John Wayne and Dawn Bender in Island in the Sky (1953)


(director: William A. Wellman; screenwriters: from the book Island in the Sky by Ernest K. Gann/Ernest K. Gann; cinematographer: Archie J. Stout; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Emil Newman; cast: John Wayne (Capt. Dooley), Lloyd Nolan (Stutz), Walter Abel (Col. Fuller), James Arness (McMullen), Andy Devine (Moon), Allyn Joslyn (J.H. Handy), Jimmy Lydon, (Murray, the navigator), Hal Baylor (Stankowski, the engineer), Sean McClory (Frank Lovatt, the Copilot), Wally Cassell (D’Annunzia, the radioman), Sumner Getchell (Lieutenant Cord), Hugo Friedhofer/Herbert W. Spencer; Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert M. Fellows/John Wayne; Warner Brothers; 1953)

“An easy to take ‘boys out in the wilderness’ tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Long out of circulation after a family battle with Warner Brothers after John Wayne’s death in 1979, now that it was settled in court the adventure rescue film has been restored and presented on DVD. It’s tautly directed by William A. Wellman from a book by Ernest K. Gann, who is also the screenwriter.

Captain Dooley (John Wayne) heads a civilian 4-man crew flying for the military a WW11 transport plane over the Arctic Circle. They lose their bearings somewhere over the uncharted frozen tundra north of Greenland (shot in the California Sierras) and crash-land. With the temp at minus 70 degrees and no food available, they follow Dooley’s orders to huddle together and wait to be rescued. But soon copilot Frank Lovatt disobeys because of his hunger pangs and goes out hunting. He never returns. Dooley learns from the radioman D’Annunzia their signal is dying and will have to improvise using a coffee grinder to generate power for a hand-cranked emergency radio to make contact with the rescue planes; from Murray the navigator Dooley learns they are not sure just where they are, but everything around them is barren; the engineer Stankowski becomes terrified he won’t see his family again and Dooley gives him a love tap to remind him not to take a walk like Lovatt. At the Presque Isle Army air base, the concerned Col. Fuller (Walter Abel) gets together four emergency rescue crews of Dooley’s fellow transportation flyers: Stutz (Lloyd Nolan), Moon (Andy Devine), McMullen (James Arness) and J.H. Handy (Allyn Joslyn). The men show their brotherhood by putting out an all-out effort in this difficult rescue mission, where the visibility is poor and the chances of finding them alive is slight in such harsh weather conditions. Wellman cuts back and forth between the rescuers and those trying to survive, effectively increasing the tension until the expected rescue.

This minor adventure saga sags from too much sermonizing and too many clich√© situations. Otherwise, it’s an easy to take ‘boys out in the wilderness’ tale because of the fine cast–Wayne is perfect for the part, Devine shines and a young Arness is feisty.