Twelve O'Clock High (1949)


 

 


Director:  Henry King.

Starring:  Gregory Peck (Gen. Frank Savage), Hugh Marlowe (Lt. Col. Ben Gately), Gary Merrill (Col. Keith Davenport), Dean Jagger (Maj. Harvey Stovall), Millard Mitchell (Gen. Pritchard), Robert Arthur (Sgt. McIllhenny), Paul Stewart (Capt. "Doc" Kaiser), John Kellogg (Maj. Cobb), Robert Patten (Lt. Bishop), Lee MacGregor (Lt. Zimmerman), Sam Edwards (Birdwell), Roger Anderson (Interrogation Officer), John Zilly (Sgt. Ernie), William Short (Lt. Pettinghill), Richard Anderson (Lt. McKessen), Lawrence Dobkin (Capt. Twombley).

Based on the novel by Beirne Lay, Jr. and Sy Bartlett.

An important part of WWII were the the daylight bombing raids over Germany and occupied Europe.  A new commander arrives for a American heavy bomber group to find a tough situation: lacking fighter escorts casualties are high; morale is low; and unit performance is poor.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Good movie.  The only Americans fighting in Europe in the fall of 1942 were the air crews of the bombers dropping bombs on occupied Europe. 

London 1949.  Former American Major Harvey Stoval sees a beer stein in a shop window and quickly buys it even though the shop owner says it is not worth much of anything.  This is the stein Stoval placed on the mantel in the bar at the air base outside of London.  Stoval then takes a train ride out to Archbury, England.  From there he rides a bike to visit an old abandoned airfield used by American bombers to bomb occupied Europe in 1942 and then to bomb Germany itself. 

Flashback.  One of the American bombers returning from a bombing raid does a belly-landing at the Archbury air field.   The crew has been through hell.  Campbell left an arm behind.  His buddy had to throw him out of the plane (with a parachute) after he had been terribly wounded by German fighter planes.  The leader of the crew died.  And the German fighters had nearly taken the back of Mac's head clean off.  Mac went crazy and for two hours pilot Lt. Jessie Bishop had to fight Mac off with one hand and steer the plane with the other.  Bishop is in shock and zombie-like when he gets out of the plane. 

Their unit, the 918th group, has lost five of its twenty-one planes.  The losses in the group have become so high that they are a matter of serious concern for the higher ups.  The leader of the group is Col. Keith Davenport who is well liked by his men. 

The flight surgeon discusses the poor mental condition of the men in the group.  Twenty-eight men had asked to not go on the next mission.  They are o.k. physically, but mentally it's a different story.  The doctor says that he needs a policy, some kind of yardstick, to measure which men can legitimately be given permission to skip certain missions.  The army's approach is that if the man is physically capable he should fly unless by doing so his mental condition would prove detrimental to the mission of the air crew.  More specifically, the doctor wonders if he should excuse Lt. Bishop. 

Colonel Davenport heads into to see his superior, General Frank Savage.  Savage agrees with Davenport that flying the next mission at a height of only 9,000 feet is suicide, but that the bombers just cannot be accurate at 19,000 feet.  Davenport asks if the army is going to drive the men until they crack.  But Gen. Savage is more concerned with the fact that Davenport's 918th group has a much higher rate of mission failures than any other group.  Davenport wants to blame the higher ups and their policies of treating his bunch of boys like nothing more than a set of numbers.  "Do they know what my boys have been taking?" he asks. 

Gen. Savage talks with his superior, Gen. Pritchard, who asks his opinion of the cause of the problems of the 918th group.  General Savage says that Davenport is the victim of an "over-identification with his men."   He has so taken their concerns to heart that he babies them and does not ask much of them.  This in turn hurts morale.  Savage adds that Davenport is going to bust wide open one day and it will be his own fault. 

