Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fighting a War at 'Twelve O'Clock High'

General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck): [on stalling the transfer paperwork] There can be trouble in this.

Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger): I don't think so, sir. I never heard of a jury convicting the lawyer.

People who only know Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch owe it to themselves to see his performance in "Twelve O'Clock High," which premiered on this day in 1949.

Atticus Finch, of course, was the heroic character in "To Kill a Mockingbird," the #1 hero on the American Film Institute's list of heroic characters from the movies.

AFI also listed its top villains, and, for much of the movie, Peck's performance might well have made him a candidate for it as far as many viewers were concerned. Truly, his character, General Savage, seemed, at first, to be aptly named, but as the movie went on, the audience saw that General Savage was merely doing his job — leading a talented but tired and demoralized group of pilots during the early days of World War II.

History tells us the Allies won World War II, but the outcome was far from certain when "Twelve O'Clock High" was set.

Actually, the movie began in what was then the present day — 1949 — and Dean Jagger, playing an attorney from America, was on vacation in Britain. As he passed an antique shop, he noticed a rather unextraordinary Toby Jug in the window and went in to ask about it.

He was convinced that it was the same jug that had been used to silently announce bombing raids to the crews at the nearby British station where Peck's character and Jagger's character had served.

So he bought it and took it with him to the base, now abandoned, but the main structures were still there.

From there, the story was told mostly in flashbacks — to the early 1940s when Peck's character took command of the base and was forced to deal with disciplinary problems among the men. His methods did not make him popular at first, but, gradually, the men began to see the wisdom in his actions.

During the war, Jagger's character had been an accomplice to Peck's character — in many ways, providing the same kind of support to Peck that Ben Kingsley's character gave to Liam Neeson's character in "Schindler's List."

I suppose it is kind of ironic for me to say that because, like "Schindler's List," "Twelve O'Clock High" was based on a true story. Peck's character was, by and large, the big–screen version of Col. Frank Armstrong, but his character was really a composite of the experiences of several wartime commanders.

Peck earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for his performance in "Twelve O'Clock High," but it was Jagger who took home the statuette — for Best Supporting Actor — topping John Ireland, James Whitmore, Arthur Kennedy and Ralph Richardson.