- Directed by William A. Wellman
- July 3, 1954
A DC-4 airliner has a catastrophic engine failure while crossing the Pacific Ocean and now a desperate effort ensues for all to survive.
A John Wayne disaster movie? Sure. The High and the Mighty has more in common with the later film Airport than it does with most other John Wayne work. While it is an adventure, it is also very soap opera like and filled with the stock characters you would find in such.
John Wayne is copilot Dan Roman here. He’s traumatized having managed to survive a previous crash that cost the life of his wife and son and left him with a permanent limp. Wayne’s performance waffles between his usually strong rock of an individual and a wounded soul burdened with survivor’s guilt.
Wayne, despite being a huge star of the time, does not play the main character here. Roman is a significant character but certainly not the main character. This is an ensemble film, and I would say just about all players get an even amount of time. This was his production via Wayne-Fellows and he was a huge star and he had the power to make himself the main figure but he did not. Ever see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? He got top billing there but his friend Jimmy Stewart played the main character. Wayne was not above taking second fiddle.
The captain of this doomed flight is John Sullivan (Robert Stack) who suffers from a fear of responsibility. Unlike the strong Dan Roman, Sullivan begins to crack under pressure and second guess himself to the point he creates more issues.
Movies like this are built on the melodrama and those come from characters filling specific parts. We have the young second officer Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell) and veteran navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown). Novice versus experienced. We have flight attendant Miss Spalding (Doe Avedon). She is so important she never gets a first name. There is former actress May Holst (Claire Trevor). Along for the ride is unhappily married heiress Lydia Rice (Laraine Day), former beauty queen Sally McKee (Jan Sterling), annoyingly cheerful Ed Joseph (Phil Harris), terminally ill Frank Briscoe (Paul Fix), the unassuming José Locota (John Qualen), and the afraid to fly Gustave Pardee (Robert Newton).
The first bit of drama comes from the oddly behaving last minute arrival Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer) who is tracking down the philandering Ken Childs (David Brian) whom Agnew believes had an affair with his wife. He did not for once in his life but that does not stop Agnew from pulling a gun on Childs on the flight. This was the 50s and security was not what it is now. Bag check? What’s that?
The High and the Mighty is pretty much what you would expect in a disaster movie. From the plot to the execution, there are no real surprises and that is fine. Disaster films are not high art but rather comfort food. They are never deep things, but they were entertaining things. You are enthralled by the over-the-top acting and the near ludicrous plots.
My only real gripe with this film is the set of the airport at the start. I know this was set decades ago but I just can’t imagine any airport-major or otherwise-as that lightly filled. There were never many people that you could see.
But did I enjoy The High and the Mighty? Yes. It was entertaining and it accomplishes that in spades. There is a talented cast of actors from leads to supporting character actors. There are no slouches and Wayne manages to hold his own in every scene. The dialogue is tight and the direction good. There are a few things that would not fly (no pun intended) today but was just fine for the time.
The High and the Mighty is not the greatest John Wayne film. It’s barely a John Wayne film. But it is entertaining. You’ll enjoy yourself and probably pop in again at some point.