Monday, 16 January 2017

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

This is a film that is undone by its age.

Released a bare four years after WW2 ended, Twelve O'Clock High is an account of an American B-17 bomber squadron operating out of England during 1942.  The specific unit featured in the film (the 918th) is fictional, but both it and its personnel are heavily inspired by a real life unit (the 306th) and real life people, as you can read on the wikipedia page for the film.

At the outset of the film we find the 918th in dire straits.  Casualties in bombing raids are outpacing replacement rates, morale is terrible, and the unit is getting a reputation as a "hard luck outfit".  To Brigadier General Frank Savage the problem is obvious: the 918th's commanding officer has become too personally attached to his men, making excuses for mistakes and overlooking lapses in discipline that in turn lead to higher casualties.  This has created a vicious cycle that could lead to the unit's complete collapse, which might then spill into the other bomber units and cripple the US Air Force's precision bombing campaign against the Third Reich.

To ensure that this does not occur, Savage assumes command of the unit, utilising what can best be described as a "shock and awe" command approach.  He demotes multiple men, closes the officers' bar, and demands constant drills.  Naturally this creates considerable animosity from the men, who miss their more genial former commander, but just as naturally (given Savage is our main character), the improved discipline leads to a sharp increase in survival rates.  Over the course of the ensuing months, Savage molds his men into an effective and efficient fighting force - but of course there's still the question of just how much any man can take in a war like this; even a man like Savage.

The reason I said that the film is undone by its age is two-fold.  The first is a question of narrative style.  Although a war film, this is a movie that is pretty much entirely about men arguing and speechifying at each other.  Only right at the end of the film are there any action sequences, which are mostly real WW2 footage.  I suspect that most modern audience members would probably find it pretty slow and tiresome, with only real WW2 enthusiasts being likely to stick with it.

Which brings me to the second problem, which is the entire core narrative thrust of the film.  "We cannot allow the 918th to fail, because it could mean the end of our precision bombing campaign". You see we know today that the precision bombing campaign was never actually successful in its intended goal.  In the supposedly triumphant mission at the end of the film, for instance, the real life losses for the USAAF were so severe that raids on Germany itself were suspended for several months, and they failed to do any significant damage to the manufacturing capacity of the target (in general less than 1 in 5 bombs fell within 1km of the designated target), and damaging the target would have had no positive effect on the outcome of the war in any case, as the Germans had massive stockpiles of the equipment being produced there.

In other words, despite what the film would have you believe, the efforts that Frank Savage expends, and the cost paid by both himself and his men, are ultimately all in pursuit of a chimera.  In 1949 of course that probably wasn't acknowledged, but today it is, and it made the film leave rather a bad taste in my mouth.

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