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When a commercial airliner develops engine problems on a trans-Pacific flight and the pilot loses his nerve, it is up to the washed-up co-pilot Dan Roman to bring the plane in safely. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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"When your motor conked out, my motor conked out."
The release of The High and the Mighty coincidentally came out at the same time I Love Lucy shifted it's locale from New York to Hollywood and star crazy Lucy Ricardo was stalking all the big film stars of the day. I still remember when Lucy stole John Wayne's footprints outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre and that never to be forgotten line she said to him about his latest film quoted above.
I think a lot of people felt that way about The High and the Mighty. I was lucky to see it when it was broadcast in 1979 the week of the Duke's demise. I had seen it earlier, but it has not been broadcast since. And that's a pity because this film is a four star winner in every respect.
This was produced by John Wayne as well as starring him and it is the second work he did with director William Wellman. In fact Ernest K. Gann wrote the novel this was based on and he also wrote the book that the Wayne-Wellman combination tackled in their first endeavor, Island in the Sky. That too, has not been broadcast for years, but I've seen it also.
In fact if you look at the credits, all the Wellman behind the camera crew is virtually the same. One big addition for The High and the Mighty is Dimitri Tiomkin, writer of so many wonderful film scores for the Duke and others. Previous to this Tiomkin had done that outstanding score for Red River for Wayne another milestone picture for him. The only Oscar the film won was for it's score.
It's one of the great movie themes of all time and not too many people know this, but there were lyrics by Ned Washington. The theme was also in the Best Song award category, but lost to Secret Love. Probably because I can't recall a vocal recording done of it. Lots of instrumentals though, a big seller.
In this Grand Hotel cast, actresses Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling both got nominated in The Best Supporting Actress category, but lost to Eva Marie Saint. It's almost a shame that those two performances got singled out because the whole cast was brilliant. It's always the mark of a good film that even the most minute character roles are fully developed and remembered. Case in point: In The High and the Mighty Douglas Fowley as a ground attendant at the beginning of the movie and Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as a ship's radio operator have tiny parts, but you will remember both.
The plot concerns a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco which develops engine problems and a fuel loss. After that the suspense doesn't let up for one micro-second of film. Lots of flashbacks are well integrated into the plot. Flashbacks about the crew and the passengers. All of their lives are laid bare in brief vignettes. Two passenger performances I liked besides Trevor and Sterling were Paul Kelly as the cynical scientist and Robert Newton as the jaded Broadway producer.
The crew of course is headed by Robert Stack as pilot and John Wayne as co-pilot. In his memoirs Stack said the role of Sullivan was one of his favorites and he paid a heartfelt tribute to producer/co-star John Wayne. Wayne was a controversial guy, most of his co-stars liked to work with him, a few didn't. Stack was one of his biggest boosters as a performer and his tribute to the Duke should be read by all John Wayne fans.
Thank the Deity that a new generation of cinema fans will finally get to see John Wayne at his very best as Dan Roman. The unavailability of Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty have not been good for fans and critics discussing John Wayne's work. His work with both John Ford and Howard Hawks has been rehashed time and again, but no one ever talks about his three films with William Wellman which in my book renders all discussions about him as an actor up to now quite pointless. Why he was overlooked in the Oscar sweepstakes that year is a mystery.
Wayne had one of the best faces for closeups ever in screen history. Top directors like Ford, Hawks, and Wellman knew that and used him to best advantage. Both in Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, Bill Wellman caught a lot of the anguish and determination in closeups that said more than a page of dialog. Both as Dooley in Island in the Sky and as Dan Roman here, Wayne plays a character who is not battling bad guys, but a bad situation. In both he's the leader of a group of people who's lives are in his hands and he can't show weakness. None of the usual screen fights are in either of his Wellman roles. It's the elements and fear that are the bad guys that have to be licked.
It's a pity they didn't do more actor/director classics like these two films, Wellman and Wayne. They did work together on Blood Alley, but it doesn't hold a candle to the first two films. Bill Wellman actually did work for the Duke once again in a film Wayne produced, but did not star in called Goodbye My Lady in 1956. Wellman retired two years later.
The High and the Mighty represents an artistic triumph and a commercial one. When it came out, John Wayne was at the height of his career, in the midst of a string of years as number one at the box office. Catch this film by all means if you can. With it coming out on DVD, maybe it will finally be broadcast again on AMC or TCM.
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