Gen. Pritchard calls Davenport in and asks him point blank what was the reason for the recent failures.  But a member of the group, Lt. Zimmerman, immediately sticks up for his boss, taking the blame on himself for missing a key check point in his task of navigating the group.  When Davenport refuses to replace the navigator, Gen. Pritchard relieves him of command and replaces him with Gen. Savage.  The 918th group will stand down during the period of transition.

From the sin of "over-identification" Gen. Savage goes too far to the other extreme.  He becomes a real "hard-ass" and starts reprimanding his men left and right and demoting some of them.  (Meanwhile, Savage learns that the navigator Lt. Zimmerman has committed suicide.)  The general harshly scolds his main aide, Major Stoval, and has the son of a high-ranking general and a West Point graduate, Charles Gately, arrested and brought to him.  Savage says that Gately is yellow and a deadbeat looking for a free ride.  He adds "I hate a man like you . . ."  The general then makes even more enemies when he closes the bar. 

When he addresses the entire group, Gen. Savage says that the problem is that the men feel sorry for themselves.  He advises that the best thing for the men to do is to consider themselves already dead and stop being anxious about their missions.  Later, the flight surgeon talks with the general and advises him to ease up on the men; "give them a chance to get used to you."

Every single pilot is the group puts in for a transfer.  This could mean real problems for the general and he knows it.  He now has to start easing up a bit just so he can slow up the transfer process.  He has to ask Major Stoval for help in delaying the processing of the transfers to buy the general some time.  He reopens the bar. 

But he is still a little too hard.  When he hears that one of the planes dropped back of the formation to protect another plane having flying problems because the pilot of the wounded airplane was his roommate, the generals says that everyone will get a new roommate.

The situation is so bad that even Davenport pays him a visit to warn Savage that things are getting out of hand.  If the Inspector General moves ahead on an investigation of the morale problems in the group, the general could be in a serious jam. 

But one aspect of the general's tougher approach starts to pay off.  Their greater discipline in group formation means a much higher degree of bombing effectiveness and the loss of fewer planes.  This helps build the confidence of the air crews.  The general is extremely proud of his men's most recent performance and has high hope for them.  Taking advantage of the bump in morale, the general strengthens the upward trend by handing out three day passes to the men.  Morale is also strengthened by the fact that now the air crews will be hitting targets in Germany itself. 

The 918th group becomes part of a crucial mission: to hit ball-bearing plants in Germany.  The General plans to go with them but as he attempts to pull himself up into his plane, his arms won't function.  They have to forcibly take him off the air field.  The general then goes into shock and a near-catatonic state of silence.

The doctor and others believe that the general is suffering from the consequences of "over-identification" with his men and his always keeping his emotions bottled up inside.  The men at the air field are almost deliriously happy when they learn of the success of the second bombing raid over the ball-bearing plants, while suffering very few plane losses.  They shout at the general: "They clobbered the target, Frank!" 

The general starts to snap out of his catatonic state and calls the tower to get the most recent report on the number of plane and crew losses.  Frank is returning more to normal, but he still has a ways to go. 

Back to the present.  Stoval finishes his reminiscing and returns to his bike to make the return trip to London. 

 

The movie does a good job in showing the difficulties confronting commanders of men at war.  They can't be too easy on their men or over-identified with them, but they can't be too hard on them either.  They have to find a middle way between these two extremes: between the extreme of siding with the men to the point where missions and men are compromised and the other extreme of only caring about the success of the missions.  The problems faced by Col. Davenport and Gen. Savage illustrate how difficult a balancing act it can be to be in a leadership position.   

Morale is extremely important in combat.  If the cohesiveness of the primary group of the unit is weakened, men become much more vulnerable to mental illness.  Men who feel they do not have the support of their buddies and their immediate superiors are much more likely to suffer from "battle shock" or "post-traumatic stress disorder."  What keeps men fighting effectively is the love of their comrades, their feeling that they can't let their buddies down.  This has been shown over and over from sociological and psychological studies of men in combat. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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