Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Wayne's The High and the Mighty has undoubtedly been the most sought-after
unreleased DVD of a famous Hollywood title. Alfred Hitchcock pulled the cream of his
personally-owned library from
public view for almost fifteen years, resulting in a major series of reissues by Universal and his
heirs in 1983. Wayne died in 1979, leaving all of the films produced under the Batjac emblem under
the control of his family. With few exceptions (Hondo) they've had to wait over twenty five years
for restoration and re-release. I
believe the last time I saw a network broadcast of The High and the Mighty was in the late
1970s, and like everyone who first experienced the film on television, Savant has never seen
it in CinemaScope until now.
The High and the Mighty shapes up as a diverting but extremely corny flying soap opera about
an airliner overflowing with 'dramatic' characters. Wayne is excellent and stands out simply by
playing a level-headed guy amid a pack of egotists, worry warts and malcontents; Ernest K. Gann's
dreadful script gets the flying specifics right but drags in every lame characterization known to
bad drama except a defrocked priest seeking absolution. There were disaster films before
(Titanic) and even a far
superior airline jeopardy movie (No Highway in the Sky aka No Highway) but this is
the one that set the standard for scores of followup thrillers, each with their own gimmick.
The overriding plus in the movie is Dimitri Tiomkin's sublime score. It suggests the presence
of spiritual involvement in the slim survival hopes of the crippled airplane, complimenting a
beautiful melody with one of Tiomkin's most dynamic fanfares.
Paramount is releasing this 1954 blockbuster along with the rest of the Batjac collection.
The good extras include a surfeit of chest-thumping praise for the Wayne
legend, and hyped 'critical' kudos abound: Despite the reverential tone seen here,
The High and the Mighty is more of a time capsule of 50s trends than a really good movie.
A DC-4 four-prop airliner takes off from Honolulu to San Francisco with a
dishonored copilot nursing a wounded career (John Wayne), a pilot losing his nerve (Robert
Stack), a dedicated stewardess (Doe Avedon) and a full manifest of melodramatic characters -
nervous aging women, luckless vacationers, a honeymoon couple, a womanizer, a traumatized
nuclear scientist, a disgruntled businessman, an old codger, a Korean immigrant, an unhappy
rich couple and a little kid traveling by himself. One engine breaks down halfway through the
flight, jeopardizing a safe arrival on the mainland and heating up emotions in both the cabin
and the cockpit.
The High and the Mighty is going to appeal most to the over-50 audience old enough to
John Wayne as the king of the boxoffice and this show as a monumental crowd pleaser. A sheltered
50s kid like Savant could tell that parents considered it terrific entertainment. They accepted
all the obvious subplots and cornball appeals for comedy and pathos as 100% sincere. The realism
of the aviation details appealed to millions of ex-servicemen: My father was a flyer and
appreciated the film's emphasis on the basic drama of, as James Stewart says in
The Flight of the Phoenix,
"just getting there."
The film's legend has been greatly enhanced by a thirty-year absence from TV screens and home
video. Unfortunately, along with the long - M.I.A.
Annie Get Your Gun, by the 21st
century a goodly portion of The High and the Mighty's potential audience has probably passed
away. The producer-friendly disc extras offer no reasons for the disappearance, leading
Savant speculate that the real reason for the Batjac holdup was money, a family dispute, or both.
Batjac reaped a monumental boxoffice in 1954, with shrewd moves that made the studios
stand up and take notice. The publicity touts the 'stellar' cast, a collection
of middling ex-contract players that Batjac probably picked up for a song. Stories abound of big
star names that declined to be in the picture, which is unfair because any established star capable
of bolstering a marquee by themselves would surely consider being part of an ensemble a career
demotion. Thus, the film provides plenty of hammy roles for familiar notables. Excellent players
Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Jan Sterling and Robert Newton were probably a bargain. The 'official
story' says that Spencer Tracy backed out of the film at the 11th hour, which given his track record
shouldn't have surprised anyone. Despite the official claims that Batjac was forced to urge Wayne to
step in to fill the gap himself, it seems obvious that the part was tailor-perfect for The Duke.
Flying aficionado director William Wellman's main accomplishment is to keep
the melodramatic kettle boiling in a film shot 90% in a single airplane interior set. Excellent second
unit work and reasonably good effects help with the overall realism; previous aviation films
frequently used much phonier miniatures. Filming in the earliest version of CinemaScope without
wide-angle lenses gives us a flying cabin that appears to have twenty feet of open space between
the windows and the seats, and an unusually roomy cockpit.
