Directed by William A. Wellman
September 3, 1953
A transport plane crashes in the frozen wastes of Quebec. Now the plane’s pilot must keep his men alive in deadly conditions until rescue arrives.
John Wayne is in the lead as Captain Dooley who is the pilot of the doomed plane. He does not display the machismo which he is usually known for. Strong, yes, but not the toughest man there. Normally his character would be ready to try and punch the weather and get to a better situation. Wayne’s performance is much more mortal here. At times you get the feeling Dooley is struggling himself to keep not only his spirits up but those of his men. It was a definite change for Wayne.
The supporting cast has some recognizable names in it. If not the names, then you might recognize the faces if you watch older films and television shows. Lloyd Nolan shows up as Captain Stutz. The man had a distinctive look and a particular cadence to the delivery of his lines that was in line with older movies. James Arness of Gunsmoke fame shows up as rescuing pilot Mac McMullen. Noted character actor Andy Devine, probably best known today for voicing Friar Tuck in Disney’s adaption of the story, shows up as rescuing pilot Willie Moon with Wayne regular Harry Carey, Jr. as Moon’s co-pilot Ralph Hunt. The last of the genuinely recognizable people is Mike Connors known for the series Mannix (billed here as Touch Connors which was based on his basketball nickname) as Gainer. You might even recognize Paul Fix as Wally Miller. Fix appeared in a few Wayne films but is best known as Micah Torrance who was the marshal of North Fork, New Mexico in the series The Rifleman. Star Trek fans will recognize him as Dr. Mark Piper who was Dr. McCoy’s predecessor in the series second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
This is an ensemble film which is another unusual aspect when it comes to a John Wayne movie. The bulk of the narrative is not focused on Dooley but spread about the crew of the downed plane as well the searching pilots. The film’s story is less effective when it focuses on the rescuers in my opinion. They’re all best buds of Captain Dooley (some even of Wayne in real life) but they exist primarily to lighten the tone of what could have been a much more serious drama if they were removed or their parts in the film significantly dialed down. Worse, the rescuers are barely defined as characters. You have no sense of more to them beyond what you see at the moment.
I winced a little when I saw Andy Devine show up in this film. I recalled the 1939 version of Stagecoach and while I enjoyed the movie, he was the weakest part it and I thought we would get that again in this movie. And we did to a certain extent. He gives a bit more muted performance though. It was his thing. That is why directors and studios hired him.
Because of the realism used in depicting the events surrounding an actual aircraft crash, Island in the Sky is considered a classic aviation film. For example, there is the use of the “Gibson Girl” transmitter which was notoriously difficult to crank much as in the film. Part of the realism is that it is based on a book written by Ernest K. Gann (who also wrote the script) and who was involved in a similar incident in real life. Director Wellman was himself a pilot during WWI. Together they used their knowledge to create something that was a bit more than a survival adventure yarn. An interesting reality is that Wellman disliked actors (yet he was a director) and was known to direct films with predominantly or entirely male casts. In this film the handful of female characters never appear with their male counterparts. It does make their moments feel a bit awkward.
Despite this the script is steady and flows really well other than during those moments. The story itself is a tense struggle for survival in a barren wilderness apparently devoid of life. The environment is stark and rather bleak that the survivors find themselves in. You get a real feel for their isolation and how desperate things are for them. Throughout the film you never get the sense that the cavalry will arrive in the nick of time. There is real doubt over the survival of the characters.
Overall it is an enjoyable movie. Island in the Sky is not the greatest film in the world, but it is certainly a very enjoyable film and a good piece of survival drama starring the legendary John Wayne. The flaws are minor and fleeting. Watch it!