"The High and the Mighty", the granddaddy of air disaster movies, often falls into almost campy melodrama, but under the direction of the legendary 'Wild Bill' Wellman, and punctuated by one of Dimitri Tiomkin's most bombastic yet exciting scores (earning him an Oscar), the film maintains such a level of intensity that it remains constantly entertaining. With John Wayne heading an ensemble cast (including several co-stars from the past, as well as personal friends), it is certainly an essential for any 'Duke' film library.
Produced by Wayne-Fellows Productions, and 'owned', eventually, by the Wayne family's Batjac Productions (along with "Hondo", "McLintock!", and "Island in the Sky"), the film was a BIG hit, when released, and offered one of Wayne's better performances, then gained even greater stature as it was unseen for a generation. I've always held the belief that the family planned to release the entire quartet of films in 2007, to mark the centennial of Duke's birth, but two events changed the plan; first, an unauthorized, 'remixed' VHS version of "McLintock!" was released, with rumors that a version of "Hondo" was also in the works, forcing Michael Wayne, then President of Batjac, to release authorized VHS versions of the two films, rather than have the market glutted with bad copies; second, with Michael's death, in 2003, the Wayne family rethought the master plan, deciding to release the entire collection on DVD earlier. For whatever reason, seeing "The High and the Mighty" again is a cause to celebrate!
Based on Ernest K. Gann's bestseller (which would inspire Arthur Hailey's later novel, "Airport"), the story centers around a routine commercial flight between Honolulu and San Francisco, which becomes a life-and-death drama when one engine explodes, just beyond the 'Point of No Return'. With limited fuel, in deteriorating weather, the crisis brings out the best and worst in both passengers and crew.
Wayne as the co-pilot, is quite good, playing a character older than he actually was (the role had been written for Spencer Tracy, who pulled out, just prior to filming); Robert Stack almost foreshadows his character in "Airplane!" as the no-nonsense pilot who goes ballistic when stressed. For cockpit 'overacting', however, the award has to go to Wally Brown, as the navigator, with his bugged-out eyes, visions of his shrewish wife, and WILDLY unruly hair...
While the passengers are all stereotypes, several actors are quite good in their roles, with standout performances by Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling (both Oscar-nominated), Robert Newton, Paul Kelly, and Paul Fix. While Phil Harris attempts to inject humor into his role, it only works sporadically (and Ann Doran, as his wife, plays 'hysterical' so convincingly that you want to STRANGLE her!) Laraine Day, third-billed (and, with Trevor, a previous Wayne leading lady), is remarkably unlikable as a rich wife with a 'bought' husband (John Howard); Sidney Blackmer plays the 'mandatory' unbalanced type; and veteran character actor John Qualen adds another 'ethnic' portrayal to his long list, as a Latin family man (with a Norwegian accent!) A bit of trivia: The young boy on board was portrayed by director Wellman's son!
Almost as fascinating as the story is seeing how much has changed, since the film was released; the plane's 'tail' is controlled by pulleys and wires in a rear compartment; the sole flight attendant is a "stewardess"; and everyone smokes (especially in the cockpit). On a more somber note, there is NO security, and one passenger boards easily, carrying a gun. It is, sadly, a wiser world, today...
While no one would ever accuse "The High and the Mighty" of being a film classic, it's role in creating the 'airplane disaster' genre can't be denied, and it continues to be a vastly enjoyable John Wayne feature.
It's great to have it back!
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