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The High and the Mighty (1954)

Dealing with the way in which the crew and passengers of an aircraft cope with an emergency situation, and being based on a best-selling novel, The High and the Mighty was very much the Airport of the 1950s. This film was very successful, not only in subject but also in terms of commercial success (it grossed over six million dollars in the U.S. and Canada alone). It reminded reviewers of Grand Hotel in it's method of placing assorted types within a confined situation. The obvious parallel within Wayne's own career as in Stagecoach, especially since its leading lady Claire Trevor was back again with Wayne in a part that earned her an Oscar nomination (as did Jan Sterling's performance, though neither actress won, the winner was Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront).

Wayne's role was originally written with Spencer Tracy in mind but the actor belatedly declined to play it. As with Hondo (1953), Wayne had one obvious solution to such casting setbacks on his own productions and he again substituted himself. The role is of quite modest dimensions but suited to the Wayne image. He plays the veteran flyer Dan Roman whose career ranges back to pioneering days, daredevil and endurance flying, and bombing raids in World War II. He is now reduced to acting as co-pilot of a commercial aircraft, never having got over a plane crash from which he was the only survivor with his wife and child among the victims. As a ground engineer admiringly comments: "Dan's the only guy I ever knew who had guts enough not to commit suicide." However, the past preys on him and memory flashbacks show him struggling away from the burning wreck, while his limp is a permanent souvenir of the tragedy.

Wayne's part is established early in the film which then goes on to introduce most of the passengers as they arrive for the flight. Wayne is unusually quiet in the early scenes in the cockpit, whistling occasionally and taking note of the disturbing tremors that presage the later difficulties of the flight. But he predictably proves to be the tower of strength when the crisis develops, levelling with the passengers in a typically direct, encouraging fashion about the near certainty of a crash landing at sea and making the necessary preparations, including carefully enclosing his picture of his wife and child in a waterproof wrapping.

When calculations reveal that the plane has a chance of reaching the San Francisco airport, Wayne exerts his greater experience and calm nerve to insist that they make the attempt to go all the way and takes over from the chief pilot Sullivan (Robert Stack) who has lost his composure. When Sullivan comes round and thanks Wayne for taking the initiative, Wayne returns the controls to him to make the landing successfully and limps away whistling into the night with only the fond murmur of an airline official,"So long, you ancient pelican," to accompany him.

This film was Wayne's first venture into CinemaScope, a process that tended to make the audience feel drawn into the setting in its novelty days while dissipating the sense of confinement. But the way films about ailing aircraft strike a ready chord of fearful identification in audiences ensures that The High and the Mighty exerts a grip, and its great commercial success must have been encouraging to Wayne in his early days as a busy actor-producer.

Dan Roman John Wayne
May Holst Claire Trevor
Lydia Rice Laraine Day
Sullivan Robert Stack
Sally McKee Jan Sterling
Ed Joseph Phil Harris
Gustave Pardee Robert Newton
Ken Chiles David Brian
Humphrey Agnew Sidney Blackmer
Lillian Pardee Julie Bishop
Howard Rice John Howard
Mrs. Joseph Ann Doran
Miss Spalding (stewardess) Doe Avedon
Frank Briscoe Paul Fix
Ben Sneed George Chandler
Roy William Hopper
Garfield Regis Toomey

Shooting from November 16, 1953 to mid January, 1954.
Released July 3, 1954 (US), November 1, 1954 (Great Britain).

Note: This film and Island In The Sky (1953) was released on DVD on August 2, 2005. These releases were made possible because of a distribution deal between Paramount Home Entertainment and Batjac Productions, CLICK HERE for the reprint of the press release of September 8, 2004.

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