a tall, lean middle-aged American named Maj. Stovall (Dean Jagger) spots a Toby Jug that he remembers from an airfield he was assigned to a decade ago in Archbury, not far from London. After having the jug carefully packaged, he takes it with him by train to the airfield.

When Stovall reaches his destination, he wanders the airfield runway area, which has been long-neglected and is choked with weeds. As men’s voices eerily sing a military hymn in the background of his mind, he suddenly casts his eyes skyward and the loud mechanical sounds of a bomber plane can be heard sputtering to life.

The score becomes ominous as the scene shifts back in time to 1942, and we see a flock of bombers coming in for a landing on the same English airfield. Archbury airfield is home to the 918th Bomb Group, the so-called hard-luck group on account of all the super-dangerous missions they fly.

The bombers land, and as one crash-lands without having its landing gear out, the 918th Bomb Group’s commander Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) rushes out to the scene along with some medics. They find the crew shuffling out of the damaged plane in a daze, having just experienced some grueling combat. They witnessed their cohorts being killed inside the bomber, which has shaken them to their cores.

 Maj. Stovall (Dean Jagger, L) senses that Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) may have a leadership issue, in “Twelve O'Clock High.” (MGM)
Maj. Stovall (Dean Jagger, L) senses that Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) may have a leadership issue, in “Twelve O'Clock High.” (MGM)

Since Davenport has bonded with the men under this command, particularly the bomber crews, he has become protective of them. His attitude toward decisions by the Air Force high command becomes rather pessimistic since already exhausted crews keep getting ordered to fly back out on German bombing runs—sometimes the very next day, despite having obvious symptoms of mental fatigue and what today we’d called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) and Maj. Gen. Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) of the VIII Bomber Command, which oversees the 918th Bomb Group, begin to investigate the 918th because of its unusually heavy losses. They surmise that Davenport has become too caring for his men and as such, doesn’t discipline them properly.

Davenport is swiftly relieved of duty and replaced by Savage, who is his polar opposite. Where Davenport was approachable and caring, Savage is distant and demanding. From that point on, the local bar is closed, three-day passes are severely limited, and crews must be on their best behavior at all times. Will this solve the issues of lax past leadership, or drive the men further into mental fatigue and eventual despair?

 Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over the 918th squad, in “Twelve O'Clock High.” (MGM)
Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over the 918th squad, in “Twelve O'Clock High.” (MGM)

Excellent Performances All Around

Gregory Peck turns in a commanding performance as an officer determined to whip his men into shape and does so harshly, yet he is still concerned about them. It’s a multilayered and nuanced character portrayal for which he deservedly earned his fourth Oscar nomination.

The rest of the cast is superlative as well, including Dean Jagger as Maj. Stovall, a “retread” assigned to a desk job who utilizes the civilian skills he acquired as an attorney to his advantage. Paul Stewart is also brilliant as the base doctor who is trying to determine the difference between a crew’s “maximum effort” and their psychological breaking point.

Fortunately, “Twelve O'Clock High” was both a critical and commercial success. It is one of the first war movies to accurately portray the effects of war on both rank-and-file members of the military and their leaders while under fire … and beyond.

‘Twelve O'Clock High’ Director: Henry King Starring: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill Not Rated Running Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes Release Date: Dec. 21, 1949 Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.