Musings on a war film that was well before it's time. (As this has nothing to do with Hungary or central Europe, I'll put it in my little used Off-Topic section.)
Photo: A rather special 'Toby Jug' - for explanation, see story below.
Do you enjoy modern, Hollywood war films? I rarely do. OK, the walls of sound created these days, the blood and gore splatting on the screen and all that latest high-tech stuff is perhaps realistic, and certainly shocking. But all too often, it feels like gimmickry to me.
I most detest those scenes where some guy (usually our allied hero) shoots a pistol at some enemy vehicle, which promptly explodes in a mighty sheet of flame.
Now I've never fired any gun beyond an air-rifle, but I just don't believe a shot or two from a hand-held pistol – or even rifle – can do that, unless the car or whatever is carrying petrol in plastic bags, designed to go 'whoosh-bang' at the earliest opportunity.
But last week, I watched a war film, made in 1949 and in black and white which, metaphorically, took my breath away. And arguably, it's not exactly about war - at least there is no battle scene until about 90 minutes into the 132-minute-long show. And there's no sex, nor even romance. In fact, there are almost no women in the entire movie, bar a nurse in a suitably modest uniform in a short hospital scene.
The film is Twelve O'clock High, and by coincidence, I have a personal, if tenuous, link to it. Here's how I came upon all this.
My efforts in the previous post to report on the Handley Page Halifax downed in southern Hungary in 1944 brought me into contact with Gábor Nagy, who, beginning in 1997, pioneered the research into that tragic story.
Gábor - he works in the museum of his home city (Pécs) these days - is a super-keen historical aviation buff, and seems to have spent his entire free time when working in England some years ago visiting aviation museums and air shows.
Ever the researcher, once I told him my own dad had flown Halifaxes in WW2 (only his ops were loaded with bombs rather than supplies, at least until he got to the target over Germany), Gábor eagerly wanted to know about all this.
I also told him a bit about how, in 1967 we moved to a village called Thurleigh (pronounced to rhyme with 'high') near Bedford, England. This was because my dad started work at the nearby airfield, a research centre where he was employed on land-based catapults for testing carrier-born, naval aircraft.
Back then, this whole show was a top-secret operation, one of the very few places where I saw 'No Photography' signs in the UK. There were never any open days, and the first time I ever saw photographs of the catapults was last week, on the internet (see link above). Had Thurleigh been in the Soviet Union, I suspect the village would have been one of those areas restricted not only to foreigners, but even to ordinary Soviet citizens.
(As it was, I could drink tea in our kitchen and see aircraft landing and taking off on the main runway about a mile to the north.)
I didn't know any details, but I knew about the bombers. As a teenager, I would occasionally visit two or three long-abandoned nissen huts in the fields outside the base. Inside these, a quarter of a century after the events occured, one could still find many inscriptions of daily life on the walls.
“6/17/43. Hit Frankfurt today. Two-tenths cloud cover. Man, did those Jerries take a pasting.”
(This 'quotation' is, of course, just for illustrative purposes. How I wish I'd taken photos of those walls, but at the time it never entered my head: film was expensive for a schoolboy in those days.)
The 306th Bombardment Group was involved in a number of notable missions. These include, according to RAF Thurleigh's Wikipedia page, leading the first USAAF raid on a German target, Wilhelmshaven U-boat pens, on 27th January, 1943. Later that same year, the 306th were on some of the devastatingly costly ops seeking to knock out Germany's ball bearing production in Schweinfurt, Bavaria.
Thurleigh to Schweinfurt is about 1,000 miles there and back, and allied airmen flew the majority of that distance then with no fighter protection. Both the USAAF and Royal Air Force lost an awful lot of aircraft and crews on the Schweinfurt raids.
But most intriguingly of all, what happened at Thurleigh in early 1943 formed the basis for the novel, and later the 1949 film, Twelve O'clock High.
