The granddaddy of the all-star disaster movie was William A. Wellman’s 1954 “The High and the Mighty,” in which an evening’s trans-Pacific flight from Honolulu to San Francisco becomes an adventure in potential wreckage when the airplane’s engines catch fire. But unlike the later classics on the genre, “The High and the Mighty” is not a special effects bonanza. In fact, by contemporary standards the FX are fairly quaint and sometimes unintentionally funny.
Instead, “The High and the Mighty” earns its wings by developing the multiple storylines of the passengers and flight crew who find themselves together on the troubled airplane. At first this seems fairly cumbersome, since literally everyone on the airplane has a story to tell and an endless lung capacity to tell their stories with–it recalls the Hubert Humphrey joke about being vaccinated with a phonograph needle. With a running time of nearly two hours and 20 minutes, “The High and the Mighty” often feels like the most verbose film ever made.
But once you hang with it, “The High and the Mighty” becomes an engaging, old-fashioned entertainment as the airplane’s passengers and cockpit begin to run personal inventories while facing the potential for a fiery death. At one point in the film, it is determined the airplane can maintain its flight if all unnecessary baggage is jettisoned into the ocean. A back door on the airplane is opened and everyone on board forms a bucket brigade line to pass along suitcases and objects to be tossed out. One passenger, a nuclear scientist who has become repulsed with the arms race, frantically holds on to his briefcase containing a lifetime’s research despite pleas that he sacrifice it. Another passenger, a good-time gal who sizes up the eligible men on the airplane (Claire Trevor, in a hilarious performance), grabs hold of her mink coat, hugs it, sighs, and surrenders the garment to the ocean below. Obviously, the idea that an airplane’s fate could be determined by the weight of a briefcase or a mink coat is an aeronautic first, but the film is so vigorous that the basic tenets of common sense have no place to take root.
The film also presents some surprising performances from unlikely actors. John Wayne plays the airplane’s co-pilot, a veteran of the skies since World War I whose life and career were shattered years earlier when a South American charter he was piloting crashed, killing his wife and child and all on board except him. Wayne never gets into Kirk Douglas-style angst or teeth-gnashing in this part, but at the same time his emotionally and physically crippled character (he walks with a considerable limp) ultimately rises to the occasion for much needed heroic leadership. The pilot who should be heroic leader is played by Robert Stack, who is quite good in showing how his character slowly slumps away from the pressures required to guide the airplane to safety. Stack was frequently considered to be a stoic and charmless film actor (he parodied his old persona in “Airplane!”, which goofed on this film a lot), but here his work is fully nuanced and absorbing.
Even more surprising is Wally Brown, a veteran comic actor who plays the tormented navigator whose miscalculation almost dooms the airplane. His character is burdened with an alcoholic and verbally abusive wife (she refers to him as “Fatso” without much affection), yet his devotion to her and his worrying about her well-being brings a surprising depth to what could have been a stock figure. Brown never had a chance to shine properly in films (for a short time he was teamed with Alan Carney as RKO’s feeble answer to Abbott and Costello) and this film showed what he was capable of doing.
Elsewhere in the airplane, there is British ham Robert Newton giving a stunningly restrained performance as a Broadway producer who grows philosophical about his possible fate, bandleader Phil Harris as the good natured salesman who happily recalls his disastrous vacation, Laraine Day as the high society heiress planning to divorce her married-for-the-money husband when he decides to seek his own fortune in an Alaskan mine (she possesses the cool, condescending to-the-manner-born style of a true Park Avenue princess) and Jan Sterling as the woman of a dubious reputation and advanced age fearful of meeting a penpal who proposed marriage to her (she wasn’t entirely honest about herself and believes the truth will squash her chances for wedded bliss). Sterling suffered a bit too much for her role: she was required to shave her eyebrows in order to essay a hardened persona, but after production ended her eyebrows never grew back.
“The High and the Mighty” was a huge commercial hit in 1954, boosted not only by its star-power but by Dmitri Tiomkin’s hypnotic music score (which won a highly deserved Academy Award) and a theme song which topped the charts (although the theme song in the film has different lyrics than the more familiar pop recordings).
So what happened to the film? After a brief limited edition home video release in the late 1970s (only approximately 1,000 tapes were produced) and a special TV broadcast in 1979 following John Wayne’s death to cancer, “The High and the Mighty” met the fate which the on-screen airplane avoided: it crashed and disappeared. Wayne was both the star and producer of the film, and after his death his estate withdrew this title and several other films which he produced from circulation. Over the years, a few of these titles seeped back into some degree of release. For example, the 1953 “Hondo” emerged on home video, but is not available for theatrical exhibition in its original 3D format while the 1963 comedy “McClintock!” was brought back following the Wayne estate’s mistake of allowing the copyright to expire into the public domain (their abrupt renewal of the film’s music score copyright saved it from PD hell).
But “The High and the Mighty” was not so lucky. The film’s original materials have reportedly deteriorated dramatically and the Wayne estate and Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, have been locked in a seemingly endless argument over who is responsible for covering the costs of restoration. Neither side has budged and, to date, “The High and the Mighty” remains in a state of advanced decay.
Bootleg videos of the film–taken from its brief home video release, its final TV broadcasts and even from 16mm prints–are very easy to find, although the original Warnercolor cinematography is somewhat faded. What is worse, all of these videos are pan-and-scan offerings. “The High and the Mighty” was a widescreen CinemaScope production, so much of its visual impact from the original production is lost on the small screen. But despite these problems, “The High and the Mighty” is still flying…albeit under the radar on bootleg. And until the Wayne heirs and Warner Bros. can get their act together, this is the only way to catch this wonderful old film.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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