It's 1942, and the world is at war. Again. In England, the USAF 918th Heavy Bombardment Group has gained a reputation as a "hard luck" group, suffering from low moral and heavy casualties. It's gotten to the point that their commanding officer, Colonel Keith Davenport (Garry Merrill) can't stand to send out his men on particularly dangerous day light bombing missions. His emotional attachment to his men result in his dismissal, where he is replaced by the tough-as-nails Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). Savage knows his stuff, and will do whatever it takes to whip the men into shape, even if it means seeing every pilot request a transfer. From assigning every substandard man to a plane he dubs "the Leper Colony" to enlisting the help of the local military paper-pusher Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) in stifling those transfer requests, Savage is determined to turn the 918th into the best bomber division in Europe. I'll give you two guesses as to whether he succeeds or not.
First of all, I should make clear that this isn't a war movie. By that, I mean that it's so much about the war as it is about the people fighting the war. Based on a book which was itself based on a true story, a doubly good sign, this movie is at heart a character piece. All of the characters in the large cast have their own well defined personalities and realistic motivations. These are all likeable protagonists, from the Watson character of Stovall, who's reminiscing is the framing device around which the main story is built, to Sergeant McIllhenny (Robert Arthur), a comic relief character who is the subject of a running gag in which he is constantly demoted and promoted. The characters change over time to, most noticeably Savage, who goes from being a callous commander to a father to his men, and Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe), who transforms from coward to hero. The relationships between characters are top dollar, which, along with the rest of this stuff, is bolstered by the good acting and well-written dialogue. Of particular note among the characters is Lieutenant Bishop (Robert Patten), a brave pilot who becomes spokesperson for the other pilots, and has some great scenes with Savage.
Speaking of Savage, I'd like to dedicate a paragraph to examining him and the performance of his actor, Gregory Peck. The thing about Savage is that he has an edge to him that requires him to be a callous jerk, yet at the same time he's well rounded enough to be a likeable protagonist, unlike, say, Sam Spade. He's also got a lot going for him in that he's portrayed by one of the greatest actors of all time, Gregory Peck. There's this really awesome scene where a near catatonic Savage says a lot of stuff just by moving his eyes around. This performance should have clinched him an Oscar, though he was nominated.
Other good things about this film include the music and the cinematography. The music, while sparse, is good where it is, such as the opening scene, which takes place in 1949. The cinematography beautifully showcases this phenomenal film, particularly in the flight scenes, where all the planes are shown in action. A lot of these scenes consist of footage from actual battles, so that earns the movie bonus points for authenticity. Also, this movie is by the far one of the tamest movies I've ever seen. There's little to no swearing as far as I can tell, and absolutely no gore. The only objectionable things about this movie are some passing alcohol references and one admittedly intense battle scene. There's some dark themes, such as death and depression (one character is said to have committed suicide off screen), but these themes are balanced out by other, more noble themes, such as duty, courage, and leadership. Indeed, from what I've read, this film has been used as a teaching tool for leadership. Go figure. In addition, this film can be humorous too, what with Stovall and McIllhenny's antics, among other things. There's also a lot of good emotion in this film, from the scene of Davenport's dismissal to the apex of Savage's transformation, which is nothing short of chilling.
Overall, I'd say that 12 O'Clock High is the greatest movie I've ever seen to date. This was made in a time when people knew how to make movies which would appeal to adults without resorting to gore, sex, and swearing to give it shock value. At time when a good movie was a good movie. Ah, the good old days...
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