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Twelve O'Clock High(1949)
Drama involving a general's concern for his men's morale while heading up the operations of a bombing squadron from a base in Chelveston, England, during the early part of WWII.
For more about Twelve O'Clock High and the Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray release, see Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on May 13, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell, Dean Jagger, Robert Arthur
Director: Henry King
» See full cast & crew
Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray Review
War is indeed hell.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 13, 2011
The United States may have been unprepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and it may in fact have taken quite a while for the American military to mount an effective counterattack in both the European and Pacific theaters, but the film industry was surprisingly facile in its response to the new reality of World War II. Several famous filmmakers, among them George Stevens, William Wyler and Frank Capra, all took personal risks in forging some of the War's most important documentary features (some of which, at least, play much more akin to propaganda to modern sensibilities). But even Hollywood itself was able to rather quickly capitalize on the conflict to churn out an amazing array of features which were unabashed attempts to keep morale high, especially in the dark opening days of the War, when Allied victories were few and far between. If a lot of the product put out during the War is easily dismissed as more or less cartoonish efforts which were black and white (figuratively and literally) depictions of good guys (that would be us) versus bad guys (that would be the Germans and the Japanese), a rather surprisingly nuanced and mature approach to the emotional devastation the War visited on vets was explored in Wyler's own epochal 1946 feature, The Best Years of Our Lives. Though unashamedly crafted to tug at the heartstrings, this film had a really amazingly nuanced emotional heft to it that quite admirably explored the issues, both physical and psychological, that returning vets were facing. It took a few more years for there to be an analogously incisive look at actual wartime trauma, but that's exactly what the strangely underappreciated and at times largely forgotten Twelve O'Clock High offers. This sterling 1949 production might be thought of as The Worst Years of Our Lives, as the film explores all sorts of issues that confronted both enlisted "grunts" and, perhaps even more impressively, their Commanding Officers, as the early days of World War II greeted the American forces with day after day of devastating losses and only a faint glimmer of hope far off in the distance.
Considering how ill equipped the United States was in late 1941 and early 1942 to handle being thrust into a major global conflict, it's fascinating that the American film industry would deign to undertake an analysis of what that unpreparedness did to the men who were out there on the frontlines in the early days of the War. But that's exactly what Twelve O'Clock High does, and does brilliantly. This is not a traditional "war" movie, at least the kind of war movie that most people would expect, and probably far from what people expected back in 1949 when the film was released. An often talky, quiet examination of the psyches of various players, we don't even get a major battle scene until the film is really almost over. Despite this odd quality, Twelve O'Clock High is unrelenting in its drama and it provides one of the most realistic portrayals of men caught up in war ever captured on celluloid.
The film is book-ended with a contemporary (meaning 1949) set of sequences where a onetime vet, portrayed by Oscar winner Dean Jagger, returns to the scene of his English wartime experiences. That sets into motion the long flashback sequence which takes up the bulk of the film (and which, truth be told, strays from Jagger's character's ability to know certain events depicted in the film quite dramatically at times). Gregory Peck portrays General Frank Savage, who is ordered to take over command of the haggard 918th Heavy Bombardment Group, a B-17 unit which is repeatedly suffering huge casualties during ordered daylight "precision bombing" raids. Savage's predecessor, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill in only his second film), had suffered from "over-identification" with his men, leading to Davenport not wanting to put them in harm's way, certainly no way to win a war. Savage decides a much stricter, more businesslike approach is needed, and though he doesn't exactly enter a M*A*S*H-esque assortment of laissez faire slackers, what he does find when he takes command alarms him, and he does not hesitate to put his foot down rather dramatically, spending much of his first day alienating just about everyone with whom he comes into contact.
Though Savage is initially brusque, his Adjutant, Harvey Stovall (Jagger), realizes that Savage's intentions are good, and that he wants to mold the 918th into a more organized, capable fighting machine. Unfortunately the entire squadron of pilots requests transfers en masse, and Savage and Stovall concoct a slightly devious way to buy Savage ten days to win the men over. The cogs of the Army Air Force may not always move with incredible speed, but complaints about the transfers being "sat on" gets the powers that be interested in what's going on, and Savage realizes that his time is limited to win his men over and to help them become survivors in a very deadly game.
