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Film / Twelve O'Clock High

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Twelve O'Clock High is a 1949 World War II film directed by Henry King and starring Gregory Peck.

The film is set in 1942 and 1943 at the air base in Archbury, England, which is the home of the American 918th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the Eighth Air Force. The 918th is a "hard luck" unit that is suffering from severe morale problems caused by the seemingly pointless bombing runs they go on and the horrific casualty rates they are suffering.note  Their commander, Col. Keith Davenport, is personally brave and a hero to his men, but "over-identification with the men" has led him to be unable to make the hard decisions that must be made in combat. Brigadier General Frank Savage (Peck) relieves Davenport of command and takes command of the 918th himself. Savage brings down the iron hand of discipline on the demoralized group and seeks to drive the men to be better, but they rebel against his strictness.

Considered to be one of the finest war films ever made due to its attention to detail, taut storytelling, realism, and unflinching portrayal of the stress of combat. The film is required viewing at United States military academies and Officer Training Schools due to its depiction of different leadership styles and how difficult, if not impossible, it is to remain professional and detached regarding the men one leads in combat.

Adapted by Quinn Martin into a TV drama that aired on ABC from 196467.


  • Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: Savage's efforts to instill discipline and order on the group are not well-received initially, but the men eventually recognize his competence, and the improvements in success rate and morale are evident. His orders were to essentially be a Drill Sergeant Nasty in order to whip the demoralized unit into shape, knowing full-well that they would probably hate him for it. The ending also reveals how much he'd come to love his men and the stress that he was feeling over having to send them into deadly combat.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Pretty much the entire movie is a character study exploring how the stress of command can affect individuals.
  • Chromosome Casting: Nearly; it takes nearly 75% of the movie before we see any women. There are only three total, with about five lines between them. Understandable given the movie is focused on combat leaders during World War II, when men made up an overwhelming majority of the American military.
  • Colonel Badass: General Savage points out that Colonel Gately should by all rights be one of these, being the single most experienced pilot in the Group, except for the fact that he just isn't being one. He sits out most of the Group's missions and spent his brief time as acting Group Commander by getting drunk. Savage puts Gately in command of a single plane, the "Leper Colony", manned by all of the Group's worst men. Gately then starts improving and ends up living up to the trope, as his crew becomes the Group's top performers before the end of the film.
  • Companion Cube: Played With in the case of the toby mug.
    • The 918th uses it as a bearer of unwelcome news. It's supposed to be the face of Robin Hood, but with the black mask, it could be taken for a caricature of an enemy spy. Normally it sits atop the fireplace mantle in the Officer's Club, facing the wall. When it's turned around to face the room, it tells everyone that they have a mission planned for the next day.
    • Played a little straighter in the frame story: Stovall sees the mug in an antique store, recognizes it, and buys it as a memento of his time with the 918th.
  • Drinking on Duty: Major Stovall and Lt. Colonel Gately are both out of the office getting hammered when General Savage arrives. While Major Stovall has the good sense to be doing so at the base's Officer's Club (meaning he is able to quickly report to Savage when summoned), Colonel Gately is revealed to have left the installation while on duty to go get drunk, and is brought back under arrest.
  • Driven to Suicide: Lt. Zimmerman, a navigator who feels a duty to prove himself because his parents were German-Americans who supported Hitler, kills himself after his mistake not only costs fifty crewmen their lives or freedom but also results in General Pritchard relieving Davenport when the latter stubbornly refuses to sack Zimmerman.
  • Driving a Desk: The "stock footage through a train window" variant as Stovall takes the train to Archbury.
  • A Father to His Men: Colonel Davenport. Too much so, as his feelings for his 'boys' have reduced his effectiveness as a combat commander despite his personal bravery and diligence. Savage comes in barking orders and handing out punishments in order to avoid this effect. His breakdown at the end reveals how much success he had in this attempt — ie, not much at all.
  • Framing Device: In London in 1949, Major Stovall happens to find the toby mug that used to sit over the fireplace in the officer's club at Archbury. He buys the mug and then takes the train to Archbury. After he arrives at the overgrown, abandoned airfield, the movie plays out. Then it ends with Stovall getting on his bicycle and pedaling away.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: In certain scenes it's very obvious that the language is being toned down for the civilian audience. Actual US servicemen in the same situation would have used much stronger language.
  • Heroic BSoD: Savage's catatonic trance—see Shell-Shocked Veteran below.
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: After the same man gets busted from sergeant to private and then promoted back to sergeant later the same day—on two separate occasions—Savage tells him to get zippers installed on the extra stripes.
  • Kubrick Stare: Savage settles into one of these during his Heroic BSoD.
  • Meaningful Name: General Frank Savage is assigned as the new commanding officer of the 918th specifically to get the Group out of its doldrums so it will perform up to expectations. He does it by being such a hard-ass that the men of the Group come to fear him more than the enemy.
  • Mildly Military: The 918th is in a sorry state when General Savage arrives to take command. The gate sentry neglects to stop Savage's car to challenge him before admitting him to the base, a sergeant at the command post is out of uniform, and the Group Adjutant and Air Exec are both Drinking on Duty, with the latter having left the post to do so when he should have been on duty.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: A variant in that it comes from a third party, Major Stovall. Late in the film, after Major Cobb gets chewed out by General Savage and complains about the difference in command styles between Savage and his predecessor, Stovall observes that:
