William Wellman's ISLAND IN THE SKY and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY
These two long-out-of-circulation movies present a version of John Wayne to the public that we have all but forgotten: the strong silent type who doesn’t go around smashing people with fists or blasting them with a gun. Instead he exerts his authority through quiet determination and professionalism. (My guilty secret: my favorite John Wayne movie when I was growing up was fisticuff-happy Donovan’s Reef.)
In 1953’s Island In The Sky, Wayne plays a transport pilot lost with his crew in the remotest region of sub-zero snowy Labrador. The movie concentrates on the desperate search by his flying buddies in those days that long preceded satellite location signals, cellphones, and cable TV. On the ground, Wayne leads his band of survivors as they stretch their rations and try not to freeze to death.
In 1954’s The High And The Mighty, Wayne plays a co-pilot on a passenger airliner bound from Hawaii to San Francisco. Midway one of the engines is lost and the remaining story mixes soap opera with a scrupulously detailed effort to nurse the DC-4 back to safety. Both the movies benefit greatly from the non-nonsense writing of aviation author Ernest K. Gann. He knows about flying and was directly involved with both.
Both movies also benefit from wonderful supporting casts; nearly everyone is recognizable for any viewers familiar with movies from the 1950’s. A special treat in Island In The Sky is Andy Devine. I swear I know this guy he seems so real. And in The High And The Mighty we get to see Phil Harris in action, who is as natural a story teller as was ever put on screen (or on the radio - he used to be Jack Benny’s bandleader).
Island In The Sky is presented in crisp, beautiful black and white. The aerial photography with a group of DC-3’s flying over frozen mountains and through clouds is sumptuous. The full color CinemaScope The High And The Mighty is just lovely to look at. The scenes of the yellow-tailed, red-trimmed DC-4 droning its four propeller engines through bright sunshine and huge white clouds is breathtaking and contrasts drastically with the cramped interior scenes that dominate most of the movie. And for good measure we even get to see an old Coast Guard B-17!
The Dmitri Tiomkin orchestral soundtrack of The High And The Mighty is superb. You can’t help but whistle the title tune.
Dramatically, the two films are very different. Island In The Sky is a tense, down to earth rescue drama, meticulously detailed. The High And the Mighty combines realistic aircraft-in-danger drama with well-crafted soap opera from an ensemble cast. I enjoyed them both.
Both movies come with interesting extras. A series of documentaries reviews the making of Island In The Sky. Both films have fascinating historical commentaries. On The High And The Mighty, for example, Leonard Maltin recounts numerous interesting historical details (this guy knows a lot about B Movies!) and interviews some of the folks who were involved. Director William Wellman’s son is interviewed as well. He has many interesting anecdotes to share having been a teenager during the production of the The High And The Mighty. He also tells some funny stories about the casting of his six year old brother as the solo child passenger in The High And The Mighty who sleeps through the entire ordeal.