No sooner had I watched and posted about the superb World War Two bomber drama The Way To The Stars that all round good dude, Todd at Cinema Monolith recommends me the similar themed, Twelve O’Clock High. I was soon to be transfixed on the plight of, 918th Bomb Squadron.
The first thing that blew my mind was the apparent real belly crash landing of a B-17 Flying Fortress. I was beside myself with panic. No way! Oh no they didn’t just pull up the landing gear and ram that majestic plane into the dirt? I had to go look. Yes they did. Haha I couldn’t believe it. The footage looked so real I thought it had to be old war stock footage. Nope. Unbelievably top stunt pilot, Paul Mantz was enrolled to crash land the B-17 bomber for some big bucks. With just the one man crew of Paul sat in the cockpit, no one was certain it was even possible to take off and land with just one pilot. The stunt is spectacular and an incredible sight to be seen but really, was it essential for the film? Well! if you can, why not hey. In any rate I was quite animated when it happened “what the fuxxxxxxk!“.
The film had only just started. Then the reality of coming back from a bombing raid hits you in the kisser. The horrors of war are portrayed in front of you. Shell shock, PTSD, the fear and the panic as bodies are pulled from the bombers. One still alive, his leg badly broken but there’s worse as he’s hurried into the back of an ambulance. “I wouldn’t believe it if I wasn’t looking at it. You can see his brain!“. This movie pulls no punches with the graphic details. These would be suicidal missions in the cover of darkness but now they were flying them in the day? Sitting ducks for the German luftwaffe and ground artillery to prey on.
The daylight bombing campaign was assigned to 918th Bomb Group. Led by commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill). The nicest commander any squadron could ask for. He had everyone’s back, friend and hero to the group. However the non-stop disastrous missions and loss of his men had taken its toll on the Colonel. Demoralized and broken yet still fighting for his men. He took the brunt of all the failure, all the loss of life. The 918th Bomb Group had the defeatist attitude they’d become cursed, one of the unluckiest squadrons. It had to be just plain bad luck they always returned so heavily damaged with such terrible loss of life, not to mention aircraft. Colonel Davenport would never give up but they couldn’t keep going on in this catastrophic way. He’d become too emotionally close to his men.
Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) head of bomber command had seen this “bad luck” before. Morale needed to be restored throughout the group. There had to be a stop put to the defeatist attitude. Discipline and control needed to be cemented back into this squadron. The fear of death and failure had to broken from them. Strict order needed to be drilled into these brave men. Major General Pritchard knew of such a man to re-educate, re-train and unfortunately, try and break these men. He certainly had the right name for it. Step forward Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck)
General Pritchard – “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.“
General Frank Savage has to shape these men ready for more daylight raids. Pushing ever closer to the German borders. Each time the task is more dangerous and deadly. To make matter worse! Top brass and intelligence show the need to drop from 19000 feet to a ridiculous low altitude of 9000 feet. They will be bigger, easier targets for the Germans but hopefully it will make the bombing raids more accurate with precision bombing.
General Frank Savage – “We’re in a war, a shooting war. We’ve got to fight. And some of us have got to die. I’m not trying to tell you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead.“
With those tough words, leave cancelled and the bar closed, General Savage isn’t making any friends. One thing that keeps the men from hating him anymore is the fact he flies with them. Up front leading the squadron. He’s not just all words, he’s a hands on leader with a stern attitude. There’s no denying he’s not the best man for the job. Can he successfully turn this squadron around and what will the price of this be?
How far can you push the human spirit in such dire circumstances? The realities and psychological effects of war are shown and felt. As a viewer you feel the tension and stress but there is no way you could possibly imagine the horrendous pressure, fatigue and fear these young men were put through. Tough, challenging and unbelievable demanding. These men went through hell and back.
- Twelve O’Clock High was directed by Henry King and based on a novel of the same name by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay. Both combat veterans of World War II with the U.S. Army Air Forces with experiences of bombing raids.
- It’s fascinating to read that a lot of the characters in the film are based on a mix of real life personnel. This article from Air Force magazine highlights a lot of the information.
- Like The Way To The Stars the movie is mainly ground based to show the workings of the air command. Where Twelve O’Clock High does differ is nearer the end where we get to join General Savage and his men fly in formation on a bombing run. It’s a spectacular scene involving the inclusion of actual combat footage by Allied and Luftwaffe cameras.
I thought this was a tremendous film with incredible performances, especially from Gregory Peck, Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe who plays pilot Lt. Col. Ben Gately. It’s deep, meaningful and feels extraordinary real. It makes for an outstanding double bill with The Way To The Stars for a historical look at the lives of these magnificent men.
Thanks for having a read.