Under the excellent, low key direction of Fox stalwart Henry King, Twelve O'Clock High is wise to take its own good time introducing us to a variety of characters without any incidences of battle interrupting the narrative flow. We're brought face to face with a number of disparate men, some young, some old, all thrust together into a chaotic climate of survival of the fittest. That way, once casualties start occurring (and they do in fact occur), the audience is inexorably hooked into the emotional impact of these deaths in a way that very few other films have managed to make happen.
It's absolutely gut wrenching to see Peck in a role like Savage, a stiff martinet who tells his men the only way to get through the conflict is to imagine they're dead already. "That way it won't matter what happens," he says matter of factly. And in fact the most devastating sequence of this film comes at a crucial moment of battle when Savage's repressed emotions catch up with him, to really quite remarkable (for 1949 film, anyway) effect. Bolstered by an equally excellent coterie of really fine supporting turns from a bevy of great character actors, Twelve O'Clock High is one of the most brutally effective examinations of the psychological toll battle generally, and General command in particular, takes on individuals.
Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray, Video Quality
Don't get too concerned about the nuts and bolts of the criticisms included in this part of the review, because the bottom line is Twelve O'Clock High looks generally excellent in its new Blu-ray version. It appears that the same master that was used for the Cinema Classics Collection 2 DVD edition of Twelve O'Clock High has been utilized for this new AVC encoded 1080p transfer (in 1.33:1). There are some issues with the source elements that cannot be avoided, and anyone expecting a pristine version of this film is bound to be troubled by some of these issues. So let's get the bad stuff out of the way before concentrating on the good. There is persistent flicker evident throughout the film, as well as intermittent print through at times. A number of scratches and other mars crop up from time to time. At least one sequence (the first meeting between Jagger and Peck) suffers from image degradation that runs down the left side of the frame. Blacks are inconsistent and actually get into milky territory more than once. The good news is, there's a considerable improvement in clarity and sharpness, and despite the inconsistent blacks, overall black levels are much richer in this new Blu-ray presentation than on the SD-DVD. While contrast is similarly iffy at times, the bulk of the film sports excellent differentiation in gray scale, and Leon Shamroy's cinematography looks decidedly clearer than it has in previous home video presentations.
Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Fox has done a superb job in providing a repurposed lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for Twelve O'Clock High, and is to be commended for taking the time and effort to do this. That's the good news. The somewhat less good news is that Twelve O'Clock High isn't a traditional action picture, so bombastic battle sequences never fill the surrounds with explosions and penetrating gunfire. This is much more of a quiet, dialogue driven film centering on the mental states of several characters. As such, immersion is mostly limited to discrete ambient environmental effects, and though perhaps more subtle than the overwhelming sounds of battle might have been, these are placed quite artfully throughout the soundfield as the film progresses. The film in notable for having next to no underscore, but Alfred Newman's beautiful themes, heard only in the opening and closing sequences of the film, sound magnificent. There is some light hiss audible at various times throughout the film, but overall the soundtrack has weathered the ravages of time surprisingly well.
Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
All of the extras from the two DVD Cinema Classics Collection Edition, save for the Still Gallery and Interactive Pressbook, have been ported over to this new Blu-ray:
Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you come to Twelve O'Clock High expecting a John Wayne shoot-'em-up, you'll be confused, to say the very least. This is not an "action" film in the traditional sense, and in some ways, it's not even a typical war picture. This is sterling psychological drama which just happens to be taking place during the opening months of the United States' involvement in World War II. Highlighted by an unusual performance by Gregory Peck, and featuring Oscar winning support from Dean Jagger (as well as an incredible ensemble), Twelve O' Clock High is thought provoking and emotionally devastating. Highly recommended.
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Twelve O'Clock High Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Early May Blu-ray Wave from Fox - March 14, 2011
Early retailer information indicates that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment will release three catalog titles on May 3: All the Right Moves (Michael Chapman, 1983), Taps (Harold Becker, 1981) and Twelve O'Clock High (Henry King, 1949). There are no release details ...
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