Sunday, February 3, 2008

The High and the Mighty

"The High and the Mighty" (William Wellman, 1954) One of the few John Wayne pictures that he produced himself, and one of his best-known and respected films outside of his Westerns, I had never sat through "The High and the Mighty." Oh, I could whistle the vague Dimitri Tiomkin theme, but I'd never seen it. William Wellman was a no-nonsense director and flyer, who no doubt seized the opportunity to do a dramatic film about the then-tony luxury of flying transcontinentally, and turned it into one of the first "disaster" films involving flying (Hello, "Airport!"). Wayne's character was meant for an older Spencer Tracy, but after Tracy left the project, Wayne stepped in to take the role of the haunted co-pilot, who has to fight his past and the demons of his pilot (Robert Stack) to "get this baby on the ground." With an international cast of passengers, all with stories to tell, it's a bit like "Grand Hotel" in the sky with its engines on fire (or "Stagecoach"). The emphasis is on character as there's only so much rollickin' Wayne can do in a plane cabin, though there is an over-the top scene where Wayne decks his pilot to keep him from ditching the plane in the drink...with his hands on the controls! It's also a bit dated in the need to explain every little detail about "plane travel," but not at all in how, at that early stage before rolling luggage, airline personnel were still griping about the passengers.

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