When a transport plane goes down in the white-blindness of sub-arctic Labrador its crew is in dire straits: howling winds, icy weather, almost no food, and no shelter or heat source. Fellow pilots & aircrews organize an air search, but the Labrador landscape they search is vast, monotonous & unforgiving of downed airmen: the searching crews know they're in a race against time, that the odds against their downed mates' survival decrease with every tick of the clock. The film sublimely depicts the searchers long hours of tedium in their inadequately heated Douglas C-47 flight decks, all the while with their hope for sighting their downed comrades dimming. They battle the ice-fog, the weather fronts, the monotonous vastness of the landscape, the limits of their aircraft and radios and compasses, and the human limits of their flying and navigational skills and their powerful fatigue. Yet nobody will give up the search: each of the rescue crews knows that they themselves might, at nature's or a fouled sparkplug's whim, have been the men crash-landed in the frigid wasteland beneath their wings.
We also see the plight of the downed aircrew scrabbling in their plane's wreck for morsels of food, shelter, clothing, and with their frozen fingers struggling to whirl the crank of a "Gibson Girl" emergency radio transmitter of dubious value. We feel their growing, chilling despair: after all, they're veteran airmen who know the odds against a search crew sighting their snow-covered wreck in this sub-arctic expanse where, from the air, every lake, hummock, snowfield, depression, hill and endless sweep of terrain looks alike. They know their would-be rescuers are flying over uncharted space, without a single reliable reference point; and they know that magnetic compasses (long before GPS satellite navigation came on the scene)in the Labrador region are subject to grievously false readings - they know the searchers could well be flying the same search routes over and over again without even realizing it: and the search crews know it too. And because there are no distinguishable landmarks, and because compasses are untrustworthy, the shivering men know that even if they are sighted it's likely that a rescue plane at the limit of its fuel could well be unable to relay accurate headings or recognizable landmarks to the crew of a follow-up aircraft.
The script neatly follows Gann's novel & its spirit: man and his pitifully inadequate, yet much-ballyhooed technology pitted against nature, against what has been called "the benign indifference of the universe". Gann was a veteran transport pilot whose novels, and this one is no exception, convey the grim obstacles airmen faced in aviation's primitive days. Gann's characters aren't heroes: they're just guys who happen to operate equipment which, like the men themselves, has finite limitations in the face of remorseless nature. Like the novel's, the film's dialogue is terse, the casting superb: you can imagine each actor being the man Gann wrote about in his novel. "Island in the Sky" is a no-frills film: no special effects worth mentioning, and none are necessary. You get to be on the frozen earth in the middle of nowhere, and on the flight deck with the weary, half-snowblind, anxious search crews. You feel the fear, the anxiety, the pressure, the cold, the crews' frustration with the limits of their technology and abilities.
I'd love to see "Island in the Sky" come out on DVD: a solid, bare-bones, no glamor, no mercy story well told.