Twelve O’Clock High, a justly celebrated film about the air war over Europe, shows barely any high-altitude violence. Even so, director Henry King and his actors expertly illuminate the complex burdens of commanding personnel engaged in the brutal grind of flying into combat repeatedly as the odds of survival shorten. The portrait they render of men under pressure achieves a timeless, unblinking clarity.
Here is where the film’s moral world comes into focus. The three officers, in the company of other men of the 918th, discuss the deadly mission, whose heavy losses they trace to a navigational error. Davenport tries to shield the man who made that mistake, but the mission’s navigator, Lieutenant Zimmerman (Lee MacGregor), steps forward. He forthrightly explains how his errors brought the 918th late to the target and into German anti-aircraft gunners’ sights. As soon as Zimmerman is out of earshot, Pritchard pressures Davenport to relieve him. Davenport refuses. Pritchard relieves Davenport, ultimately replacing him with Savage. Within hours, Zimmerman, off-camera, commits suicide.