|High and the Mighty, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 02 August 2005|
The biggest hit of 1954, “The High and the Mighty” was tremendously influential—all aviation-disaster movies that followed owe it a lot. Because the copyright was owned by John Wayne and he was reluctant to release it to video (as well as a lot of other movies he produced, such as “Hondo” and “Track of the Cat”), it’s been inaccessible for years. A great demand grew for this movie’s video release; it’s often been described as the most-wanted of all movies not on video.
Now it is available in the beautifully restored print on this DVD. It’s safe to say that if you did manage to see it any time since 1954, the color wasn’t anywhere near this rich, the picture much less sharp and the sound less crisp and clean. So here it is. And a lot of people are going to be disappointed.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie; far from it. But it’s a much more ordinary movie than people may be expecting. It’s well-crafted with a great cast, and fulfills its requirement to be a “Grand Hotel”-type story set on an endangered airliner. But that’s all it is. Don’t expect a great John Wayne movie, because Wayne here isn’t the hero or even the main character; he’s a guy with a painful past who’s working out the tail end of a long career in aviation as the copilot on a Honolulu-to-San Francisco flight. He whistles so often he’s known as Whistling Dan, and of course what he whistles is the movie’s famous title song.
The movie is based on Ernest K. Gann’s best seller; Gann also wrote the script, and was frequently urged to stick closer to the novel by director William A. Wellman. (Gann lived a colorful, eventful life as a documentary on the second disc shows.) As commentators point out, the exposition could hardly be more basic and direct: as the plane readies for boarding, each passenger comes up to ticket clerk Douglas Fowley and stewardess Doe Avedon and introduces themselves. As Leonard Maltin says, it does get the job done.
The passengers, which include a small boy (the director’s son) traveling by himself, are a carefully-designed colorful and variable lot. There’s little need to describe them here, but they’re played by a very well-chosen group of top-notch character actors and fading leads. So is the crew, with Robert Stack as the pilot, Wally Brown the navigator and William Campbell as the backup pilot. You’d better find the characters interesting—you’re going to spend a long time with them, and almost entirely in the narrow confines of the Douglas DC-4.
It’s supposedly a routine nighttime flight lasting about 12 hours, but the stewardess and crew notice that one of the engines is misbehaving. Meanwhile, one (Sidney Blackmer) of the passengers prepares to shoot another (David Brian), whom he’s convinced seduced his wife. This is dealt with quickly—but then an engine catches fire. The mainland Coast Guard is contacted with the help of the plucky radio man (Jose Gonzales-Gonzales) on a ship in the Pacific below.
Despite the confined space, Wellman moves the actors around creatively—and composes brilliantly for the CinemaScope frame. This was a very early CinemaScope movie; it’s interesting that an old pro like Wellman—he directed “Wings,” the first Best Picture Oscar winner—so quickly and effectively adapted himself to the long, narrow aspect ratio, which one director described as best for photographing snakes.
The picture gradually becomes increasingly suspenseful. At first it seems they will have to go down into the sea, hoping for rescue from a passing ship. But then, yay, the navigator figures out that despite their problems, they have just enough fuel to reach San Francisco. But then, ohmigod, he was wrong—and they DON’T have enough fuel. They’ll have to ditch.
The film wraps up in a way that satisfied audiences who came back to see it again and again. It was Wellman’s most popular movie, and played in one Times Square theater for two years.
It’s not entirely clear why Wayne and his heirs—a son and daughter both figure in the documentaries on the second disc—have kept these Wayne-Fellows and Batjac productions from video release, but they’ve clearly changed their minds now. Another elusive Wellman-Wayne movie, “Island in the Sky,” has also just been released in a great print on a DVD loaded with extras. Because of the emphasis on the Batjac productions on the second disc, we can assume that the other titles will be along in due course.
“The High and the Mighty” has been given A-plus treatment. First the film was painstakingly restored; unlike Technicolor, Warner Color (which was actually Eastman Color) rapidly fades over time. It was an uphill fight finding elements that would allow them to restore the film to the rich color it had on initial release. The sound has also been given careful treatment; some of those in charge say their greatest hope is that no one will even notice—that they’ll just assume that this is the way the movie has always sounded.
The second disc is full of documentaries of varying lengths. I think more could have been said about Wellman, but perhaps that extra information is on the “Island in the Sky” DVD. The history of Batjac is outlined, with interviews with Andrew J. Fenady, Getchen Wayne, Michael Wayne, Andrew V. McLaglen and others. Wayne bought out his initial partner, Robert Fellows, and changed his company to Batjac; it produced a wide variety of films most of which did NOT star Wayne. The company’s last release was “The Alamo.”
In a documentary on the film itself, a 1994 interview with ebullient Robert Stack, very unlike what you’d expect him to be, is included as well as more with Karen Sharpe, and William Campbell and Doe Avedon. In the section on Wellman, master film historian Kevin Brownlow is interviewed as well as William Wellman, Jr., who is heard on the commentary track, too. One of the more interesting tidbits offered is that Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Dorothy McGuire and Ida Lupino are among the major actresses who turned down roles in “The High and the Mighty.” It was a mistake: Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor were both nominated for Oscars for their work here. Wellman and the film editing also received Oscar nominations. None of them won.
However, Dimitri Tiomkin did win an Oscar for the film’s score. A couple of years before, his score and song for “High Noon” had a tremendous impact; for most of the 50s, any film with major-hit aspirations just had to have a pop-hit title song, often written by Tiomkin. There’s a documentary about this influential movie composer on this disc, too.
There are brief features on the restoration, the movie’s place in film history, how flying was viewed by movies of the 1950s, footage from the movie’s premiere (in which actor Richard Anderson is identified as Richard Andrews), a montage of other Batjac productions and some trailers. One of those for “The High and the Mighty” is in typically faded color, so you can see what this movie might have looked like.
This is far from a great movie, but it’s likeable and entertaining, and has been gone so long, for some of us, it’s a lot like meeting an old friend.