If none of The High and the Mighty's supporting Oscar nominees got a prize, it's simply
because the roles are so embarrassingly overacted. The charming stewardess Doe Avedon and third pilot
William Campbell are the least affected, but practically everyone else approaches their
clichéd roles by acting as if they're on a theatrical stage. It's really the fault of a
script that tags each character with a Big Theme or a moralistic judgment. After an almost insulting
expositional opening in Honolulu, the film spends the majority of its time covering an
omnibus of backstories, some told in gimme-the-statuette monologues, and others shown in cut-rate
flashbacks to tiny sets. There are no shots of any of the characters on Waikiki beaches, etc; the
deformed image of Diamond Head behind the main title is a re-formatted flat shot allowed to stretch out
horizontally in the 'Scope format. 1
Pilot Robert Stack's near-psychotic reactions to the slightest problems are now funny thanks to his
own spot-on parody in 1980's Airplane!; The High and the Mighty is surely a big contributor
to that film's reason for being. He finally forces Wayne's co-pilot to slap him about, a moment that
Wayne pulls off so well we forget hitting people is a generic must in all of his pictures. 2
Back in the cabin, David Brian
(The Damned Don't Cry!) looks
like he should be slapping Joan Crawford around. Sidney Blackmer (Rosemary's Baby) is
ludicrous as a gun-wielding cuckold. Paul Kelly
(Crossfire) is a nuclear
physicist having a mental breakdown. 3
The lovely Laraine Day
(Foreign Correspondent) has a
thankless role as a domineering wife and the versatile Jan Sterling (Ace in the Hole) is
given the weird assignment to partially remove her makeup with cold cream, to reveal the 'horrible'
woman underneath. Claire Trevor comes off the best, although she's forced to talk too damn much to
David Brian's womanizer. Phil Harris was a beloved radio personality but comes off as an
overbearing clown in an unfunny comic-relief bit about a failed vacation.
Newcomers Karen Sharpe and John Smith are a pair of newlyweds who cry, scream and make out together.
The close angles don't disguise the fact that all kinds of provocative and disturbing behavior (like
brandishing guns) is happening where neighbor-passengers would surely overhear and observe; Robert
Newton's annoying producer calms a panicked spouse, only to say a mouthful of alarming words that
she would undoubtedly hear as well. Incidentally, Newton's adoring wife is played by Julie Bishop,
who under her birth name Jacqueline Wells, was the leading lady in the classic Universal horror
film The Black Cat (1934). In the passenger cabin, only Doe Avedon and meek fisherman John Qualen
behave with any kind of dignity. Airplane! lampooned Avedon's private moment of hysteria,
but she pulls it off beautifully.
Again, all this is mostly the fault of the awful script. 4
The characters pair up in the most obvious ways - the stewardess, for instance, is given a little
sleeping boy to dote on. A far superior 'opposites attract' ensemble strategy can be seen in the
truly character-driven (and somewhat similar) American Graffitti.
As the natural leader in the cockpit, John Wayne's copilot is the only one who doesn't freak out under
pressure. Real fliers had to be slightly put off by the completely flustered navigator and Robert
Stack's command meltdown. Since the flying problem is fairly cut and dried - they either have the
needed fuel or they don't - the script has to invent a whole array of personal crises to put the
outcome in doubt.
The mounting suspense of the 'will they make it?' finale would be routine stuff without
The High and the Mighty's one all-redeeming asset, its Dimitri Tiomkin
musical score. It's a beauty, telling us from the get-go that the film is grand and important
and ratcheting up the drama whenever anything menacing happens. The contrived engine malfunction
that throws the passengers into a panic plays beautifully, mainly because of the catch-your-breath
scoring that surrounds it.
Even more importantly, the score transcends the film by adding a
spiritual dimension, and not just when Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales is praying from the deck of his
boat. As the crippled plane approaches the runway the music climbs to a pitch of ecstasy attempted
only in religious films. John Wayne says a reverent line, and we're given the image of a
cross in the welcoming landing lights below. For many viewers unused to seeking out symbols, the vision
of the cross was a powerful emotional trigger, evoking salvation, Jesus and the entire revivalist
movement of the early 50s. Thanks almost completely to Tiomkin's music, this bit of emotional
manipulation became a big-deal experience for millions of 1950s viewers, and not only naïve
Paramount's DVD of The High and the Mighty is a reasonable transfer that exhibits too
much 'patterning' in the title sequence, evidence of an inadequate bit rate in the encoding. Color is
fine, although night scenes in San Francisco shot with heavy fog diffusion also have a difficult time
in the DVD process. The show was filmed in the earliest CinemaScope format with an aspect ratio
of 2:55. This 2:35 standard transfer often crowds actors Wayne and Stack into opposite extremes of
The viewing experience begins with what for Savant was a severe annoyance (see
The movie is on Disc One, along with a commentary by Leonard Maltin, William Wellman, Jr., Karen
Sharpe, Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales and Vincent Largo. Maltin is in host mode and is therefore
less critical than he might be in a written review. His helpful introductions of a lot of
good content are unfortunately overshadowed by an overriding need to convince viewers that
The High and the Mighty is the greatest film ever made. Legendary restorer and author Kevin
Brownlow is also pressed into critical duty, and has to do verbal backflips to avoid endorsing
the film as an artistic success. Typical of the corporate attitude to disc extras, there
are no credited producers, writers or editors for the VAM on The High and the Mighty.
