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Twelve O'Clock High

review by Anthony D.


Studio: Fox

Running Time: 132 minutes

Starring Gregory Peck, Dean Jagger, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlow, Millard Mitchell

Written by Sy Bartlett and Bierne Lay, Jr.

Directed by Henry King

Retail Price: $24.98

Features: Theatrical Trailers

Specs: 1.33:1 Full Frame, English Stereo, English Mono, French Mono, English Closed Captions, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Chapter Search

Brigadier General Gregory Peck takes on a squadron of angst and fear-ridden greenhorns and helps them to find the bravery within as they fly unheard of daylight bombing missions against the Germans. "Twelve O'Clock High" presents a phase of the second World War which has rarely been presented on film.

In the European Theater of War, at Archbury air base, just a short train trip from London, the Allies are having a very disquieting time. The have launched a new series of bombing raids which take place in broad daylight. These were the only Americans fighting in Europe in this early stage of WWII, as the film is set in the latter part of 1942. The precision daylight missions have not been as precise as they could have been, with heavy losses and sparing reinforcements. The 918th Air Force Group loses five bombers (out of twenty-one), and the government only allots them three replacements. The German Lord Haw-Haw actually uses the radio to taunt and jeer the Archbury denizens, tallying their losses across the airwaves. The crews' leaders are living (just barely) on cigarettes and coffee, showers and a freshly-pressed uniforms are luxuries they cannot afford. The crews themselves are a motley crew of recruits not accustomed to the nerve-wracking perils of war. These fledglings, once having seen the gore, are not eager to fly from their nests again, claiming illnesses when they're really ill at ease.

The 918th needs a firm commander, and it comes in the form of the Brigadier General handsomely portrayed by American Icon Gregory Peck. For the usually charismatic, charming Peck, this role is quite the turn-a-round. He's fierce, he's a hard-ass; a by-the-book sort who will not accept a salute from a sergeant out of uniform while on duty - - he promptly demotes him to private. Peck's General wins no favor with the upper echelon, either. When he arrives for duty, the guys have been to the officers' club to down a few and escape the trials of the day. Upon checking the entire staff's service records, and finding the most likely not to reach the breaking point, promptly closes the officers' club until further notice. I was constantly amazed at Peck's performance, finding him officious to the max, and reminiscent of many roughnecks I've met through my family's armed forces connections. He may seem to be a first-class bastard; but he's REAL. To watch Peck's characterization is to watch an acting genius at work, to watch his final fate (with all of its ironic components) is what makes this film special.

Peck is given ample support by his surrounding cast, we the viewers don't even see Peck until the twenty-minute mark; and his character doesn't really kick into action for a while after that; an Academy Award was given to Dean Jagger for his nuanced dipsomaniac whose character also serves as the film's framing device. Soon to reunited in 1950's "All About Eve"are the ever-reliable Hugh Marlowe and Gary Merrill. Merrill's roughshod officer is another quality performance from this underrated character actor.

But the true star of the film is the aerial photography. This is actual battle photography captured by both American servicemen as well as from Germany's flying forces. This stark black and white photography has the urgency normally associated with documentaries, and give the viewer a true "you are there" experience.

The more that I thought about this film, the more that I liked it. It has one of the finest wartime scripts which stresses the human element without patronizing. On first viewing, I found myself becoming involved with these characters (especially Peck's highly unlikable one) and began to feel for what would eventually happen to them. It is a gritty story, and well told. My familiarity with director Henry King was basically limited to his 1955 Cinemascope production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," which I often have found to lack the darkness of its stage counterpoint. After viewing "Twelve O'Clock High," with all its darkness, and its anti-heroics, I can understand why King was chosen to direct "Carousel," and after some careful research, found that King did indeed direct a darker version of that film, which FOX execs were hesitant to release, so King was forced to endure studio enforced reshoots to make the film more palpable to public sentiments. If nothing else, "Twelve O'Clock High," ended up being a very educational experience for me.


Some films from the Golden Age of film making have been blessed with vibrant, rich digital transfers, several from Fox; remastered to the point of their original glory. The transfer used for "Twelve O'Clock High" in its full frame black and white original format, is problematic to the max. For starters, for the majority of the feature, there is what appears to be a vertical water-mark running annoyingly on the screen's left side (facing the screen, the viewer's right). I sincerely doubt that this flaw is in the film's negative, or that it was part of 1949's release print. This flaw is obvious enough to detract the viewer from the magnificent story being told. A multitude of scratches and artifacts also affect the presentation. Early on, there is a narrow white line running through the vertical center of the screen. Now quite a few of the action scenes rely on authentic World War II flier film, and those sections are readily identified by the graininess and lack of sharpness associated with amateur photography. These scenes are not flawed as the actual film is, and I harbor no ill will towards their documentary feel. Somewhere, beneath the mire of artifacts, there is a very finely detailed print: the opening shots, set seven years after the events of the film show a nice studio-feel and once Peck arrives and gives his infamous training speech, I was struck by the fact that Peck's face is as riddled with pockmarks as the late Richard Burton's was. You don't find these kind of details every day. If a transfer ever cried out for a restoration, "Twelve O'Clock High" lays on the crocodile tears.

An restoration effort has been brought to "Twelve O'Clock High," though. With the original mono track available, and for a 1949 film, it isn't bad. The mono track is firmly centered, however, and with a film full of aerial sequences, the additional Dolby-ized stereo track makes the film sound more action&endash;packed. Don't expect to hear a reference quality soundtrack however. The additional channels merely spread the soundstage a little wider without ruining the integrity of the original sound. Additional bass support comes into play once the film takes flight. The rear channels are used effectively but infrequently, most significantly in the final third of the film. Dialogue is always clear and concise, with a military crispness. Lionel Newman, once again contributes a score filled with melancholic strains befitting the framing device of the film.

Significantly lacking, but tied in to the release of the theatrical film "Pearl Harbor," are "Twelve O'Clock High's" Special Features. Under the heading of "FoxFlix," the trailers for the World War II films, "The Longest Day," "Patton," "Sand Pebbles," "The Thin Red Line" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!" may be found. There is not a trailer for the film itself, nor a newsreel clip of the Oscar night when "Twelve O'Clock High" took home its two Academy Awards.

A memorable movie, marred by an indifferent presentation - - FOX's fine film deserved better - - this time around, "Twelve O'Clock High" rates a rental fee. World War II afficionados will undoubtedly fine a space for it in their DVD libraries.

(4.5/5 - NOT included in final score)




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