Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
The High and the Mighty is a “Noah’s Ark” film. I believe that term came from Roger Ebert. What it means is that the film contains a large collection of varied and different personalities, all thrown into some sort of conveyance and then thrown into peril. While the peril is a big part of the film, another big part of the film is the clashing personalities and all of the different issues and problems they bring to the table. In this case, that conveyance is an airplane. The peril, thus, makes The High and the Mighty something of a disaster film as well.
I’ll be blunt—there are too damn many characters here to go through all of them and all of their foibles. We have a plane with a dozen and half or so passengers and a crew of five heading from Honolulu to San Francisco. Among these passengers is a newlywed couple on their way back from their honeymoon, another married couple returning from a disappointing vacation, a third married couple about to get a divorce, a wealthy ladies man, the husband of a woman who may or may not have been having an affair, an old Italian fisherman, a terminally ill man, a Korean woman, and a former beauty queen. Everyone has his or her own issues and problems and worries.
The crew is more interesting. We have a captain of the aircraft named John Sullivan (Robert Stack) who is a by-the-numbers pilot hiding the fact that he’s starting to lose his nerve on these long flights. He’s assisted by navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown), who has a drunk floozie for a wife, and Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell), who has a bit of an attitude and overconfidence problem. They also have a stewardess (yes, that was the term in 1954) named Miss Spalding (Doe Avedon) who seems in many ways to be the most confident and competent person on the plane. Finally, and most importantly, we have Dan Roman (John Wayne).
Dan Roman has a couple of important things about him. First, he likes whistling, and does it frequently. Second, he has a pronounced limp. Third, he lost both his wife and his son in an airplane crash, which is why he is no longer a captain and is now a first officer. He was the only survivor of that crash, which is also where he got the limp. One of the many flashbacks we get is to that crash, where we learn of the death of his son and wife complete with a burning teddy bear on the ground.
Anyway, the crew starts to notice a few problems with the plane. Specifically, there are some vibrations that don’t seem to have any specific source. Trouble hits just as the plane crosses the point of no return across the Pacific. One of the engines flames out and twists the wing. This not only slows them down and increases the drag, the bend in the wing causes a fuel leak, meaning that the plane may not have enough fuel to make it all the way across. A good portion of the film, then, is the crew attempting to do anything they can to get the plane as close to the California coast as possible and the various passengers dealing with what may well be their last moments on earth. Throughout, we get flashbacks of the passengers and the crew dealing with their own personal issues as they attempt to make peace with their lives and their decisions.
With a cast this big, it would be difficult for anyone to really stand out. That’s both good and bad. On the one hand, there’s always something going on and there’s a lot to pay attention to as the various stories progress. It also means that despite the nearly 150-minute running time almost everyone gets short shrift. It’s okay though, because it’s John Wayne’s film from front to back. This is John Wayne as he should be; he’s gruff and completely manly on the outside, but we get glimpses of the pain and fear and trouble beneath the surface when no one else is looking. John Wayne was always at his best when there was this sort of depth to the character he was playing, and while Dan Roman doesn’t have the depth of Ethan from The Searchers, he’s conflicted enough to be interesting.
What’s interesting for me is the Robert Stack character. I seriously want to watch Airplane! again, because I can only imagine that his character will be exponentially funnier now that I’ve seen this.
The High and the Mighty is very much a product of its time. It’s overly melodramatic and far more predictable than it should be. The end is quite entertaining even when it continues to be predictable. But I’m hard pressed to call this a great film. It’s entertaining and John Wayne once again proves that he really could act, but it’s got too many characters to care about, too much to keep track of, and it’s a good 30 minutes too long because of it.
Why to watch The High and the Mighty: John Wayne as he should be: badass and troubled.
Why not to watch: It seriously shows its age.