It’s all about the Duke this week as I enter the uncharted territory (personally) of John Wayne’s filmography. The High and the Mighty entered this list after watching a TV commercial for it during a panel about marketing TCM at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Something about the movie’s air disaster and John Wayne flying a plane made me smile and say, “I’ve gotta see that.” The problem is the Airport series (and its spoof film, Airplane!) exist, dampening the overall effect and turning this into a piece of 1950s disaster nostalgia.
A group of people come back from Hawaii are placed in an unforeseen situation when the airplane they’re on malfunctions. The captains (Wayne and Robert Stack) are forced to find a way to land the plane safely.
There’s two ways to approach The High and the Mighty, both of which deal with combating the dated nature of it all. One way is appreciating the hokey nature of it, obviously commandeered for the aforementioned Air-movies of the ’70s and ’80s. The second way is trying to ignore all the ways air travel has changed since. Obviously, both approaches require you to ignore a lot of the smaller plot points to take this in as a whole. For me, I sat back and embraced this as total camp. We’re introduced to the cadre of tourists as they come up to check in for their flight. Our fresh-faced flight attendant (Doe Avedon) and the desk clerk detail each person’s backstory with quips as if they’re part of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Each actor provides some slice of the American experience, at that time, from the wealthy business couple getting divorced, the glamour girl, the immigrant, and the Korean expat afraid of looking “stupid” in America. And it wouldn’t be an airplane movie without a small child, who I assumed was dead because no way anyone’s sleeping through all the movement that plan makes.
Director William Wellman was well-versed in aviation, and the movie emphasizes how far America had come in the sphere of aeronautics. Look at this against something like Only Angels Have Wings – vaguely acknowledged with Dan Roman’s (Wayne) storyline about being the lone survivor of a plane crash – where every time a man got behind the controls he’d take his life in his hands. When Stack’s Captain Sullivan is called to explain to a customer about air disasters, he emphasizes the statistics (sorry, Rob, I’m never gonna be a confident flyer). Of course, anytime someone in a movie swears the odds of a disaster are nil, that immediately increases the risk. And, sure enough, a disaster happens and the entire flight is in danger.
The actual air disaster is where the movie picks up, as the action in the cockpit deals with Roman and Sullivan coming up with a way to land safely. The various landings they hope to enact, and their own hang-ups about whether they’ll achieve their goals are more introspective than the hokey plotlines of the passengers themselves. The realism and intensity is felt throughout and Wayne determination’s isn’t maudlin or overdramatic; the same with Stack. These people are aware of the thin line between life and death, and had the script tightened up, the drama wouldn’t waver.
Anytime the film shifts away from the captains the cheese is in full effect. You have Phil Harris and Ann Doran playing characters in their early-30s (Harris was 38 and Doran was 43). Later on, they’re the ones we get an entire flashback showing their awful vacation to combat another character’s divorce; the punchline being “You think you got problems?” I’m not sure if it tested funny, but it’s just so incongruous to the rest of the story, and none of the other characters get flashbacks. One character brings a gun onto the plane, getting it back by story’s end because he earned it or something equally ludicrous. Jan Strickling plays a Marilyn Monroe-type whose afraid of meeting her husband because she’s not as young as she claims. The character I was most intrigued by, Dorothy Chen (Joy Kim), is reduced to “Asians aren’t good at writing English” as she says how stupid she is and how she isn’t pretty. Coming on the heels of WWII, watching a Korean woman go to America could have yielded significant pathos, especially since she’s one of two foreign characters we have. Her character isn’t as stereotypical as I presumed, but it’s bizarre the decisions of whom warrants significant screentime in a movie already bloated at two-hours and twenty minutes.
For me, you’re stuck convincing yourself The High and the Mighty is a masterpiece when it really isn’t. Yes, the airplane effects are convincing and the drama in the cockpit is forceful, but the wear is evident. John Wayne is great, firmly in command of the plane and the picture, but every other character is hokey. If you do watch this, have the Airport series and Airplane! on hand as compliments.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.