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Twelve O'Clock High

The plight of the Commanding Officer is the kind of drama that Hollywood pines for — not only do C.O.'s have to fight like everyone else, but they have the additional burden of sending men into situations that could kill them. From this figure a Hollywood stock character was born: the "tough-love C.O. with a heart of gold" who lends a paternal voice to the men in combat — hell, John Wayne nearly made a career out of this roles. But with the World War II-based Twelve O' Clock High (1949) it was done right, and done best. Gregory Peck stars as Brigadier General Frank Savage, the C.O. brought in to shape up the 918 Airborne. The 918 have been fighting valiantly against the Germans, but the Army believes they've grown weak because their old Commanding Office has gone soft. Initially, outside of the understanding Ground Executive Major Stovall (Dean Jagger — who won an Oscar for his performance), the men of 918 reject their new leader, Gen. Savage, and his outward toughness — he's strict with everyone, canceling all leaves and closing the air base's bar — but his results keep them around, and eventually their successes soften him. Peck had few roles that gave him the chance to shine as much as Savage — his wooden persona plays to the character's strengths here, and when he finally starts caring we feel that the men have earned it. And when he has to go tough on the men for their sake, we buy it completely. Peck is good hands with director Henry King, who provides a touching solemnity to the proceedings — something that comes off in a lot of World War II films made shortly after the war. The deaths are portrayed realistically, and the battle sequences are more claustrophobic than exciting. King and Peck made five films together after Twelve O' Clock High, but this was their first and finest outing, as both were rarely as good again. Fox's DVD comes with a solid transfer in the original full-frame 1.33:1, with minor print damage throughout (the stock footage in the battle sequences looks the worst). Audio is available in both the original mono and a newly mixed Dolby 2.0 Surround track. Five bonus trailers of Fox war films, but regrettably not one for the feature itself. Keep-case.

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