The High and the Mighty [50 Films Older Than Me #42]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #42.

Spoilers ahead.  

The High and the Mighty

Directed by William A. Wellman

Release Year:  1954 (16 years before I was born).

What it is about:  A flight from Hawaii to San Francisco suffers a dangerous engine failure. The passengers and crew–all dealing with their personal problems–face the prospect of a risky water landing. Veteran co-pilot Dan Roman believes they should risk trying to get all the way to San Francisco even though calculations show they will not quite have enough fuel. In the end he convinces the pilot to make the attempt, and though they come close to running out of fuel, the plane lands safely.

Starring John Wayne as Dan Roman, Robert Stack as pilot and captain John Sullivan, and Doe Avedon as Miss Spadling (the stewardess). A variety of passengers are played by Claire Trevor, Jan Sterling, Robert Newton, Julie Bishop, David Brian, Phil Harris, Ann Doran, John Howard, Laraine Day, Paul Kelly, Paul Fix, and more.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’d never heard of it, except what I read in preparation for watching it. I knew it had John Wayne and that it was an early disaster film taking place on an airplane.

Reality: The High and the Mighty, written by Ernest K. Gann based on his own novel, is pretty much what it says on the tin: an early disaster film set on an airplane. In fact, it’s often considered to be the grandfather of the disaster film, coming out 15+ years before the genre really hit its stride. But a lot of the familiar elements are there: the story’s threat is not man-made (at least, not intentionally), the main dramatic question is one of survival, and the narrative focus is divided between multiple characters.

A whole bunch of characters, in fact. The DC-4 airliner has a crew of 5, looking after 17 passengers. That’s 22 characters, and all of them have names, struggles, and backstories. It’s one of the most impressive things about the movie–it’s ability to handle all of those personalities. When it does so through regular dramatic means, like just dialogue and straight interpersonal tension, the movie works quite well.

It’s when the film starts trying to pull out fancy tricks that I think it shows its age. Various characters get extensive flashbacks, or long voice-over monologues, or even bizarre visions of nagging wives appearing in souvenir trays and speaking a bit manipulatively to their husbands. It’s not all bad, exactly, although some of it is pretty hokey. And it’s generally not as strong as just seeing the different personalities and agendas clash and interact on the plane.

Perhaps the exception to this is the story told by Sally McKee (played by Jan Sterling), about a fiancé she’s only interacted with by mail, whom she feels ashamed to meet.

We hear about him from her point of view but we get to see him, and so there’s a marked contrast between the two perceptions that makes that scene interesting.

John Wayne obviously headlines the large cast, and he does a quite a good job as Dan Roman, the experienced pilot who has suffered deep personal tragedy in a previous crash. Though he’s obviously going to be the main character of the film, Dan is actually quite quiet during much of the early parts of the story, letting all the people around him do the talking. But his facial expressions and reactions to what is happening or being said keep us connected to the character. And of course, once things get serious on the plane he is front and center. Wayne’s grounded performance helps to keep the audience connected to the seriousness of the situation, particularly when he is explaining to the passengers that exact thing.

The rest of the large cast is also good. Standouts for me include Jan Stirling (mentioned above) as a woman terrified her fantasy world is going to crash around her, Phil Harris as a happy-go-lucky working class man enjoying a holiday with his wife, Robert Newton as jaded man who is able to inspire calm in others even as he fully expects to die and Paul Fix as a terminally ill passenger.

I especially liked Robert Stack as Captain Sullivan and Doe Avedon as Miss Spalding the stewardess. Though the passengers tended to get more developed backstories, these guys had to carry more of the main plot with the plane, which was essential–if that didn’t work, neither would the film.

For the most part, it does–there is sense of peril with the struggling aircraft which is presented well throughout, and keeps the movie interesting even when it is occasionally being bogged down by the sheer number of personal stories it is telling. However, it’s almost a disappointment when Dan convinces the Captain not to try for the water landing. We never really believe the plane is going to crash, so when it does land safely there is almost a sense of irrelevance about everything. It’s nice to see the reactions of the various characters as they disembark, but maybe it feels a little shallow that for the most part, peoples personal stories have ended happily, or at least on an upbeat not.

Apparently, because of lack of obvious “leading” roles, the movie had a hard time attracting big-name stars to appear. John Wayne was one of the film’s producers and only stepped in to star in it after Spencer Tracy pulled out. A lot of the actors were “lesser” stars who have nonetheless shown up in some interesting places.

Claire Trevor, for example, was John Wayne’s co-star (actually, according to the order of credits, he was hers) in Stagecoach, the only other movie of his I’ve really seen (earlier this year for this series). Phil Harris was the voice of Baloo, Little John and O’Malley in Disney’s The Jungle Book, Robin Hood and The Aristocats, respectively. Robert Newton appeared in two other films in this blog series, Obsession and Treasure island–I’m only familiar with him from these three movies. Paul Fix was Dr. Mark Piper in Star Trek’s second pilot episode, Where No Man Has Gone Before. William Campbell was both Trelane and Koloth the Klingon in a couple of episodes of Star Trek as well as an episode of Deep Space Nine). Douglas Fowley was funny as the beleaguered film director in Singin’ in the Rain (my favorite movie).

Carl Switzer was Alfalfa on The Little Rascals (and also had an appearance in Pat and Mike, another movie from this series). And William Schallert is one of the those actors one sees in just about everything (Dobie Gillis, The Patty Duke Show, one of the same Star Trek episodes as William Campbell, In the Heat of the Night, The Incredible Shrinking Man and more).

Incidentally, there are a couple of oddities to be seen in the movie. One passenger brings on board the plane a gun, and even fires it! This is treated as a negative but in general people are pretty casual about it. Also, it’s weird to see the flight crew smoking so much during the movie, even in the cockpit.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? The High and the Mighty could have been streamlined a bit to its advantage, but it still holds up well, and maintains decent levels of tension for the most part. Even though the final moments aren’t especially thrilling, the movie still concludes satisfactorily.

See here for the Master List.

One thought on “The High and the Mighty [50 Films Older Than Me #42]

  1. It’s very much in the 1950s style of slick personal drama. I like those.
    I had similar reactions reading Arthur Hailey’s Airport. The complete lack of security, the smoking everywhere, the idea that airlines prided themselves on serving good meals … all alien now.

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