Staff Voices: Movie Review - Twelve O'Clock High and Military Mental Illness

Staff Voices: Movie Review - Twelve O'Clock High and Military Mental Illness

Sometimes it can be good to go back to the past to better understand the future.  The movie Twelve O’Clock High by Darryl F. Zanuck is a film that is worth watching more than once. It stars Gregory Peck and was filmed in 1949 post World War II. This movie was based on the novel by Beirne Lay Jr and Sy Bartlett.

I first heard about this movie after giving a presentation on The Stigma of Mental Illness in the Military. A participant recommended I present a more balanced portrayal of how mental illness can be viewed in the military and mentioned this movie. I had previously been discussing my experiences and sharing portrayals of mistreatment to service members asking for psychological assistance from movies such as Geroge C. Scott’s Patton movie.

Twelve O’ clock High is a story about how an elderly American Army officer from the 918 Bombing Group sees a drinking cup in an antique shop and is reminded of the dangerous flight missions his Bombing Group endured in the fall of 1942. It focuses on the stories of this Bombing Group and the hardships and low moral that were present after months of hard fighting and mounting losses of soldiers. A new general takes command (Gregory Peck) and demands “Maximum Effort” from his troops. He leads from the front and is able to motivate them, improve their moral and increase their mission effectiveness. Although he becomes good at blocking his own feelings about this mission, the pressures of war finally get to him and he has a paralyzing combat stress reaction.

I really like this movie because it highlights an area of combat stress we often don’t discuss which is the pressure leaders feel to bring back all of their troops and the burden of holding command.  We often hear about the young service members that are suffering from PTSD because of their traumatic experiences, but we don’t hear enough about the commanders that are unable to sleep at night because they hold themselves responsible to some degree for losing some of the men and women under their command. They have significant pressure to both meet the mission goals and keep their service members alive.

A second reason that I enjoy this movie is the depiction of the compassionate side of the military and buddy care that is often missed in war movies and other forms of media. The movie begins by portraying the usual status quo of calling service members “yellow” for having combat stress and the death of a soldier by suicide whom felt ashamed after contributing to his CO’s firing.  This suicide is brushed off by the General as a normal casualty of war. However, the story turns when the General, who is the last person one would consider yellow, develops a combat stress reaction. At this point it is striking the see the way the Officer’s care for each other and offer unconditional support in a way that I wish we would see more often in the military.

Finally, it gives a good portrayal of the stressors that service members face, the camaraderie in the squadron and the positive/ negative ways service members cope with the stressors of war.

This film is well done, entertaining and the acting is on mark. I have recommended this move to many of my students at WRNNMC that are learning about military culture and the stressors of war.

One should be prepared for a movie that is in black and white and has nice orchestra music in the background. However, my only criticism for this movie would be that the ending is not very realistic. We could only hope that one successful mission could cure a trauma response. Enjoy the movie and I give this movie a big thumbs up.

Staff Voices: Movie Review - Twelve O'Clock High and Military Mental Illness | Center for Deployment Psychology


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