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Laramie Movie Scope:
Twelve O'Clock High

How much can men take? What is the definition of maximum effort?

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1949; b/w) "How much can a man take?" asks Capt "Doc" Kaiser. What is the definition of maximum effort? The only Americans who were in combat in Europe during the fall of 1942 were the flight crews and ground support for the bomber groups flying missions against German targets in France and eventually into Germany itself. Based on a novel by Beirne Lay Jr and Sy Bartlett, who also wrote the screenplay, directed by Henry King, the motion picture uses actual combat footage depicting the air war.

Stopping at a London antiques shop in 1949 to purchase a pitcher he's recognized in the window display, Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) takes a train to Archbury and rides a bicycle out to a cow pasture with an old airfield and abandoned buildings where he remembers events from seven years earlier.

Trained as a lawyer, a retread from the First World War, Major Stovall serves as the adjutant for the 918th Bomb Group under the command of Col Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill). The group has suffered heavy losses (five crews lost on the most recent mission) in three consecutive days of daylight bombing runs with disappointing results on the objectives. When he receives orders to repeat the mission the following day but to fly at 9000 feet (instead of 19,000), Davenport goes to Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) to plead for reason and humanity for the sake of his men.

Savage and Davenport are good friends, but when Savage reports to his superior, General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), he bluntly explains the 918th problem isn't bad luck but its commander's "over-identification" with his men to the detriment of the mission. Cognizant that he's operating with a shortage of crews and equipment, Gen Pritchard, fearing a contagion of "bad luck" from one group could infect others and doom the entire operation, relieves Davenport of his command and assigns the 918th to Savage.

Immediately acting to re-establish discipline among the demoralized pilots and support teams, Savage comes across as a relentlessly "tough guy." He has Lt Col Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe) arrested for deserting his post, insultingly accusing the West Point graduate of being a traitor to himself and the group, but then assigns him in charge of The Leper Colony B-17 with every deadbeat in the group.

Refusing to participate in a popularity contest with Col Davenport, to whom the group was devoted - who recommends giving the boys something to lean on - realizing he has only days to convince the men - insisting that the boys are men, they just don't yet realize it - of their self-worth and pride in their performance, Savage tells them, "You're sorry for yourselves," leveling with them that they have to fight and some will die.

However, led by Medal of Honor recipient Lt Bishop - who admits a lack of confidence in the command and questions the purpose of the bombing, saying, "I just want out" - the pilots en masse request a transfer out.

In a turnabout of loyalty, Major Stovall assists in delaying the transfer paperwork while Savage sets the example for his men, stressing maintenance of group integrity versus loyalty toward individuals, by flying lead in missions in the Piccadilly Lily. While precision-bombing performance improves and losses are significantly reduced, an inspector general arrives to investigate complaints about transfer-request delays.

As the group of 21 bombers approaches the most critical targets yet on the German fatherland with enemy fighters ahead, Savage announces in a cool voice: "Here they come, 12 o'clock high."

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)