Disc Two breaks down a multi-part docu into themed chapters, with the ones on Batjac, Wellman
and Gann being the most interesting. The complicated formation of Batjac as the Wayne-Fellows
partnership is fascinating. We're looking forward to seeing the promised DVDS of other long-absent
titles like Wellman's Track of the Cat and Boetticher's Seven Men from Now. 6
The 'all in the family' Wayne business attitude is carried through the docus, which show us Wayne
sons, relatives and creative associates being nurtured (or carried) by Wayne's boxoffice
power base. The William Wellman bio is reasonable considering how few film clips are
used. Other chapters focus on adventurer/author/artist Ernest K. Gann and a wealth of stories
from the set, presumably the ones sufficiently clean and Batjac-friendly enough to print. A hefty
chapter on Dimitri Tiompkin answers many questions about the great composer.
I'll bet that the restoration docu is so brief because more detail would have revealed just how
long the Batjac library had been allowed to deteriorate. Elements for The High and the
Mighty were reportedly in deplorable shape. Considering how much effort was expended to make
the film look as good as it does, criticizing small flaws in the final product seems inappropriate.
Video views of the audio mix in progress show how difficult and painstaking it was to revive
the film's ancient audio tracks.
Some garishly hyped trailers, premiere footage and a photo gallery round out the extras.
At the Academy Awards The High and the Mighty
won for Tiomkin's score but not for Best Song, even though a doctored version of the picture
with an added vocal was screened for a week in LA to qualify for the Oscars. Then as now, Oscar
nominations often relied on grand schemes cooked up by desperate publicists.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The High and the Mighty rates:
Supplements: commentary, docus, trailers, photos (see text above)
Packaging: 2 discs in slim Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2005
1. It's interesting that
the knockout publicity on The High and the Mighty screams 'big! big!' while so much of the
movie is so cheap. Having all the characters confined to the one set must have made things very
2. We see a lot of Wayne posters in the extra docus, and most of them
show Wayne positioning himself to deliver a haymaker to somebody. Remember kids, America's most
revered role model's most characteristic action is to hit people, while smiling.
3. Paul Kelly's dissenting nuclear scientist is typical for the early
50s. Gann's script makes him guiltily responsible for the threat
of the Atom, instead of politicians and the military. There were plenty of morally conflicted
physicists beyond Robert Oppenheimer, and they were usually drummed out of classified positions
instead of quitting over nerves. As does Wayne's awful propaganda picture Big Jim McClain,
The High and the Mighty scapegoats intellectuals for the problems of the Cold War. It
'compensates' by giving us an incredibly meek and submissive Korean woman (Joy Kim) to represent
the zillions of downtrodden people in the Third World who would kiss our feet for the ability
to come to the Promised Land of the USA.
4. Savant would love to recut a short version of the film that eliminates
the ineffective flashbacks and short-circuits the gushy monologues. It would probably be forty minutes
5. Disc one opens with a 'preview' of scenes
from the Batjac collection that some players won't skip - and the preview includes spoiler-laden
shots from The High and the Mighty. Even worse, I skipped the Leonard Maltin
introduction (to avoid more spoilers)
and went right to "play feature," but the &^%#@ disc played Maltin's intro anyway. I finally
navigated to Scene Selection and started off where I wanted to, but by then we'd heard Dimitri
Tiomkin's title music at least three times, spoiling the surprise of the opening fanfare in its
My recommendation is to turn the DVD player on and the monitor off until the disc settles on the
main menu. Then start the show from the Scene Selection choice, trying not to read the (spoiler-laden)
captions on the chapters. Don't turn the audio up until you see the Paramount Logo. This whole mess
makes Savant nostalgic for spin-and-play laserdiscs ... soon we'll be asked to PAY to sit through
ads for toothpaste! (end rant)
6. As the first of the Boetticher-Scott 50s westerns, perhaps a solid
release of Seven Men from Now will inspire Sony to give us the rest of the terrific series,
all of which are under the Columbia umbrella.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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