How The WWII Classic '12 O'Clock High' Inspired The Combat And Leadership Of 'Star Wars'

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas's iconic universe. In this edition: The classic war film 12 O'Clock High.)1949's 12 O'Clock High is a seminal war film. Made in the late '40s while the wounds of World War II were still fresh, it tells the story of a beleaguered American bomber wing suffering from morale and leadership issues. Gregory Peck plays General Frank Savage, a man sent in to reform the bomber wing and make them a force feared by the Germans who they seek to bomb into oblivion. The film was notable for the empathy at which it approached the subject matter of pilots dealing with trauma. For a film made in the '40s, that alone made it a radical concept.It's a remarkable film that gets into the head of the bombers and the leadership skills needed to motivate a group of people to fly, day after day, out to their deaths.In the lead-up to The Last Jedi, this was a chief influence commonly cited by Rian Johnson. This was one of the films he screened for his cast and crew during pre-production and production, and it's easy to see how it would have influenced the eighth episode of the Skywalker saga. It would be easy to point to it as an influence for A New Hope as well.

Real Wars

12 O'Clock High was notable for a number of reasons, but chief among them was its use of real combat footage as a part of the narrative of the film. They opted to shoot the movie in black and white in order to better incorporate it. It wasn't seamless, though, with a mix of film stocks, lenses, and grain on the real footage contrasting greatly with the clean Hollywood footage.The dogfights in this film bear a striking resemblance to the dogfighting scenes in A New Hope and it was real footage like this that George Lucas cut together originally when he was storyboarding out the original Star Wars film for the minds at ILM to understand what it was he wanted. This might have been the first time footage from other movies would find itself in montages cut to pre-visualize Star Wars, but it certainly wasn't the last.The bombing runs from Twelve O'Clock High also found visual echoes in the way the bombers struck the dreadnaught in The Last Jedi. It also seems as though there's a clear parallel in the design from the World War II bomber squadrons in this film and the bomber squadrons in Episode VIII, right down to the breathing masks worn both by Gregory Peck's character and Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo).

Profiles in Leadership

Star Wars has always taken cues from World War II movies in its design, but the complications of leadership in Twelve O'Clock High make the film something special and there are definite echoes between it and two major characters in The Last Jedi.The first is Poe Dameron. In The Last Jedi, Poe is a young and impulsive leader who gets busted down in rank in order to learn lessons he needs in order to make his leadership effective. This is a lot like what happens to Gregory Peck's General Savage in the beginning of Twelve O'Clock High. He's reduced in rank and duty in order to take charge of this particular bombing unit, though the function is to whip them back into shape.The comparisons between The Last Jedi and Twelve O'Clock High kick into high gear when you look at Savage and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) along parallel paths. Savage is the new character in the situation that none of the troops trust. Their beloved leader is forced out of the command structure and Savage takes over abruptly, leaving them to wonder who this guy is and why he's leading them. That comes in the form of the character Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) in this film and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in The Last Jedi. Both Savage and Holdo both have to overcome suspicion over their motives, even though they're doing the right thing, both for the troops and the war effort overall.At one point, the group bombing commander comes to Gregory Peck's character and complains about the orders he's been given. He doesn't understand them. Savage cuts him off at the knees with the argument that he needs to know everything about every order, "Let's allow from here on in that once the old man cuts a field order he's thought about it. There isn't time to take every one of them apart to see what makes it tick."And this is the central conceit to the complaints Poe has about Holdo. He doesn't agree with her plans, if he even knows what they are, even though she outranks him and has an obligation to issue orders, not explain them. There isn't time to take every one of them apart, just to follow them.The influence of this film strengthened that relationship and situation between Holdo and Poe in The Last Jedi and Star Wars is better for it.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Twelve O'Clock High is a classic war film that allows its heroic character to suffer a significant psychological break. It broke down masculine stereotypes of unflappable John Wayne-types, going into war and being unscathed by trauma. For its part, it was a different kind of war film than audiences were accustomed to seeing, though it didn't suffer at the box office because of it. The Last Jedi is no different, having worked just as hard to break down harmful stereotypes in its own way. It forces one to wonder how the troops (and some audiences) would have reacted to Holdo were she a man like Gregory Peck.The Last Jedi offers a view of Luke Skywalker suffering that break, though. Watching your hero suffer from that trauma is heartbreaking and not the easiest thing to watch. Our superheroes are still human and they suffer the same ways we do. It's humbling to see Luke Skywalker suffer like that, but it's also intensely satisfying to see him come back and see that his ideals still mean something to him and he can move past his trauma.Twelve O'Clock High is as much a war movie as a fascinating character study. It's available to purchase wherever you stream movies or buy your physical media.