this film sort of struck me as an inverse of “paths of glory” (which is one of my top ten favorite films of all-time). i don’t mean this in any negative way at all, which is how it may sound, rather i mean it to be an observation of its approach to a similar topic. both deal with war and feature high ranking officers (douglas in paths of glory, peck in 12 o’clock high) as the protagonist. in paths of glory we follow kirk douglas from the idea of the ill-advised battle to its poor execution to the ensuing trial. along the way we are shown in quite clear and painful terms the utter stupidity within war and of the men who wage it. in 12 o’clock high we follow general savage (peck) who is ambitious and initially very disconnected from the men. he soon finds out, though, that being a hard ass general might not be the best way to achieve the long term goals of the military. the difference i’m trying to highlight is that douglas is a man of and for the people who has only his men’s interests in mind. peck is a man who comes down from his lofty post to discover that it’s necessary to treat his men as such. peck transforms from seeming like the kind of man we hate in “paths of glory,” to the kind of man douglas is throughout “paths of glory.” the film is also interesting when compared to paths of glory because of its treatment of war. from the opening voice-over of paths of glory we view the war as a futile cause and so everything that follows is all for naught. in 12 o’clock high, though, we begin with this same impression, but it is dissolved by peck’s insistence that their actions are not futile. he doesn’t justify the entire war (i think it’s a foregone conclusion that it’s a “just” war), but he does impress upon us and his men the fact that their actions are worthwhile. even though war in general is not explicitly mentioned (as it is in paths of glory), i got the impression that this film makes a case for the use of war in certain instances because of the way it portrays the actions of the bombing group. their victories are great ones worthy of celebration, deaths are unfortunate and arouse melancholy, but missions are of primary importance. and the fact that the film begins some years into the future and is told as a reminiscent flashback, should strengthen the idea that 12 o’clock high has a different take on war – it can provide a positive glory. most non-propaganda war films show the bitter realities of war as a futile venture full of horror and death – men at their worst. i think this film did a decent job of not being jingoistic or propagandistic, but still retaining some of the glories that war can afford. not glories in the sense that they saved the world, but in the sense that these people came together, understood each other, trusted each other and accomplished something worth while.
12 o’clock high is also noteworthy for its solid cinematography. shadows are plentiful under the first commander, but when peck arrives, many of the deep shadows seem to disappear, signaling a different perspective on what the bombing group is doing. peck’s performance is extraordinary. his character is deep, conflicted and complex, yet remains sympathetic at all times. after about 20-30 minutes there is a scene wherein peck is approaching the base he is about to take command of. his car stops, the driver lets him out of the front seat, and he smokes a cigarette while he walks around the back of the car to the other side. he gets in the back and tells the driver it’s time. from that point on his character makes a shift from armchair general to genuine base commander and at that point the film is also his. its success or failure rides on his shoulders. it’s a great moment. this is a fine film all around. it’s over two hours, but i was into it the whole time. actually, the least interesting part of the film was the one extended bombing sequence towards the end of the film. it used real footage of actual b-17 bombers fighting enemy aircraft while dropping bombs in broad daylight. when that’s the least interesting part of a film you know it’s good.