Wednesday, December 5, 2007

TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (20th Century-Fox 1949) Fox Home Video

Produced with the full cooperation of the United States Air Force and modeled loosely on Colonel Frank A. Armstrong’s experiences, Henry King’s Twelve O’clock High (1949) is an exhilarating anti-war movie starring that perennial man of integrity – Gregory Peck as Brig. Gen. Frank Savage.

The film is told entirely in flashback from the vantage of U.S. attorney, Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger), first spotted perusing an English antique shop in 1949. Stovall boards a train, but decides to take a side route to the abandoned Archbury airbase where he served as a Major during WWII. The ghosts of the past materialize and the plot regresses to 1942 where Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) has just been relieved from his command of the 918th Bomber Squadron by his superior officer, Gen. Patrick Pritchard (Millard Mitchell).

Pritchard assigns Savage the task of whipping the 918 into shape. Determined not to recreate the same mistakes as his predecessor, Savage comes down hard on his men, particularly the rebellious Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe). Gately is eventually demoted to the B-17 ‘Leper Colony’ – a squadron comprised of the least competent airmen.

Savage furthers his tyrannical authority by closing down the Officer’s Club – because he believes the men are soft and more inclined towards recreation than hard work. This creates an almost overnight atmosphere of loathing and dissention. Soon, even the most skilled of his pilots begin to apply for transfers.

To stave off the inevitable, Savage tells Major Stovall to delay processing their papers. He also enlists Lt. Jesse Bishop (Robert Patten) – a Medal of Honor nominee – to infiltrate the ranks and help turn the tide of resentment around. Eventually, Savage makes a mends with Gately, reinstating him to the 918 after Gately’s stoicism despite excruciating pain from an injury while flying earns him Savage’s respect. However, the war turns ugly for all concerned. The 918 take a perilous beating with mind-numbing casualties and Savage suffers a nervous breakdown that puts a period to his once promising career.

One of 20th Century-Fox’s most prolific and steady employed directors, Henry King is also a sadly underrated one. Twelve O’clock High is one of his finest contributions to American movies – a profoundly moving and ironic tribute to heroism in the face of certain catastrophe. King’s direction is assured and tight – delivering a war movie with genuine guts that brings home a more gritty and honest depiction of the hardships of war. Gregory Peck is at his most compelling. Save his opus magnum as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) this is his finest performance on film – raw, affecting and introspective.

Fox’s 2 disc Cinema Classic reissue is indeed welcome. The original single disc suffered from a rather grainy transfer. The remastering this time around delivers a very smooth B&W image with only minor film grain and age related artifacts. As is to be expected, both of the aforementioned are more pronounced during stock footage provided by the U.S. Air Force of actual combat. The audio is mono, but nicely restored.

Extras include four featurettes that cover the film’s production, history and the overall climate of war from every conceivable angle. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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