Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Film Title: Twelve O’Clock High12_o_clock_high

Year: 1949

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: War


  • Gregory Peck
  • Hugh Marlowe
  • Gary Merrill
  • Millard Mitchell
  • Dean Jagger


In 1947 Darryl F. Zanuck purchased the rights for a novel not yet published entitled Twelve O Clock High written by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. for what was then an extravagant price, $100,000. Zanuck recognized that the time was ripe for a motion picture that more realistically portrayed the World War II combat experience than had been produced during the war. Bartlett and Lay were veterans who were there on the scene during the initial phases of the United States’ establishment of daylight precision bombing units in England in 1942. Many of their characters were either based on real people and real experiences or they were an amalgam of people the two had worked with. Zanuck secured the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force, assigned director Henry King (himself a pilot) to the project and convinced Gregory Peck to take the starring role. While King took off in his own plane on an 11,000-mile trip to scout locations, Zanuck sat down with Bartlett and Lay to hammer out the script. What would ultimately come of all this painstaking preparation was destined to become one of the classic war films of all time, Twelve O Clock High.

As the film opens, a title card appears on the screen that reads “ London 1949”. We see Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) emerging from a London shop after purchasing a new hat. As he strolls down the street he sees a toby jug in a shop window, and after ascertaining that the object was procured at an auction in Archbury, he purchases the jug and instructs the shop owner to wrap it very carefully. Stovall takes a train to Archbury and then bicycles along country lanes to what is revealed to be an abandoned airfield. As he walks the tarmac amid the overgrown weeds and grass, he pauses and we see him gripped by memories of this place. The camera pans right and then back left and up and suddenly we are in 1942 at the site of the U.S. Air Forces 918 Bomber Group.

A bombing mission is returning to base and the news isn’t good. A huge wheel-less B-17 comes in and makes a crash landing in an adjacent field taking out tents along the way. From another plane a stunned Lieutenant Bishop (Robert Patten) emerges and base commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is there to meet him and hear the horrific details of the mission. Also present are Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe), the Group Air Executive Officer, and Major “Doc” Kaiser (Paul Stewart). After a debriefing of the mission, Davenport learns that another is scheduled for the next day. He storms over to headquarters to confront his old friend Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) about the new orders. Davenport tells Savage his men need rest and accuses Savage of seeing the men only as numbers, not as human beings. Savage assures Davenport that these orders are essential to the war effort and have been carefully considered. Davenport leaves, not happy but resigned to the way things have to be. Savage reports to his superior Major General Patrick Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), and we learn that the group under Davenport’s command has been experiencing problems for a while now. Savage suspects that Davenport may be experiencing O.I., over identification with his men. Pritchard decides he needs to see the group firsthand, and he and Savage go off to interview the men involved in the latest disastrous mission.

After the interview, Pritchard agrees with Savage’s assessment of the situation and relieves Davenport of command of the unit. On the way back to headquarters, Pritchard pulls the car off the road and tells Savage that he needs to talk to him. During the course of the conversation he tells Savage, “I guess I don’t have to tell you what’s coming, Frank. I’m promising you nothing except a job no man should have to do who’s already had more than his share of combat. I’ve gotta ask you to take nice kids and fly them until they can’t take any more, and then put ’em back in and fly ’em some more. We’ve got to try to find out just what a maximum effort is. How much a man can take and get it all . . . I don’t even know if any man can do it. That’s what cracked Keith.” Obviously Savage has no option but to take the assignment. Pritchard: “What time do you think you can get down there tomorrow?” Savage: “Early, I guess.” Pritchard: “No squawks?” Savage: “Pretty hard to have one the way you put it.”

Brigadier General Frank Savage has his work cut out for him. He needs to restore morale among the men, and mold them into the fighting force they need to be to win the war. All without falling into the trap that his predecessor fell into: over identification with his men. At his first briefing he tells the men, “Well, I can tell you right now what the problem is. I saw it in your faces last night. I can see it there now. You’ve been looking at a lot of air lately, and you feel you need a rest. In short, you’re feeling sorry for yourselves. Now I don’t have a lot of patience with this ‘What are we fighting for?’ stuff. We’re in a war, a shooting war. We’ve got to fight. And some of us have got to die.” With that virtually all his command pilots request a transfer. Can he maintain the unit and restore its morale?

This film has so much going for it. It is very capably directed by Henry King. The script is first-rate. And it is chock full of great performances by an exceptional ensemble cast. This is one of Gregory Peck’s best screen performances. He conveys in the delivery of his lines and in the silences in-between a man inwardly tortured by the fact that he is sending these young men up on missions in which their survival is by no means assured. Yet outwardly he needs to carefully walk the line in being a tough commander, yet someone the men respect. As film historian Rudy Behlmer says in the commentary to the film, the story is about “what it takes to be a leader” Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Dean Jagger (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in the film), Paul Stewart, and Bob Patten all contribute performances which are among the finest of their work in film.

Although the film is primarily a psychological drama about leadership and the toll combat takes on the men involved, it also contains some terrific action sequences. The aforementioned crash of the wheel-less B-17 was executed by legendary stunt pilot Paul Mantz, flying solo in a real B-17 weighing 38,000 pounds and moving at 110 miles-per-hour. The climactic mission into Germany in the film utilizes actual combat footage supplied by the U.S. Air Force between American B-17s and the German Luftwaffe previously unseen by the public and shot on the real mission that inspired the mission depicted in the film. It is truly brilliantly cut into the sequence and provides an authenticity that otherwise would have been impossible to achieve.

The film was very well received by the public and the critics. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor: Gregory Peck and it both won, Best Supporting Actor: Dean Jagger, and Best Sound Recording. In 1998, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It was also adapted into a television series in 1964 on the ABC network which ran for three seasons. The film is frequently cited by veterans as one of the few truly authentic films Hollywood has ever produced about the military.

On Video

The film has been released by Twentieth Century Fox Home Video in a two-disc edition of their Cinema Classic Collection series. The first disc contains the film itself and an optional commentary track. The film looks fine. There are a few instances of slight wear to the print, but the black and white picture is solid and sharp. As with most classic Fox releases; the soundtrack is offered in both original mono and stereo. I only sampled the commentary track delivered by film historians Rudy Behlmer, Jon Burlingame and Nick Redmond. I found it to be mostly script analysis that if you were paying attention to the film you would have already picked up during your viewing.

Disc 2 contains four short documentaries produced for this DVD release: Memories of Twelve O’ Clock High (29 minutes), WWII and the American Home Front (7 minutes), Inspiring a Character: General Frank A. Armstrong (7 minutes), The Pilots of the Eighth Air Force (12 minutes). All are worth viewing and offer insight into the production of the film and the real life counterparts depicted therein. The disc also contains a small Still Gallery and a reproduction of the film’s original press book.


If you are already a fan of the film, this DVD release should not disappoint. If, like me, you’ve somehow missed seeing this classic, it is well worth a rental. Along with other films about war such as The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front, Twelve O’ Clock High deserves its “classic” designation. It is a very good film. I highly recommend it.

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