Considered by many to be the first “true” air disaster movie (predating Airport by a good sixteen years), William A. Wellman’s The High and the Mighty is a genuine classic. Written by renowned aviation scribe and former pilot Ernest K. Gann and starring such greats as John Wayne, Claire Trevor and Laraine Day, The High and the Mighty is as interesting and enjoyable today as it was in 1954.
An airline pilot with a slight limp whistles his way towards a TOPAC DC-4 that sits on the tarmac at Honolulu. As he performs his walk-around inspection, the pilot is greeted by an old friend, Ben Sneed. Ben correctly identifies him as Dan Roman, a veteran of two World Wars and a commercial airline pilot with almost twenty years experience. In an uncomfortable exchange, Ben – now a crew chief with Far East Pacific – explains how he thought Dan had quit flying. The two men part ways. Once out of earshot, Ben explains to his colleagues that Dan had been involved in a fatal air crash ten years earlier, in which his wife and son were killed. As the captain of that flight, and the only survivor, he naturally blames himself.
At the terminal, Flight 420’s passengers are checking in. These include ex-government scientist and alcoholic Professor Flaherty (Paul Kelly), bubbly holidaymakers Ed and Clara Joseph (Phil Harris and Ann Doran), gorgeous blonde Sally McKee (Jan Sterling), Broadway producer Gustav Pardee and his young wife Lillian (Robert Newton and Julie Bishop), middle-aged ladies’ man Kenneth Childs (David Brian), Chinese-born Korean Dorothy Chen (Joy Kim), unaccompanied minor Toby Fields (Michael Wellman), two newlyweds (John Smith and Karen Sharpe), apologetic Howard Rice and his bitter wife Lydia (John Howard and Laraine Day) and “just a fisherman” Jose Lacota.
It is here we are introduced to pretty stewardess Ms. Spalding (Doe Avedon) as well at the rest of Flight 420’s flightcrew: Captain Sullivan (Robert Stack), navigator Lennard Wilby (Wally Brown) and relief pilot Hobie Wheeler. The three men touch-base with the flight office and estimate a flight time of twelve hours, fifteen minutes. Hobie expresses embarrassment at Dan Roman’s experience, though it’s not made clear whether it is himself or Dan he is embarrassed for.
A late arrival for the flight is Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer), the founder of a vitamin manufacturing company in Honolulu. He is adamant about being on the same flight as Ken Childs, and pays cash. Prior to take-off, Ms. Spalding collects coats off the passengers and helps Frank Briscoe (Paul Fix), a wealthy gentlemen suffering from myeloma, to fasten his seatbelt. She also gets Toby settled whilst the DC-4 taxies to the runway.
After a routine take-off, Ms. Spalding heads up front to chat with the flightcrew. She asks Captain Sullivan to speak with Mr. Pardee, who has a fear of flying. Sullivan leaves the cockpit. After some playful banter with Hobie, Ms. Spalding takes her leave, pausing to adjust her uniform hat in a mirror at the rear of the cockpit. Suddenly, the whole aircraft shudders violently. Dan scans his instrument but finds nothing. Apart from Ms. Spalding and himself, no one else appears to have noticed.
After speaking with Mr. Pardee and Sally McKee, Captain Sullivan returns to the cockpit. He takes a short rest break, and Lennard chats to him about his wife. Sullivan’s internal monologue explains how tired he is. Always tired. Irritated by Lennard’s banter and unable to relax, he has the navigator ask Hobie to check on Engine No.1 or No. 3, as one keeps slipping out of sync. Hobie and Dan check, and report to Sullivan that everything appears normal.
Ms. Spalding pours drinks for some of the passengers. The aircraft shudders again, more violently than before. She does not report this to the flightcrew. Night falls. The Rices discuss their marriage, including Mr. Rice’s decision to sell his father-in-law’s advertising company in order to buy a run-down mine in Canada, and their impending divorce. Mr. Joseph lightens the mood by telling a humour story about the disastrous holiday him and his wife took. Passenger May Holst (Claire Trevor), who has been making eyes at Ken Childs the entire flight, finally summons up the courage to talk to him.
Ms. Spalding prepares dinner for Ms. Chen. The aircraft shudders some more. Alarmed, she informs Captain Sullivan that, “There’s something very wrong back there.” Dan accompanies her back and inspects the tail, and once again finds no evidence of anything being wrong.
Mr. Agnew, who has been uneasy the entire flight, confronts Ken Childs with a revolver. Apparently Childs was having an affair with Agnew’s wife, which Childs denies. As the other passengers attempt to wrestle the gun off of Agnew, there is a loud bang and a blue flash; the aircraft pitches violently to port. Sally screams, “We’re on fire!”
In the cockpit, the flightcrew wrestle with the controls. The No. 1 engine is on fire and dangling precariously from its mount, its propeller completely sheered off. Lennard sombrely reports that Flight 420 is past the point-of-no-return. Worst news is to follow: Hobie is unable to contact San Francisco, and the port wing is leaking fuel…
This truly is one of the all-time greats. A fantastic cast, likeable characters and sometimes gorgeous cinematography round out what is at heart an excellent character drama. On the downside, the DVD transfer is less than perfect and some of situations seem a little quint over fifty years on.
I give this film 9 out of 10. A must-see for all aviation buffs and those who, like me, are fans of John Wayne.
Things to notice
I have no knowledge whatsoever of airline operations of the 1950s, hence I have no goofs to report. There are, however, several things you may find to be of interest:
- According to the IMDb, the aircraft used was an ex-military C-54 operated by Transocean Airlines (the film’s fictional TOPAC livery is identical except for titles on the forward fuselage and tail). It had previously served as the private aircraft of Argentinean dictator Juan Peron. In a startling coincident, the aircraft crashed into the Pacific after an engine fire on a flight between Honolulu and Los Angeles.
- In the latter half of the film, Robert Stack says lines such a, “Full flaps!”, “Watch your airspeed!” and “Check your final position!” If you sense some familiarity, you are not alone; the actor would later utter these same lines twenty-six years later in film Airplane!, a spoof of films such as this one.
Trans-Orient Pacific Airlines Corporation (TOPAC) Flight 420 is a Douglas DC-4 departing Honolulu (HNL) for San Francisco (SFO).
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U.S.A. 1954. Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures and re-released by Paramount. Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring John Wayne, Robert Stack, Doe Avedon, Claire Trevor and Laraine Day. Rated PG. Also known as Écrit dans le ciel (French), Es wird immer wieder Tag (German).