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The plot is a cliché, and the acting is barely B-movie serviceable, but the film is an interesting look at the U.S. Air Force in the early 1950s. The film features a C-47 (DC-3) on skis, an Air Force glider (similar to those used at the Normandy landings in WWII), and the rarely seen F-82 Twin Mustang. Incidentally, the aircraft used in the film indicate that principal photography must have taken place well before the film's 1955 release; the Air Force retired its very last F-82 in June, 1953, and the piston-powered B-36 bombers featured in the melodramatic formation flight that closes the film were old news by the mid-1950's, by which time jet powered B-52 had begun to replace them.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A fascinating picture strictly for those interested in seeing the
United States Air Force in a strange interim period when they still
operated specialized aircraft left over from WW2 into the 1950s.
This is how I think ON TOP OF THE WORLD was made. At the time of the Korean War, when the Soviets revealed their mastery of the hydrogen bomb,part of America's defensive strategy was to defend the US at the High Arctic. The DEW (Distent Early Warning) Line was built across Alaska and Canada to detect Soviet bombers coming across the North Pole. There must have been a Pentagon project with a budget, a portion of which was for public relations - something to inform the public of the necessity of the program, to sell the program to the public. One of the ideas on dealing with the public was to make a film. A company- Landmark Productions, was set up to get a script written, actors and technicians hired and so on to release by United Artists.
The script was a basic melodrama, ripe and passé at the turn of the century but serviceable yet in the jet age. Two men - one woman - a hazardous assignment - one man makes the ultimate sacrifice, the other gets the girl. Frank Capra and Jack Holt used to make two pictures a year like this.
Quickly: Dale Robertson, an Air Force jet jockey, gets his alimony checks sent back from his ex-wife, Evelyn Keys, and a letter explaining that she's starting a new life with her own night club. The aging Robertson is reassigned from fighter jets to a desk job in Alaska where his commandant, Frank Lovejoy, is now romancing the owner of a local (Fairbanks) night club, surprise, Keys.
There is considerable bitterness between Robertson and Keys that goes back to WW2! I mean you have to have some kind of a story to go along with the simulated adventures of air rescue in the far north. This was the kind of story they chose.
When Robertson is flying up to Alaska in a C-47 he is no sooner introduced to the crew chief, who is an expert in Arctic survival, when one of the engines catches fire and they all bail out but are soon rescued by a Cessna LC- 126 of the Air Sea Rescue Service.
Robertson is promoted a colonel and has to lead a group to a forwardoutpost (Operation Deep Freeze) to establish a weather station on an ice island near the North Pole. What could go wrong? Was this so Frank Lovejoy could dump Robertson and have Keys all for himself? Then, decades before global warming, the ice island begins to break up and radio contact is lost. A flight of 4 converted B-17Gs (B-17H) find the now diminished island and the abbreviated landing strip can accommodate only a glider landing. Lovejoy sends his second best pilot out but determining that Keys still loves Robertson and Robertson is too much of a shithead to understand takes an express to catch up with the glider and tow plane to take the glider in himself.
He flies an F-82 Twin Mustang. Earlier in the picture, when Lovejoy orders the Cessna to be prepared in the background can be seen what looked like a pair of P-51's with their engine cowlings off but another shot reveals what unmistakable was an F-82. As with Chekhov's first act pistol which must be fired in act three, the F-82 is flown in the finale to catch the tow plane. The F-82 is representative of the post war dilemma for the Pentagon and shows the difference between war time and peace-time defense priorities, which is the point of this whole propaganda exercise. The F-82 was a development of the P-51 fighter which was ordered straight off the drawing board by a desperate British Government in the early days of WW2. With its General Motors engine it was a dud especially losing power in turns and at altitude but some bright boy got the idea of putting a supercharged fuel injected Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in it and it became the classic fighter of WW2. The P-82 was two lengthened P-51's joined by a middle wing and was designed to escort B-29s on runs over Japan. The war ended, the Air Force was formed and at some point the inferior General Motors engines reappeared. There are no congressmen representing South Yorkshire in the United States congress.
The prospect is that having sat through the miserably crappy excuse for a "story" at least we were going to get some spectacular actions shots ala the take off from the mesa in Only Angles Have Wings. Instead the rescue is flubbed with some of the worst, or really The Worst, rear projection process shot in the history of cinema.
This time Dale Robertson is the sacrificer (he needs to stay behind to rock the glider whose skis are stuck) but its all well and good as Lovejoy returns (2 18 hour round trips and he looks fine) and rescues Robertson. For a minute it looked like divorce was going to take, a unique experience in 50s film.
The opening credits are played over some aerial footage of Arctic tundra EXCEPT for one frame, which is a still that carries the 1955 copyright. There's the smell of the shelf wherein I suspect TOP OF THE WORLD must have lain for some time. The last shot of the picture, a formation of early B-36B's dates the picture to well before 1955. After all, the assignment had been given, the mission was accomplished, the brass saw the film, it certainly looked like a movie, the case was closed, there were new projects and the movie shelved until some auditors found it and let it go for whatever they could get for it and as they say, it wasn't released, it escaped.
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