RogerBW's Blog

The High and the Mighty 26 September 2021

1954 disaster film, dir. William A. Wellman, John Wayne, Claire Trevor: IMDb / allmovie. A 2,000-mile overwater flight is no place for an engine to explode.

Out of nowhere, this film defines the aviation disaster genre; and I don't think anyone involved was trying to do that. Rather, Wayne-Fellows Productions was looking for more films to make; Wellman, who'd directed for them before, pitched a new book by his friend Ernest Gann. Wayne wanted a film in the new CinemaScope for projection at 2.55:1; the cameras were big and bulky and directors liked to keep them in one place, but for scenes inside an aircraft that shouldn't matter…

(It could have been in 3D, but fortunately the technology wasn't quite ready yet.)

But this wasn't meant to be a role for Wayne. Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda turned it down, perhaps because of one of the key elements of the dramatic disaster film: with lots of people resolving their own stories, nobody gets a great deal of screen time to themselves, and so actors at the top of their game typically don't go for it. Rather, you get actors on the way up who want a chance at being in something "big" even if not for very long; and actors on the way down, who similarly would rather be on screen for a few more minutes than not at all.

While Wellman wanted to make a film about aircraft and pilots, what he got was a script about people. Yes, all right, soap-operatic people, in a smaller span of time but on a larger screen; just as in a soap opera, the point is to put everyone under pressure, so that they drop their masks and reveal their true selves.

So everyone here… well, almost everyone… gets their Oscar Clip Moment. The unhappily married heiress, whose husband wants to go off and be manly in the wilderness, decides that she'll go with him after all; the ageing beauty queen strips off her makeup (all right, Jan Sterling at 33 couldn't look ugly if she tried, but she does at least try; and of course she puts it on again by the end, there are standards to be kept up); the comic-relief salesman goes into a long spiel about his local support group…

Meanwhile the non-white people have a rougher time; they're both "good" immigrants, humble and accented and willing to conform utterly to American Standard, but they never get their big moments. And I have to say that I think a young Korean woman fleeing from Manchuria in the 1950s might have quite an interesting story to tell!

The Code is starting to crack: nobody says "pregnant", but there's a hand gesture which would itself have been out of the question a few years earlier. Someone calls herself a "broad". There's a strong implication that the newlyweds are joining the Mile High Club. By the standards of the early 1950s, this is positively racy.

And of course there's Wayne himself, not an actor with a great range, but here that's just what's needed: everyone else is having their hysterics, and he just plods along as the old pilot who's going to save the day.

Unfortunately because Wayne Is Always Right there isn't the consideration there should be given to the decision to push on the last few miles for a landing in San Francisco rather than to ditch off the coast: the approach means crossing the city, and if that had gone wrong there'd have been a lot more damage and injury than in a ditching, even in rough weather. (Certainly standard procedures of the day would mandate the ditching.) I was also a little thrown because I'm pretty sure Half Moon Bay Airport, on the west coast and therefore approachable directly from the sea, was in use at this point as a military field, so maybe that would have made a sensible place to try for instead… though perhaps it didn't have ILS.

There's a surprising consistency in the visual grammar: the plane in trouble is always flying right-to-left, "homewards" to a Western audience, while the B-17 coming out to meet them is left-to-right. Even though this would imply a view from the north – though there's never a line on a map to confuse people. This is a big thing in classic Westerns, and Wellman was certainly a very experienced director (most notably for the 1927 Wings).

Music is largely dispensable, but it's cut completely for the final scene with the crew, and that leaves an impression. (And sure, why not smoke around a damaged aircraft that's been leaking fuel?)

It's packed full of cliché but it has a basic honesty that I rather appreciate among more cynical modern storytelling.

Roger's Aviation Corner: there are actually two slightly obscure aircraft here. One is the PB-1G Dumbo, a B-17 fitted with a surface-search radar and a lifeboat, which had the range and speed to get out to a ship in trouble and could drop the lifeboat full of supplies; the other is a V-1 launch shown in stock footage, or rather a JB-2 Loon, the post-war US version of the missile. (The forward pulsejet support pylon has a distinctive shape.)

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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