Movie Review: Twelve O’Clock High

Twelve O'Clock High Thumb2by Brad Nelson
There are movies that are fine to watch for entertainment purposes and then there are movies that are also exquisite examples of film-as-art. Twelve O’Clock High is one such movie.

It’s unlikely Hollywood could create such a film anymore. This movie is bold, nuanced, powerful, passionate, and charismatic. And it does so without an ounce of camera-shake or ADHD. This is another old classic that puts the emphasis on exposing the character of the people instead of trying to substitute millions of dollars of special effects for an actual story. This is the time before Hollywood become completely stupid.

Perhaps I’ll never tire of thumping Hollywood over their head for its candy-ass mediocrity. But there admittedly still are people making good movies. And the old black-and-white era has its share of dogs as well. But Twelve O’Clock High is a near perfect example of why watching old movies is a must for anyone who claims to love movies.

This is Gregory Peck in his prime playing a man in an age where men were still men and the modern metrosexual girly-men persona had not yet been born. There’s a time and place for that, but a steady diet of nothing but that can be  boring. And you might even forget that there ever was such a thing as John Wayne.

In Twelve O’Clock High, there’s no general telling Peck not to make sure that “diversity” isn’t the first casualty as the 918th Bomb Group prosecuted the war against Nazi Germany. And a dangerous war it was. The casualty rate among the American daylight bombers was atrocious. In Twelve O’Clock High we’re seeing the early stages of that effort. And no one is sure whether daylight bombing is even feasible.

And even today, there are legitimate questions regarding whether that was the best use of men and materiel. But in this movie, Peck, as the new commander of an air squadron, is tasked to replace a commander who just isn’t getting the job done. And a tough job it is. Peck is nothing short of masterful as he brow-beats his men into doing the impossible. One of the themes of the movie is to find out just what “maximum effort” is and how far men can be pushed.

For those who are tired of squishy namby-pamby “grey area” performances, Peck gives a clean, bold, and virile portrayal of an American general taking charge, kicking ass, and getting some results, and not by pussy-footing or soft-peddling but by demanding hard work, commitment, determination, and excellence.

If you wonder how America was built or wars are won, it’s not by sensitivity training or gender studies. It’s by bold action, sacrifice, bravery, and persevering — all of these things are lacking from today’s modern socialist vibe where everyone’s a victim and being “nice” is the point of everything. Yeah, this is just a movie, and yet Twelve O’Clock High captures something that has gone too often missing in today’s America: bluntness and honesty.

There’s not much more I can say about it without giving away the plot. But this is a smart, nuanced movie. Dean Jagger is terrific as Peck’s aid — and Jagger won Twelve_O'clock_High Groupthe best supporting actor Oscar. Gary Merrill is also good as Col. Keith Davenport, the man Peck replaces. Davenport’s chief flaw is that he cares about his men too much. There is some nice interplay between the hard-driving (almost machine-like) Peck and the more human-scaled Davenport.

For those looking for wholesale “rah rah,” you won’t find it here. But you will not be dissatisfied with what you do find. This is one of the true gems that I’m guessing a great many people have never seen. Very few war films can compete with Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way” in terms of being tight, well-acted, dramatic, and fascinating to watch from start to finish. This is one of them. I give it 3.9 Robin Hood mugs out of 5. This might be Gregory Peck’s second best performance (after To Kill a Mockingbird). • (1638 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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7 Responses to Movie Review: Twelve O’Clock High

  1. Kung Fu Zu says:

    Had lunch today with a 90 year old who flew 35 missions as a navigator and bombardier in the 305th bombardment group of the 8th air force.

    As we often do, we discussed this movie and he says it is “The” movie about the WWII bombing campaign in Europe.

    My friend’s first five missions included Berlin, 2 x Merseburg/Luena (the most heavily defended industrial site in Germany) Kassel (oil) and another heavily defended target. He said that upon completion of his fifth mission he told his other crew members that he figured they had it made. And I do believe the whole crew made it through the war.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Wow. Just wow. What a real privilege to have that guy share some of the history with you…and you with us.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:

        What’s more amazing is that he is Jewish and flew on all those missions over Germany. He once told me he had fake dog tags in case he got shot down and was taken prisoner.

        He said for religion the fake dog tags had C for Catholic and the name he chose was something like Aloysius Keneally. Really! It was very funny.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          What a fascinating story of the Jewish airman. I guess there really were those kinds of practical concerns.

          The Brits generally did the night bombing and the Americans did the daylight bombing. I’m not sure how much, if any, crossover there was regarding that, or what the Aussies and Canadians took part in. I would assume they enlisted in some of both.

          I don’t have all the facts on this. It’s often noted that German production actually increased during this heavy bombing as the Germans took production underground. But that always seemed like a lame-ass argument to me. If you can increase production by going underground, how much more productive would the German war industries have been had they been able to operate normally?

          It’s been said (and I forgot who said it) but had the Germans had strategic long-range bombers (they had only relatively short-range bombers) that could have crossed the Urals, they might very well have defeated Russia. And given what we know of Stalin, that would definitely be an ambiguous result. But the Russians achieved the amazing feat of moving their industries lock, stock, and barrel over the Urals and out of the reach of the Germans. It wasn’t long until they Russians had amassed an enormous arsenal.

  2. ross says:

    Just my opinion, but I think Gregory Peck was much better in this than in To Kill A Mockingbird, which I find very overrated.

    He was also very good in a movie I haven’t seen on TV in years, called Night People (1954), where he played an Army man in a situation that (far as I remember) had to do with getting the Army son of an American businessman (Brod Crawford) out of East Germany.

    Also Liked him in The Purple Plain, Duel In The Sun, Snows Of Kilimanjaro, On The Beach.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Ross, your opinion concurs with mine. Although “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a fine film, I think Peck shows his unique Peckness in “Twelve O’Clock High.” And I would have (sacrilege alert) preferred him as the sheriff in “High Noon.” I’ve read that he was the first choice for the role that Gary Cooper eventually got. I just don’t see a lot of chemistry between Cooper and Kelly in that one.

      I don’t know that I’ve seen “The Purple Plain” or “On the Beach.” Thanks for the recommendations. I better see if I can find any of those on Netflix or wherever. He’s also good in “The Gunfighter.” It’s not a great movie, per se, but Peck makes it more than watchable.

      And for sheer fun adventure (and a large dollop of true Peckness), I’ve always liked “The Guns of Navarone.”

  3. ross says:

    Brad, thanks for replying. I guess I can see Peck in HIgh Noon, though Coop has a vulnerable quality that worked for that part, and Greg was never vulnerable.

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