Thursday, April 14, 2011

I'd take Gregory Peck as my commanding officer.

Actor Gregory Peck didn't serve in the military during World War II, kept out of the service (according to his IMDB biography) by an old back injury.

But, by golly, when he played a military man--especially a man in a difficult command position--he did it brilliantly. There are two movies in particular in which he perfectly catches the ambiance of a skilled commanding officer.

The first was the 1949 film Twelve O'Clock High. Peck is General Frank Savage, a B-17 pilot who is placed in command of a hard luck bomber group that's been taking a lot of casualties. Morale is low. Morale initially gets even lower when Savage takes a hard-line approach to whipping the group back into fighting shape.

But Savage knows what he's doing. The group becomes more efficient in its missions, hitting the targets more often with fewer casualties.

With a less intelligent script or a less-skilled actor, the movie would have been a corny mess. But, because of a literate script and a great actor, it becomes one of the best war films ever.

Peck is helped along by some great character actors, including Dean Jagger, Gary Merrill, and Hugh Marlowe. It really is a fantastic movie. What's most remarkable about it, I think, is the level of empathy it manages to generate for every character's point-of-view. We respect what Savage is doing, but understand why his men are initially bitter and resentful. We appreciate how dangerous flying a bombing mission is, but still realize why commanding officers have to send men out to die. We appreciate acts of bravery, but sympathize completely with those expressing fear and terror.

And besides, any excuse to watch B-17s land and take off is always worthwhile.

Ten years later, poor Gregory Peck is demoted to 1st Lieutenant and given command of an infantry company in Pork Chop Hill (1959).

It's near the end of the Korean War. Peace talks are dragging on, but the fighting continues. Peck is ordered to re-capture a hill taken by the Chinese. It's not a tactically important hill, but it's a bargaining chip in the talks and neither side is willing to give it up.

So Peck takes his men up the hill in the face of heavy opposition. Everything goes wrong. A company supposedly protecting his flank never shows up; some idiot turns spotlights on them as they attack, exposing them to the enemy; barbed wire that's supposed to be destroyed by artillery is still there.

The Americans take the hill, but they have heavy casualties and are running low on food, water and ammunition. The Chinese are counterattacking and they are holding only by the skin of their teeth. Their radios aren't working too well either and Peck soon discovers his superiors think the battle is over. And an annoying Chinese propaganda guy keeps telling them (via loudspeaker) that they are all going to die.

The climax is a really tense Last Stand, with Peck pulling his few remaining men into a tight circle to wait for the final Chinese assault.

Once again, Peck's strong performance as a skilled commander in an impossible situation is backed up by a band of great character actors, including Rip Torn, Norman Fell, Harry Guardino, a very young George Peppard and an even younger Robert Blake. Once again, a strong script and great acting (along with well-choreographed battle scenes) make it all work.

In both movies, Peck is completely believable just the sort of commanding officer combat soldiers need to have. That's why I was a little surprised to look him up and discover he didn't have any experience in the real military. I would have guessed he would have based his performances off someone he once knew.

Oh, well. I guess that's why they call it acting.

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