Twelve O’Clock High (1949): Henry King’s Excellent Oscar-Winning War Film, Starring Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger

“Twelve O’Clock High,” Henry King’s superlative WWII drama, was one of the first Hollywood films to probe realistically the psychological pressure and emotional toll of those men occupying high-command positions.

Twelve O’Clock High
Twelve O'Clock High (1949 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

The film examines the physical and emotional anxieties caused by giving the “maximum effort” day after day.

The scenario is based on a novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr., who served in WWII under Air Force Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck in top form), the officer who directed the 1942 U.S. precision daylight bombings on German industry.  The writers had witnessed firsthand the effects of chronic fatigue and all kinds of traumas as fliers out on risky, often deadly missions.

The opening scene is haunting and memorable, setting the tone for the rest of the tale.  Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), a bald, bespectacled man, wanders through postwar England, arriving at a former American air base, a neglected site overgrown with weeds.  Looking into the wide sky, he begins to recall as bomber squadrons return from the missions in Germany.

When the saga begins, the 918th Bomber Group is under the command of Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), a likable leader who behaves like a friend to his men. Indeed, it’s Davenport’s sympathy with his young men, which ultimately causes his breakdown and downfall. Overly concerned with their physical and mental welfare, after a succession of dangerous bombing missions, Davenport seems unable to meet the demands of his superiors, Gen. Pritchard (Millard Mitchell) and Gen. Frank Savage.

Relieved of his duties, Davenport is replaced by Savage, a ruthless leader whose single-minded goal is to whip his boys back into shape.  To that extent, he cuts back on three-day passes, closes the local bar, demands to be saluted, and requires that his soldiers be suitably uniformed and properly behaved at all time.

As a result, despair settles in and most of the pilots ask for transfer.  Only exception is the young pilot Lt. Bishop (Bob Patten), a sensitive, slightly confused man who tries to rally the men. Moved by the show of unity, Savage is forced to become increasingly friendly, which leads to greater identification with them than his despised predecessor.

Savage’s character is modeled on the actual nervous breakdown of Air Corps Maj. Gen. Frank A. Armstrong, who’s depicted as a flesh-and-blood man burdened by phobias, fears, and inadequacies. Peck gives a flawless portrayal of General. Savage, but the film’s pivotal performance is Jagger’s Major. Stovall. An introspective, older military man, Stoval is a friend and assistant to both Davenport and Savage.  Having lived through WWI, he holds together the 918th Bomber Group.

The rather, nostalgic tone of the narration in the prologue is juxtaposed with a flashback of chaos, describing American bombers returning from a mission.  Base commander Colonel Keith Davenport gets out of his plane in a state of anxiety to immediately take stock of injuries and losses among his men. “What do we do with his arm” asks one man of another injured crew member. “Our stinking luck,” is Davenport’s response for having experienced the worst losses of hi air group.

At first, Savage sees the crisis as a function of leadership, perceiving Davenport as too emotionally involved with his men to be an effective commander.  Sent to take over “the hard luck group,” he upends the base with rigid disciplinary measures and tough talk.  The revolt is immediate and overwhelming.  But his Group Adjutant Major Stovall sees method where others see madness and slows the requests until Savage can win their respect through success in action.

Gregory Peck was eager but nervous to play an officer since he had not served in the War due to 4-F medical classification.

However, despite anxieties, Peck gives one of his most intelligent and commanding performances, for which he deservedly earned his fourth Oscar nomination (See Oscar Alert).

An early scene depicts Savage’s final moment of calm before storming onto the base. Stopping by a river, he lights a cigarette to relax his nerves and prepare for the demanding job before driving on.

Dean Jagger won a Supporting Oscar as Savage’s right hand man, a “retread” doing a desk job that brings his civilian skills acquired as a lawyer.  The entire male supporting cast is excellent, including Hugh Marlowe and Gary Merrill, Paul Stewart as the base doctor who asks for a working definition of “maximum effort,” and Millard Mitchell as the Major General who detects the same cracks in Brigadier Savage that had earlier defeated his predecessor.

Cooperative relationship with the Air Force was crucial; it meant supply of military planes and airfield location.  Contrary to expectation, the military were impressed with the story’s serious approach and with mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s vision.  Their agreement to help the production was contingent only on making few minor changes in the script.

“Twelve O’Clock High” displays excellent camerawork by the Oscar-winner lenser Leon Shamroy, which includes the depiction of a most horrifying aerial attack sequence.  Some of the movie was shot at Elgin Field in Florida, and the state’s Ozark Field stands in for the scenes of the overgrown field in the prologue and epilogue. The air battles were taken from authentic combat footage from the Air Force archives, some of which never before seen by viewers.

Producer Zanuck, head of Twentieth-Century Fox who initiated the project, believed that the movie “can serve as tremendous propaganda to stimulate interest in the Air Force.”  This production was special to him due to his own service in the War.

One of the first Hollywood films to take a sober, complex look at WWII heroism, “Twelve O’Clock High” depicts the fighters’ fears and emotional vulnerability, attributes that are not exactly desirable in service.  A detached perspective was needed for such critical view, which explains why the picture was made in 1949, four years after the war’s end, when audiences no longer needed flag-waving, uplifting propaganda and were ready to see the war and its aftermath as is.  This trend may have begun with William Wyler’s 1946 Oscar-winning drama, “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

Time magazine reflected the opinion of many critics when it wrote: “The movie avoids cine-military booby traps as self-conscious  battle scenes and the women left behind or picked up.  Here was an all-male movie devoid of women and love interest.”

A critical and commercial success, “Twelve O’Clock High” is one of the first (and still few) films to accurately portray the experiences of rank-and-file members and their leaders in war under fire. The film is still used today by the military institution in workshops that are devoted to transmitting skills of leadership, teambuilding, and interpersonal communication between officers and soldiers.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck

Actor: Gregory Peck

Supporting Actor: Dean Jagger

Sound Recording: Thomas T. Moulton, sound director

Oscar Awards: 2

Supporting Actor



Oscar Context

In 1949, “Twelve O’Clock High” competed for the Best Picture with “All the King’s Men, which won the top award as well as Best Actor for Broderick Crawford, the WWII combat drama “Battleground,” and the family melodramas “The Heiress” and “A Letter to Three Wives.”  Gregory Peck would win the Best Actor Oscar in 1962 for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


Directed by Henry King
Screenplay by Henry King (uncredited), Sy Bartlett, Beirne Lay Jr. Based on Twelve O’Clock High (1948 novel) by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr.
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Edited by Barbara McLean
Music by Alfred Newman
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

Release date: December 21, 1949 (Los Angeles); January 26, 1950 (New York City)

Running time: 132 minutes
Box office $3,225,000 (U.S. rentals)