NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.1949
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
No individual, once he has seen Twelve O’Clock High, will ever again believe that it is impossible to craft a war film without recourse to profane language and graphic violence. It has been done. And, more than that, it has been done very well.
Overseas military bases in the early 1940’s were not the “Golly, Batman!” world of family-friendly conversation, where, from a desire not to offend the pious ears of barrack-fellows, more blunt language was set aside in favor of pseudo-profanity in the form of slang or nonsense phrases; and movies did not, even in the ‘40’s, shrink from realistic language, if they thought they needed it. The triumph of Twelve O’Clock High is in the scriptwriter’s recognition, perhaps, that this movie, even with—perhaps because of—all its extreme emotional tension, did not need extreme language.
Violent and Intense Content:
Nor does an audience need to see the blood, in order to understand what happens to men in war. Grim phrases like “You can see his brain,” “… took the back of his head right off,” and “…wiping frozen blood off the windshield,” create enough of an image to satisfy the interests of historical accuracy. This is not a bloody film, but it is a necessarily and highly violent one. The air-combat scenes are not merely historically correct: the shots pieced together to create the fictionalized version of a real mission were taken from United States Army Air Force and German Luftwaffe archives. This does not just make for a higher level of entertainment, and it is not merely an improvement upon stunt work. Men really died—were shot, crashed their planes, or were victims of explosion before they could bail out—in the black-and-white film work on your home television screen. And many of those men entered eternal damnation in one of those frames; some doubtless left widows and fatherless children, as you watch. Real bombs were filmed, and shown here, hitting real buildings with real people in them. This is not a fun film, and it is important that children and adults alike understand the seriousness of what is going on.
The whole point of Twelve O’Clock High is the seriousness of what went on during that war, and what went on in the minds of the men who fought in it. One minor character is reported to have committed suicide, because of his responsibility in the failure of a mission. The general himself, after “sweeping his emotions under the carpet long enough,” suffers an intense nervous breakdown.
Other characters deal with their emotions in different ways. As a matter of hospitality, characters offer one another drinks throughout the movie. Three characters are portrayed as positively drunk. The audience will not laugh at the drunkenness in this movie, however; these characters do not drink for laughable reasons. One officer actually states that he got drunk because he was emotionally confused, and that he will stay drunk until he is not confused any more. On one or two occasions, drinking is talked about in a mildly joking way.
It might, perhaps, be impossible to make a war movie that left out gore, language, alcohol and tobacco, all at the same time. True to history, most of the characters smoke quite a bit.
Only four females, that I counted, appear on the screen in over two hours of running time. Two of them are seen pouring coffee behind a counter; one is a nurse who is given no particular personality. One is painted on the nose of a B-17. She stays too far away from the camera, however, to justify very great alarm.
The 918th bomber group was termed “the hard luck group”, for reasons that seemed obvious. The officers on the outside looking in, however, do not believe in luck. They believe that “to some degree, a man makes his own luck,” or we might guess, from a few remarks, that at least one of them believes in Providence and miracles.
It is not “luck” that keeps the 918th from pulling its own weight; it is part morale, part leadership problems, and part of it is the maturity level of the soldiers, themselves. They have not yet learned how to be men, and their faulty behavior, loyalties and resolutions don’t find much clemency in a world war, or under the supervision of General Savage. On the one hand, he doesn’t “have a lot of patience with this ‘What are we fighting for?’ stuff,” and he refuses to praise the men when they rise to a level they should have been at before. On the other hand, he understands war, and its effects. His statement that “It’s pretty tough to have to grow all the way up at twenty-one” will only be properly understood if you recognize that “all the way” is farther than even those of us in reformation-minded circles would want to see our twenty-one year old brothers and sons go. If there was a third hand to be had somewhere, it would be reserved for another officer’s concern that “They’re just not celebrating the way kids ought to.”
As worthy a cause he had in mind, some might be concerned that General Savage deliberately ignores his superior’s orders, and blames it on “radio malfunction”. He is not out to deceive anyone, and no one is deceived by it, but he sticks to his story for what he deems to be a good reason.
It has been said that bomber pilots of WWII declared this to be the only film that accurately described what they went through, emotionally, and the real commander of the “hard luck group” became friends with the actor who played him in the movie. Twelve O’Clock High is not an adventure movie, nor a story of unlikely heroes or war-time romance. It is a true story, and a “true” rendering of it.
For anyone who likes WWII history, fighter planes, war movies, Gregory Peck movies, or even good movies in general, there is hardly a film I would recommend more highly than Twelve O’Clock High. As is often the case, the best of anything is what is best saved until you are old enough to appreciate it. Because the violence is real, and because the story is one of psychological trauma, twelve is the youngest I would feel comfortable suggesting in an audience, and any viewer who is not considered an adult in their home should be accompanied by someone who is.