This film is used by the U.S. Navy as an example of leadership styles in its Leadership and Management Training School. The Air Force's College for Enlisted Professional Military Education also uses this film as a education aid in its Noncommissioned Officer Academies. This film is also used as a teaching tool for leadership at the Army Command and General Staff College. The film has also been used for leadership training in civilian non-military seminars.
Lt. Gen. Frank Armstrong is the real-life basis for the character of Brig. Gen. Frank Savage. Armstrong rose from First Lieutenant to Brigadier General in just 46 months--a process that would normally take anywhere from 15 to 20 years.
The B-17 bomber crash landing at the airstrip near the beginning of the movie was no special effect. Stunt pilot Paul Mantz was paid $4,500 to crash-land the bomber. Mantz of course walked away from the wreck. Until the 1970s, that was the largest amount ever paid to a stuntman for a single stunt.
In addition to Gen. Savage (inspired by Gen. Frank Armstrong), many characters in this film were based on real-life people. Maj. Gen. Pat Prichard (played by Millard Mitchell) is based on Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, first commander of the 8th Bomber Command. Col. Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is based on Col. Charles B. Overacker, first commander of the 306th Bomb Group. Lt. Jessie Bishop (Robert Patten) is based on Lt. John Morgan, a B-17 co-pilot who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for landing his plane after his pilot was severely wounded during a bombing run. Maj. Joe Cobb (John Kellogg) is based on Maj. (later Col.) Paul Tibbets, who later became famous as the pilot of the B-29 "Enola Gay" which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 (Tibbets himself served as a technical advisor for this movie). Sgt. McIlhenny (Robert Arthur) is based on Sgt. Donald Bevan, who was shot down over Germany in 1943 and became a POW. Bevan later co-wrote the play Stalag 17 (1953), with fellow POW Edmund Trzcinski, based on their prison camp experiences.
A replica of the 918th Bomb Group's Robin Hood toby mug is in use at the Officer's Club at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, home of the 509th Bomber Wing. The real movie prop mug, which was the prized possession of the Frank Armstrong family, was stolen in the early '90s and has not been seen since. The replica mugs are still in production and available from 918thpx.com.
Although ostensibly set in England, most of the film was actually shot in the USA. This would explain why the general is driven around in cars that are clearly left hand drive instead of right hand drive as they are in the UK.
The Robin Hood Toby mug prop can be spotted in the background in a scene from the 20th Century-Fox film Valley of the Dolls (1967). It's sitting on a wire-frame shelving unit in one of the "Dolls" apartments.
Darryl F. Zanuck paid out the unprecedented fee of $100,000 for the rights to Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr.'s book. The chief reason for this is said to be because Zanuck had gotten wind that William Wyler was interested in the property for Paramount. Zanuck made sure that he had the co-operation of the United States Air Force before he went ahead with the deal.
Because of the constant noise in the planes air crew wore "throat mics". These had two pickups that sat against the larynx (vocal cords) and picked the sound up directly from them. You will notice that whenever a crew member speaks he puts his hand up against the mic and presses it against his throat. This helped insure good sound pickup.
The 306th Bomb Group, on which the fictional 918th is based, was the first USAAF group to strike Germany during World War II. This occurred on 27 January 1943. The target was the battleship "Admiral Scheer" in the harbor of Wilhelmshaven. Col. Frank Armstrong, on whom the character of Gen. Savage is based, was in the lead plane on that mission. The lead bombardier was Lt. Frank Yaussi.
When Gen. Savage (Gregory Peck) gets back from his last mission, the one before he cracks up, he's in his room with Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill), Gately (Hugh Marlowe) and a drunk Col. Stovall (Dean Jagger). Davenport asks Savage if he knows that the "Old Man" went along on the just finished mission. After Savage tells him he didn't know, Davenport continues, "He slipped into Curt May's plane". During the era when this movie takes place, Maj. Curtis LeMay (later to become a general and eventually Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was flying bombing missions as commander of a B-17 Flying Fortress unit, the 305th Bomb Group, which was part of the Eighth Air Force.
