Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Midnight to 3 am.

From sober realism to "campy" triviality in one generation.

NO MATTER HOW MUCH. Twelve O'Clock High was first a book, then a movie, then a television series. The dismissal linked above was applied by a site called to the 60s TV series, though I'm far from sure the context completely explains the insult. I'll return to it later, but first I want to provide some background.

What sent me searching for Twelve O'Clock High was a movie I saw over the weekend. Since it dates to the early 80s, many of you may be familiar with a supposedly serious film called Taps, starring an old George C. Scott and a very young Timothy Bottoms, Tom Cruise, and Sean Penn. The plot, which takes place at a military academy, is almost too flimsy and ridiculous to mention, but the director still contrives to turn the piece into a cheap shot against all things military and particularly against the concepts of duty, honor, and country. Except for a few brief scenes early on when Scott articulates his devotion to the military tradition, the defense of honor is left entirely to a confused young cadet who recites Pattonesque platitudes until he learns the hard way that "nothing is more real than a dead little boy" (if I may paraphrase). When I looked up the film at, I was intrigued to read the following reviewer comment:

George C. Scott also turned in a great, believable performance as an old wartime General. However I find it interesting, after seeing this movie over 20 years later, how it's context has changed for me personally. While in '81, the story was perhaps designed to generate sympathy for the General and his plight, I look at his situation today and feel nothing but pity for him, as I would for any Shakespearean tragic hero, who because of their narrow-sightedness, could not see the bigger picture.

I don't think we were supposed to feel much sympathy for Scott's character. I believe the director made a coldly cynical decision to manipulate Scott's advanced age and girth to lampoon him as a spent caricature of  his own portrayal of Patton. But I agree with the commenter that the context has continued to change, even from the comparatively recent decade of the 80s. Today, there are very few civilian Americans left alive who remember that there can be more to a military (or any other kind of) mission than merely not dying.

This is a falsehood. It's what prompted my post on Sunday, and it's what prompted me to turn toward a dramatic subject that I have personal memories of via my father, who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. I knew from a very early age the premise of the 1949 movie starring Gregory Peck as the commander of a B17 bomber group based in England. I knew that the Eighth Air Force flew the first ever daylight bombing raids from Britain to Germany and lost 40,000 aviators, equivalent to all the Americans killed in action in the Pacific Theater of World War II. It was their heroism that ultimately brought Germany's manufacturing capacity to its knees and crippled the great Nazi war machine. That's what the movie is about -- how and why officers and men continued doing their duty in the face of appalling casualties day after day, long before there was any evidence they would succeed.

It's a truism that ground troops have it much harder physically than airmen, but the comparative luxury of returning each night to civilized digs, decent food, and drinks at the base also carries a cruel irony. Going off to war is something you have to do all over again every day or two -- leave the comforts of home for several hours of sheer terror. Then you return to a place that is essentially unchanged, except that some or many of last night's co-revelers are gone forever. True, the terror is always there, but so is some version of the civilian perspective that war is something which happens in another place, so far away that it seems continuously unreal and impossible to comprehend. No mud, cold, or hunger to distract you. For anyone in such an on-again, off-again purgatory, there can come a bright beautiful morning when "going off to war" again, today, is a sudden hammer that breaks you without warning. This is the emotional reality captured in the 1949 production.

Here's what representative commenters had to say about Twelve O'Clock High.


If you have ever pondered what the real meaning of over-used words like 'loyalty' and 'devotion' mean then this film is for you. The unfettered treatment of these hard-to-pin-down ideals is what makes it one of the few really great war films...


(I)ndisputably the greatest WWII film ever..  There are no weaknesses in this movie. The screenplay is perfect, rooted as it is in the historical reality of the U.S.'s attempt to prove the superiority of Daylight Precision Bombing over the Brits favored strategy of night bombing. The terrible human pressures it placed on young American pilots AND their leaders has never been so well-portrayed on film... The usage of actual WWII bombing footage adds to the sense of reality. The psychological drama - what "maximum effort" does to people - is at the core of the story and supercedes the mere military aspect...  To hell with the flashy flamboyance of Citizen Kane; I would have to give 12 O'Clock High a better shot at being "the best movie ever made."


No gungho up and at 'em men. No false heroics. A great war film, but also an anti-war film of great intensity. Just ordinary men (and boys) doing the job they knew they had got to do. Greg Peck magnificent as the general forced to stiffen the morale of his bomber group, and who he himself eventually cracks under the strain.


The picture brings back the memories of excitement, terror and relief. Its a picture that the authors bring out. I knew the commanding officer portrayed by Gregory Peck, a Colonel Frank Armstrong, a replacement for Col. Overacker. Gregory Peck was a BG... We were first division originally sent to England to be transferred to North Africa. The 918 Bomb Group in the picture is 3 times 306 = 918 thats how they identified them. We had 87% casualty rate; 287 of us flew to England on Oct 21 1942, 87 survived, and [we] are passing away rapidly now. I was 19 as a bombardier-navigator, flew two tours; the second as a pilot. The picture is my ideal. I have three copies of it and view it whenever I feel depressed. Thanks for my connection of the past. I'm 78 and need a boost ever since I gave up drinking and smoking.
-- Horace Corigliano      


The last two comments are interesting to read side by side. One viewer sees it as an anti-war film. A veteran of the Eighth Air Force, however, sees it as a confirmation of the value of his service, despite its terrible costs. The latter is close to my own father's perspective on his service. He had the years of nightmares that are today characterized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he accepted them as a by-product of his service and got over them, if not the constant ringing in his ears. He didn't boast about his time in the war, but he never forgot it, or the friends he lost, or the shame he ascribed to those who had failed to serve in their country's hour of direst need. Pro-war, anti-war, the terms were irrelevant to his experience. Some wars have to be fought, and if you fight one, it's necessary to win it. He understood and approved the fine words of MacArthur's speech at West Point, but like most army pilots, he despised Patton's bluster and saw no glory of any kind in war. He, like the overwhelming majority of WWII vets, was of a breed we may very soon need plenty of, devout civilians who put on the uniform to get a nasty job done.

I saw the television version of Twelve O'Clock High long before I saw the movie, and I can remember, particularly in the first year, 1964, that we all watched it together as a family, my dad by turns technically critical and approving of its ambiance, me carried wholly into another, more urgent time of my parents' lives. The show declined a bit in the second year, when the Frank Savage character was shot down in the first episode to make way for a more popular lead actor than Robert Lansing. The plots grew more superficial, too often concerned with boy-girl romance, and there were too many happy endings. But we still watched, because in the memories of my family and many others, men were still plunging from the skies over Europe in scarcely believable thousands. In my head, I suppose, they've never stopped. The young men who will never return still bounce out to the flight line and take to the air of eternity, just like Frank Savage and Joe Gallagher and Horace Corigliano.

And now, the old drama is considered camp. What part, I wonder? Just the show biz compromises of seasons two and three? The prospect of a lowly TV series based on an excellent movie (much rarer then than today)? Or is it, as I fear, something deeper than that? Is it, in fact, the whole premise that's campy for members of all the generations who didn't even have parents for whom the setting had meaning? Are they now so sophisticated in their stateless loyalty to self that even the thought of an entire population of men willing to die for their country, willing to die rather than be thought not up to it, is a hokey, kitschy, absurdist joke?

If so, I'm sorry for them. And sorrier still for their children and grandchildren. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "In the dark night of the soul, it's always three o'clock in the morning." Not that far from twelve o'clock, you think? Think again.

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