The grand daddy of all ‘passengers in peril while flying the friendly skies’, William A. Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) is a rather ambitious melodrama that has not aged well. In fact, so much of this film’s narrative was scooped by producers Jim Abrahams and David Zucker for their comedic spoof Airplane (1980) that in retrospect, much of the embellishment seems if not entirely fitting than certainly well noted.
The High and The Mighty stars larger-than-life John Wayne as one time ace pilot, Dan Roman – a man desperate to overcome his inner demons. Seems Dan was the pilot of a fatal wreck that killed both his wife and young son some years before. Emotionally scarred but determined to fly again, Dan is co-pilot to John Sullivan (Robert Stack) on a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco. Sullivan seems ‘tough as steel’ but crumbles like a cookie when his plane experiences technical difficulties that may prevent it from landing safely.
Aboard the doomed flight are boisterous husband and wife, Ed (Phil Harris) and Clara Joseph (Ann Doran); rough around the edges good time gal, May Holst (Claire Trevor); small town girl, pretending to be big time bombshell, Lydia Rice (Laraine Day); spurious art deal Gustave Pardee (Robert Newton) and would-be assassin, Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmere) who suspects his wife is having an affair with chicken-hearted tough talker, Ken Childs (David Brian).
Through an endless series of flashbacks we get each passenger’s back story – most relayed tongue-in-cheek so as to render the entire experience quite needless and stultified. A particularly embarrassing aspect of this film is how artificial all the sets look – particularly those that substitute for Honolulu’s resplendent vegetation, distilled to little more than a few obviously fake palms planted inside a sound stage by the art department with a wind machine blowing their plastic plumes.
Wellman shot a good deal of footage of an aircraft flying through white fluffy clouds, breathtakingly photographed in Cinemascope. These are used as inserts between moments of pensive melodrama. The end of the film too is shot on location in Frisco with stock shots of the Golden Gate Bridge glittering in the frosty night a welcome ‘opening up’ of this otherwise claustrophobic and turgid filmic experience.
Owing to the fact that much of this film – a Warner Bros. release - has been improperly stored over the years, Batjac and Paramount Home Video (currently the custodians) have attempted to fashion something of a restoration. The results are only partly successful. Most of the film exhibits an adequate visual presentation. At times, colors are quite rich and textured, though flesh tones remain pasty and unnatural throughout. Film grain is not an issue. Age related artifacts are present but do not terribly distract until the last third of the film’s running time.
Unfortunately, the last reel is a murky mess. The night stock footage is excessively grainy with a barrage of age related artifacts and an overly soft quality that renders much of the image a distorted ‘foggy’ mess. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering of original six track magnetic stereo. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is the benefactor here, but dialogue continues to sound strident. Extras include a ‘making of’ documentary hosted by Leonard Maltin, part of the Batjac story and homage to ‘the duke.’
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)