Twelve O’Clock High, the classic 1949 film about an American bomber squadron based in England during the Second World War, is nominally a war film but really one about leadership.
The background is military – most of the cast wear military uniforms, they fly military planes and they live on a military base – but the action is in their heads as a new man takes over a failing team, turns it around and then faces a breakdown himself.
Dating from when it does, there is little blood and gore shown on screen and as a result the film has a “U” certificate. It is however by no means all pleasant viewing, with a gruesome early scene involving a severed arm where verbal descriptions do far more in bringing out the horrors of war than a special effects bonanza would have.
Poignancy is added by the extensive use of real footage from air combat during the war for the film’s own bombing mission scenes. The planes crashing down towards the ground, the people desperately bailing out – they are all real. It is not special effects or stunt men risking their lives; it was real people, in several cases almost certainly heading towards deaths a few seconds after the footage of them in the film cuts away. (The use of real footage also means that if you are a real airplane expert, you can spot a few planes being the wrong model or type in some scenes.)
But as I said, the film is really about leadership, with several scenes in particular being almost perfect for use in a training program. To what extent do people make their own luck? Is a run of bad luck a reason to sack someone? Is it good to stand by someone who has made mistakes or will the rest of the team expect and deserve a change of personnel? How do you give a failing team pride in its job? And so on.
In all this there are plenty of parallels with the actual leadership style and experience in the Second World War of controversial American airman Curtis Le May. Even if those parallels and the leadership lessons leave you uninterested, you can still sit back and enjoy a well-written and well-told story.