    Major Stovall: The only difference between Keith Davenport and Frank Savage is that Savage is about (holds finger and thumb an inch or so apart) that much taller.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: General Savage conspires with the Group Adjutant, Major Stovall, to invoke this trope. As the new commander, Savage's policies are so harsh that all of the pilots put in for transfers. Savage needs time (ten days is his estimate) to prove that his policies will work, but is at a loss as to how to proceed. To the rescue comes Major Stovall, formerly a civilian lawyer who knows all the tricks of the bureaucracy. He outlines a plan that will delay processing any transfer requests for quite a while: get everything else on his plate done first; check all those transfer requests for mistakes (since of course the General doesn't want incomplete paperwork coming out of the Group). Stovall guesses that every one of those requests will have to be returned to the squadronsnote  to be redone, then checked again. By the time the whole process is done, Savage will have his ten days and probably more. Savage remarks that it's "a hell of a way to run a war."
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • General Pritchard is hesitant to accept General Savage's conclusion that Colonel Davenport is the cause of the 918th's apparent hard luck. That said, he encourages Savage to explain his thinking, and they both go to meet with Davenport the next day to share their concerns about his leadership style. It's only when Davenport refuses to discipline a young navigator for a costly mistake (which resulted in the loss of five planes and crews) that Pritchard relieves him of command.
    • Colonel Davenport is a subversion, due to the reasons indicated in "A Father to His Men" above. He cares for his men too much to punish them for mistakes, leading to costly lapses in performance that get people killed.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: One plane in the 918th is named "Leper Colony". Savage transfers screwups to that plane as punishment. Unspoken is Savage's trust that Leper Colony's commander, Lt. Col. Gately (a screwup himself) can whip said screwups back into shape, and will be well-motivated to do so. It works.
  • Redemption Equals Death: After squaring away himself and the rest of the men assigned to Leper Colony, Gately steps up and volunteers to fly in Savage's place when the General suffers his breakdown. His is the only plane lost on the mission, with other crews saying it exploded before anyone could get out.
  • Running Gag: Savage demoting, then repromoting the Sergeant that serves as his driver. Culminates in Savage telling the sergeant that he may as well affix his rank stripes with zippers.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Gen. Savage at the end of the film. Everything seems to be fine until Savage, about to lead another bombing raid, finds himself physically unable to climb into the cockpit. He then has a breakdown, screaming about recalling the group, and then goes into a catatonic state that lasts until the group returns from the raid largely unscathed, except for his own plane and crew, which was shot down with Gately, who volunteered to go in his place.
  • Slice of Life: As seen from a bomber group in wartime. There is no specific goal to be achieved or mission to be carried out, and no real dramatic resolution. After Savage has won the trust and respect of his men but suffered a breakdown in the process, the film ends.
  • Stock Footage: Specified by the opening credits which note that the aerial combat shown on the film is real combat footage.
  • Title Drop: German fighters are called out as approaching "twelve o'clock high", meaning from straight ahead (12 o'clock on a clock face) and from a higher altitude. Truth in Television: German fighters preferred to attack from ahead and above, because American heavy bombers of that period had few forward-pointing defensive guns.
  • Tokyo Rose: Or rather Lord Haw-Haw, who is heard on the radio taunting the Allies, and spooking the 918th with detailed knowledge of their numbers, base location, and their odds of survival at current attrition rates.
  • Truth in Television: inverted, the real reasons for the heavy losses suffered by the 8th Air Force was that it was impossible for heavy bombers to operate over enemy territory without fighter escorts. The high command however refused to accept this and alter their tactics, blaming the failure on poor discipline, sub-standard leadership and lack of aggression on the part of the crews (as in this film). Things only improved when long range Mustang escort fighters became available in the later stages of the campaign. Ironically this film is shown to officer cadets in the US Navy and Air Force Academies and the UK's Britannia Royal Naval College as an example of how to command when it is arguably the reverse, senior officers not listening to their subordinates and adapting to the reality of the situation.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The raid on the ball-bearing plant late in the film is obviously inspired by the infamous Schweinfurt raid, in which the Eighth Air Force took disastrous losses (77 B-17s shot down and 121 more damaged). And as The Other Wiki notes, most of the major characters were loosely based on real people.
    • The fictional 918th Bombardment Group (Heavy) is based on the Real Life 306th Bombardment Group (Heavy), with details included from the 97th and 100th as well. General Savage is loosely based on 306th commander Colonel Frank Armstrong.
    • The character of Major Cobb was inspired by a Major in the 97th named Paul Tibbets. After completing his tour in Europe, Tibbets was promoted to command the 509th Bombardment Group, flying specially-modified B-29 Superfortresses for a special classified mission. On August 6th, 1945, Tibbets flew Enola Gay to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Tibbets himself was briefly attached to the production as a technical adviser and stunt pilot.
  • You Are in Command Now: General Savage points out that as soon as Colonel Davenport was relieved of command, Colonel Gately was in command of the Group. He chose to spend his time in command off-base getting drunk, leading to his being demoted to commanding a single bomber with every other deadbeat in the Group crewing it.
  • War Is Hell: Established in an early scene when a man is taken off one of the bombers with the back of his head shot away, but still alive and conscious, raving. The crew of that same plane also have to dispose of the severed arm of another crew member. This is based on real events, except the real incident was even worse.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Savage chews out Gately for sitting out the vast majority of the 918th's missions and failing to properly support Colonel Davenport. General Savage believes that Gately shares no small part of the blame for Davenport ending up relieved of command. And then there is the small issue of Gately going AWOL to get drunk as soon as he found himself in acting command of the Group.