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The High and the Mighty

The High and the Mighty
1954 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 148 min. / Street Date August 2, 2005 /
Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris, Robert Newton, David Brian, Paul Kelly, Sidney Blackmer, Julie Bishop, Gonzales-Gonzales, John Howard, Wally Brown, William Campbell, John Qualen, Ann Doran, Paul Fix, Joy Kim
Cinematography Archie Stout
Art Direction Alfred Ybarra
Film Editor Ralph Dawson
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Ernest K. Gann from his novel
Produced by Robert Fellows, John Wayne
Directed by William A. Wellman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

For the past couple of years 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 his heirs and Universal 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 its 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. 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 remember John Wayne as the king of the box office and this show in particular 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 to speculate that the real reason for the Batjac holdup was money, a family dispute, or both.

Batjac reaped a monumental box office 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 on his own would surely consider being part of an ensemble a career demotion. Thus, the film provides 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 for skittishness shouldn't have surprised anyone. Despite the official claim that Batjac was forced to urge Wayne to step in to fill the gap, 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 benefit of 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 back stories, 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 flat stock 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. Stack 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 structurally somewhat similar) American Graffiti.

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 like a charm, 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 individuals.

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 frame.

The viewing experience begins with what for Savant was a severe annoyance (see footnote).

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 operating in gracious, uncritical host mode. His helpful introductions for 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 does verbal back-flips 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 writer 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 Now6

The 'all in the family' Wayne business attitude is carried through the docus, which show us Wayne's sons, relatives and creative associates being nurtured (or carried) by Wayne's box office 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 version of the picture doctored with an added vocal was screened for a week in L.A. 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:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 for 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 economical.

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, the most characteristic action of America's most revered role model 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. The many morally conflicted physicists that sided with Robert Oppenheimer were mostly drummed out of classified positions; they didn't quit 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 long!

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 proper context.

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 Home Video 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 2007 Glenn Erickson

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