(director: William Wellman; screenwriters: from the book The High and the Mighty by Ernest K. Gann/ Ernest K. Gann; cinematographer: Archie J. Stout; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: John Wayne (Dan Roman), Claire Trevor (May Holst), Laraine Day (Lydia Rice), Robert Stack (Capt. Jim Sullivan), Jan Sterling (Sally McKee), Phil Harris (Ed Joseph), Regis Toomey (Tim Garfield), Doe Avedon (Miss Spalding), John Howard (Howard Rice), Wally Brown (Lenny Wilby, navigator), William Campbell (Hobie Wheeler, 2nd officer), John Smith (Milo Buck), Karen Sharpe (Nell Buck), Joy Kim (Dorothy Chen), Paul Fix (Briscoe), Robert Newton (Gustave Pardee), Julie Bishop (Lillian Pardee), John Qualen (Jose Locota), Ann Doran (Mrs. Joseph), Paul Kelly (Donald Flaherty), David Brian (Ken Childs), Michael Wellman (Toby Field), Sidney Blackmer (Humphrey Agnew); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Robert Fellows/John Wayne; Warner Brothers; 1954)

“Props are given to The High and the Mighty in honor of being the first ever disaster film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Props are given to The High and the Mighty in honor of being the first ever disaster film. Other than that, this is a corny, overwrought and clich├ęd melodrama that never catches fire (pardon the brutal pun!). After Wayne’s death in 1979 his estate withdrew the classic from circulation and over the years it was in a bitter legal battle with Warner Brothers about who should foot the tab for its restoration. Recently it was restored and as a celebration the CinemaScope widescreen version (really meant for the big-screen) was shown on the horrible AMC cable network, which ruins the pacing of any film by showing a commercial every ten minutes. My advice is to buy the DVD if you feel compelled to see it, which might be a must for Wayne fans. John Wayne is co-producer and became the star when Spencer Tracy turned down the part. That turns out to be a good thing, as he’s the best thing about the movie–the face of reliability, sanity and confidence even though he’s an emotional cripple. The Duke liked Dimitri Tiomkin’s popular theme song so much and it became so much identified with him, that it was played during his funeral. Wayne also whistles the score throughout the film.

Veteran action director William Wellman keeps the plane moving along at a brisk speed despite the heavy-handed script by the best-selling book’s author Ernest K. Gann weighing it down. It was released during the early days of airline passenger travel and probably did little to assure the public that airplane travel was safe. It also was made at a time before special effects for a blockbuster such as this one was the norm, as it instead relies heavily on its sketchy characterizations of both the 5-person crew and 22 passengers.

A late afternoon trans-Pacific flight from Honolulu to San Francisco runs into trouble when the number 1 propeller catches fire and makes one engine inoperative and leaves a question mark if there’s enough fuel to reach its destination. Because the plane passed “the point of no return,” the only other choice would be to go in the drink and have the Coast Guard pick up the survivors (which is not a very good choice). The crew is headed by Captain Jim Sullivan (Robert Stack), a brooding troubled man of few words and a frosty personality who freezes during the emergency and has to be told what to do by the gimpy, aging co-pilot Dan Roman (John Wayne). He started flying in 1917 and is still haunted by an accident over Colombia right after the war where the commercial airplane he was flying killed everyone but him, including his dear wife and young child. The navigator, Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown), is also a friendly grandfatherly figure. He’s talkative about his devotion to his younger lush wife and during the emergency makes a serious miscalculation that could have been fatal if he doesn’t regain his composure and come through in the clutch. The second officer is a young squirt named Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell), who seems to get his jollies insulting Dan as a has-been and questioning his ability because of the former accident–even though it turns out Dan knows what he’s doing and junior’s still wet behind his ears. The stewardess is the beautiful and saintly Miss Spalding (Doe Avedon), who during the emergency remains professionally calm under fire and helpful to all the passengers. The subplot runs down in a sketchy melodramatic way all the passengers and every one has a problem that ranges from minor to almost critical. Though in the end the problems either evaporate or they weren’t that important to begin with and are somehow solved by the near-disaster.

The passengers include: a young kid (Michael Wellman) sent alone by his dad to his mother, with the dad eager to get the word out that he wants to get back with his wife–as the kid sleeps through the whole ordeal; a genial couple who saved for a long time to go on their second honeymoon that turned out to be a vacation from hell (Phil Harris and Ann Doran); a cold-fish hammy Broadway theater producer who becomes amazingly altruistic and warm-hearted during the emergency shocking his unshockable wife (Robert Newton and Julie Bishop); an aging former beauty queen (Jan Sterling), who is a mail-order bride and concerned her man won’t accept her when he sees she doesn’t look anymore like her youthful newspaper photo. A nuclear scientist (Paul Kelly) who has become discombobulated about the arms race and is walking away from an atomic project in protest, acting jittery about the important scientific research papers in his briefcase; a feuding couple over a business decision that threatens their marriage (Larraine Day and John Howard); an ordinary fisherman who is traveling by air for the first time (John Qualen); a Korean woman coming to live the American Dream (Joy Kim); a jaded loose-living woman (Claire Trevor); arrogant womanizer airline stockholder (David Brian) who is being threatened with a gun by a crazed businessman (Sidney Blackmer) because he was seen in the company of his wife on the island; unsettled newlyweds agonizing over their future together without money (John Smith and Karen Sharpe); and a handicapped friendly elderly dude who gives a chime pocket watch to the stewardess and scores an innocent dinner date with her (Paul Fix).

It ends on terra firma, with charmless airline executive (Regis Toomey) saying this about Dan Roman: he’s “an ancient pelican.” Not much affection for a guy who was heroic in carrying out his duties, but an effective way to end the film on a low-key note.