"Twelve O'Clock High" is an example of a pilot's enemy position call. During World War II pilots would call-out the positions of enemy airplanes by referring to their bearings via the use of a pretend face of a clock. In this case, 12 O'Clock meant the enemy was directly ahead, whereas 6 O'Clock would mean directly behind. "High" or "Low" referred to whether the enemy was above or below the airplane respectively. "Even" meant that the enemy was level with the pilot's plane.
The film's release was delayed because MGM's Command Decision (1948) beat 20th Century-Fox to the punch. The similarity in content between the two films forced Fox to hold back release for a few months.
The opening credits film's dedication states: "This motion picture is humbly dedicated to those Americans, both living and dead, whose gallant effort made possible daylight precision bombing. They were the only Americans fighting in Europe in the fall of 1942. They stood alone, against the enemy and against doubts from home and abroad. This is THEIR story."
Major Harvey Stovall character is based on WWI ace William Howard Stovall. He was Lieutenant Stovall in WWI and then Colonel Stovell, Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel for the Eighth Air Force in Britain during WWII.
Many of the detailed accounts in the movie are true, and based on the experiences of veterans Bartlett and Lay. The scene where the 918th ignores the radio recall and presses on to bomb the target is true. The 94th BG, based at Bury St. Edmunds, ignored a recall order on their way to Brunswick, Germany, and pressed on to the target alone, their accompanying groups having turned back. The Group commander later said they had fought most of the way to the target, and lost 1/3 of their aircraft at that point. Instead of a reprimand, the 94th Group was given the highest group award, what is now known as the Presidential Unit Citation. The account where the pilot fought the wounded co-pilot's thrashing for hours was also true, and the pilot was awarded a Medal of Honor for saving his crew.
After reading the completed script, officers at the Pentagon were uncomfortable about Savage's breakdown under excessive strain, saying they would "prefer not to indicate to the public that a commanding general...became as irrational as indicated." Such a high-ranking officer might suffer from "physical ailments, nervousness, short temper or just plain fatigue, but he would never "burst out hysterically or have a complete mental collapse." The screenplay was modified to give Savage a quieter, more subtle breakdown. Other revisions made at the Air Force's request included toning down the heavy drinking and having the chaplain watch other men playing poker, not joining in the game himself.
Location manager William Eckhardt chose Eglin Air Force Base outside Pensacola, FL for exterior base scenes. Because war time runways were painted black to be less visible from the air and Eglin's runways were white, takeoffs and landings were shot at Ozark Field, an inactive training base in Alabama.
Paul Mantz, Hollywood's leading stunt pilot, was paid the then-unprecedented sum of $4,500 to crash-land a B-17 bomber for one early scene in the film. Frank Tallman, Mantz' partner in Tallmantz Aviation, wrote in his autobiography that, while many B-17s had been landed by one pilot, as far as he knew this flight was the first time that a B-17 ever took off with only one pilot and no other crew; nobody was sure that it could be done. The footage was used again in The War Lover (1962).
Locations for creating the bomber airfield at RAF Archbury were scouted by Henry King, flying his own private aircraft some 16,000 miles in February and March 1949. King visited Eglin AFB on March 8, 1949 and found an ideal location for principal photography several miles north of the main base at its Eglin AFB Auxiliary Field No. 3, better known as Duke Field, where the mock installation with 15 buildings (including a World War II control tower) were constructed to simulate RAF Archbury. The film's technical advisor, Colonel John deRussy, was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama at the time, and suggested Ozark Army Air Field near Daleville, Alabama (now known as Cairns Army Airfield, adjacent to Fort Rucker). King chose Cairns as the location for filming B-17 takeoffs and landings, including the B-17 belly-landing sequence, since the light-colored runways at Eglin did not match wartime runways in England which had been black to make them less visible to enemy aircraft. When the crew arrived at Cairns, it was also considered as an "ideal for shots of Harvey Stovall reminiscing about his World War II service" since the field was somewhat overgrown.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
While the character of Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Jesse Bishop is shot down and presumed to have been killed in action, the real-life Medal of Honor recipient on whom he was based, Lt. John C. Morgan, survived being shot down and spent the rest of World War II as a POW. After returning to civilian life, he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.