‘Twelve O’Clock High’ and the Forgotten Art of Henry King

With the dust almost settled on the 1.5 billion dollars in revenue from “Top Gun: Maverick,” perhaps there is air enough left in the room to appreciate another fine film on a similar topic but from another age. The climax of Henry King’s “Twelve O’Clock High” is a daring raid by American bombers on a heavily defended ball bearing factory deep inside of Germany during World War II. But, while the great success of the “Top Gun” franchise is likely to spawn new additions to its thrill-a-second ride—action sequences featuring seemingly insurmountable odds overcome by adrenalin and quick-witted action, paced only by brief and specific inter-character conflicts—we are likely never to see the likes of “Twelve O’Clock High” again. 

Not unlike Tom Cruise, the moving force behind “Top Gun,” Henry King, was a pilot. At the time he got his license and bought his first plane in 1930, flying was still a more intimate and personal avocation, less about the instruments than the “feel.” He learned to fix his own planes, just as he had previously learned everything he could about movie cameras and film, so that he could get what he wanted out of them.

King had left home when he was 15, was self-taught and a heavy reader. By the time he was 17, the year the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, he was acting in vaudeville and traveling the country in road shows where he was required not only to sing and dance, but also to be a set designer and jack-of-all-trades. He was first offered a job at a Philadelphia film factory, Lubin, in 1913, while accompanying his friend, actress Pearl White (soon to be famous for “The Perils of Pauline”). He was hired only as an actor, but within weeks, King was directing his first scenes, and not long after that he was introducing new camera and film composition techniques.  

Frank Capra called him “. . . the most underpublicized filmmaker in Hollywood.” Tall, lean, and handsome, King was part of the founding of Hollywood. He went on to act in over 100 silent films and to direct more than 100 films between 1915 and 1962. He died 20 years later, at the age of 96, and today, having lived his life as privately as possible, he is pretty much forgotten. “Sic transit gloria . . .,” perhaps. Having lived a fabulous life—being happily married, raising four children, and directed numerous great movies long before the “auteur” craze of movie appreciation—King had learned that it was the characters that mattered, not the director, or the stars. 

“Twelve O’Clock High” was a portrayal of the psychological effects of war before the mania for victimhood had turned the suffering of individuals into anonymous pressure groups. These pilots are both soldiers and human beings, thrust by circumstance into the most difficult conditions and struggling to remain dedicated to their enormous responsibilities. 

As Gregory Peck says, playing the commander and speaking to the battle-weary bomber crews: “I’ve been sent down here to take over what has become known as a ‘hard luck,’ group. Well, I don’t believe in hard luck. So we’re going to find out what the trouble is. Maybe part of it is your flying, so we’re going back to fundamentals. But I can tell you now one of the reasons I think you’ve been having hard luck. I saw it in your faces last night. I see it there now. You’ve been looking at a lot of air lately. You think you ought to have a rest. In short, you’re sorry for yourselves. Now, I don’t have a lot of patience with this ‘what are we fighting for’ stuff. We are in a war, a shooting war. We’ve got to fight. And some of us have got to die. I’m not telling you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it. And about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it won’t be so tough.” George Patton would have concurred. 

Of course, any comparison between this film and the “Top Gun” franchise is weakened by the differences in time and sentiment as well as current film techniques. In 1949 movie thrills were not measured in the same way. Time is taken to portray each key character. There are few “quick cuts” to create action, though Henry King had been an innovator in such use as early as 1915. The camera dwells on the scenes long enough to absorb details, the papers on a desk, the photographs on a wall, and to consider context with the dialogue. The viewer is invited to consider rather than just be told what to see and hear. 

It is most important to appreciate the script. The credited writers received the awards, but transitions and pacing were more often the work of King, as well as the bits of business that made scenes work. He chose to film in black and white rather than the originally scheduled Technicolor so that original film shot during the war by Allied pilots as well as the Luftwaffe could be integrated in key scenes. He scouted the filming locations in his own plane. But the carefully considered scenes are always the result of story and never compromised by “artiness.”

There is no adrenaline rush here. No artificially manufactured love story. There is a sense of being in the time and breathing the same air. When a character suddenly fails, you understand why. When he succeeds, you understand how. The acting throughout is superb. You likely have seen all of these players in other films, but you may have forgotten just how good they are until you see them together under King’s direction. You will forget they are actors. 

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images