I had read about this previously, but for the first time last week, I searched to see if the movie was available on YouTube. The good news is it's there, all two hours and 12 minutes of it.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much, and especially after a slow start, I thought it was going to be just another early WW2 film, with super brave, smart Americans (or Brits) and stupid Germans constantly being bamboozled while shouting “Achtung, Amerikaner!” every five minutes.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
The story is not about war, at least it's not about constant battle scenes. Rather, it's about the dichotomy any leader in conflict has to manage, that between focusing on and achieving the strategic goal while caring for his or her team tasked with achieving this.
The best leaders have to love their subordinates to motivate them, and yet, in the desperate straights of war, they must equally be prepared to push them up to - and sometimes beyond - their limits to accomplish the greater goal.
How to balance the two demands? The military leader who gets too involved with his men risks the mission's success through trying to protect them.
The real-life man who was to take on the role of deposing and replacing a much loved, but failed commander, and restoring the squadron's faith in themselves was largely based on the real-life experience of a certain Colonel Frank A Armstrong. And Armstrong did this very job on the 306th at Thurleigh, my village 'drome, in early 1943.
The film tells the story of how Armstrong – in the form of the fictional General Frank Savage, played by Peck – achieved all this, although the final twist in the screenplay (and I won't give that away here) is not based on Armstrong's service life.
It seems Twelve O'clock High continues to be used today in US and other military training schools to illustrate the contradictory emotions any good leader must master in the heat of conflict – yes, it's message is that good 75 years later..
My only surprise is that it didn't win more Oscars – it scored just two, for best supporting actor and best sound recording back in the day. Well, what did those folk know anyway?
True, the film obviously doesn't quite hit nail for everyone: according to the Rotten Tomatoes website, Dudley Early, film critic of the Austin American-Statesman, wrote:
“A very satisfying motion picture, 12 O'Clock High does not quite get over that indefinable line which marks the beginning of greatness.”
Hmmmm. I don't know, but perhaps Mr Early turned up late in the cinema, by which time the film had not only got over the line, but had gone round and was coming back again.
The director certainly spared no effort to get it right: thus, the crews cheer when they hear they are to be first in the first raid on Germany proper – the Wilhelmshaven U-boat pens, just as in real life.
And back in 1949, they didn't have any of the electronic virtual gubbins to imitate aircraft or aerial attacks - they had to do it for real. So the director used genuine aerial footage taken from USAAF bombers and Luftwaffe ME 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters in the battle scenes.
Not only that, but in the early scenes depicting a flight of B17s returning from a raid, they used real, 12-inches to the foot scale bombers, a total of 12 of them.
And the one that crash lands? That was flown – and crashed – singlehandedly by Paul Mantz, Hollywood's leading stunt pilot of the day. He was paid the then astonishing sum of USD 4,500 for doing the job. His business partner wrote in his biography that, while it was known that many pilots had landed Flying Fortresses alone, to the best of his knowledge no pilot had ever taken taken a B17 into the air flying solo. Nobody was even sure it could be done.
Like Armstrong himself, I wonder if they make 'em like that anymore.
NB – Some of the detail in the above comes from various Wikipedia pages. Obviously it is difficult to check each and every fact from these sources.
Ah, I almost forgot! The Toby Jug photo! This is a replica of the original, which features in the film in the ops briefing room. When it is turned to face forward, it's a coded message to those on the base that there will be a raid the next day, while any visitors who see it will be unaware it has any meaning whatsoever.
These replica jugs were the brainchild of American entrepreneur Pete Plumb who, fascinated by the movie Twelve O'clock High, sought to locate a copy of the Toby Jug in the film. When he couldn't find one, he decided to do the job himself, and, ever the entrepreneur, make them available to other aficionados of the film.
Pete's business took off, and while he himself passed away in 2020, his assistant and his kids still market the jugs today.
Pete Plumb's story is here: https://archbury.net/history/
and the facebook site here:
And here is a still from the film showing the original Toby Jug doing its appointed job.
My thanks to Shelley Anderson, of Archbuy LLC for these photos and helping to make this post so complete.
Addendum: The internet is truly a gift that keeps on giving! I've now discovered that there is a museum dedicated to the 306th at Thurleigh on the site of the former aerodrome.
I've also found an excellent, authoritative article on both the 306th and the film and its impact published in 2011 for Air and Space Forces Magazine, which would appear to be the source of much of the Wikipedia page.