The High and the Mighty

The High and the Mighty

The High and the Mighty‘ is a 1954 American aviation disaster film, directed by William A. Wellman, and written by Ernest K. Gann, who also wrote the 1953 novel on which his screenplay was based. John Wayne stars as a veteran airline first officer, Dan Roman, whose airliner has a catastrophic engine failure while crossing the Pacific Ocean.

The film was produced nearly two decades before ‘Airport’ and its sequels (along with the ‘Airplane!’ parodies, the first of which featured Robert Stack lampooning himself). The ‘High and the Mighty’ served as a template for later disaster-themed films such as the ‘Airport’ series (1970–79), ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972), ‘The Towering Inferno’ (1974), ‘The Hindenburg’ (1975), and ‘Titanic’ (1997).

In Honolulu, a DC-4 airliner prepares to take off for San Francisco with 17 passengers and a crew of 5. Former captain Dan Roman (John Wayne), the flight’s veteran first officer, known for his habit of whistling, is haunted by an air crash that killed his wife and son and left him with a permanent limp. The captain, John Sullivan (Robert Stack), suffers from a secret fear of responsibility after logging thousands of hours looking after the lives of passengers and aircrew. Young second officer Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell) and veteran navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown) are contrasts in age and experience.

Flight attendant Spalding (Doe Avedon) attends to her passengers, each with varying personal problems, including jaded former actress May Holst (Claire Trevor), unhappily married heiress Lydia Rice (Laraine Day), aging beauty queen Sally McKee (Jan Sterling), and cheerful vacationer Ed Joseph (Phil Harris). Spalding befriends the terminally ill Frank Briscoe (Paul Fix) after being charmed by his pocket watch. A last-minute arrival, Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer), causes the aircrew concern with his odd behavior.

After a routine departure, the airliner experiences sporadic, sudden vibrations. Although the aircrew senses that something may be wrong with the propellers, they cannot locate a problem. When a vibration causes Spalding to burn her hand, Dan inspects the tail compartment but still finds nothing wrong.

After nightfall, as the airliner passes the point of no return, Agnew confronts fellow passenger Ken Childs (David Brian), accusing him of having an affair with Agnew’s wife. The men struggle and Agnew pulls out a pistol, intending to shoot Childs, but before he can do so, the airliner swerves violently when it loses a propeller and its engine catches fire. The crew quickly extinguishes the fire, but the engine has twisted off its mounting. In mid-ocean, the aircrew radios for help and sets in motion a rescue operation. Dan discovers that the airliner is now losing fuel from additional damage to a wing tank. That, combined with adverse winds and the increased drag of the damaged engine, means that the airliner will eventually run out of fuel and be forced to ditch.

Unassuming José Locota (John Qualen) disarms Agnew and confiscates the pistol, compelling him to sit quietly. Gustave Pardee (Robert Newton), who up until now has made no secret of his fear of flying, inspires calm in his terrified fellow passengers. Dan calmly explains the situation, trying to lessen their anxiety, but warns that their chances of making the coast are ‘one in a thousand.’ The passengers rally around each other and find changed perspectives about their existing problems. They toss luggage from the airliner to lighten its weight, with May Holst literally kissing her mink coat goodbye.

In San Francisco, Manager Tim Garfield (Regis Toomey) comes to the airline’s operations center but is not sanguine about the airliner’s chances. A favorable change in the winds raises the crew’s hopes that they have just enough fuel to reach San Francisco, but Wilby discovers that he made an elementary error in navigation and their actual remaining time in the air remains inadequate.

Dan’s experience tells him that their luck would be better trying to make land than ditching in rough seas at night. Sullivan panics and prepares to ditch immediately, but Dan slaps him back to his senses. Thinking clearly again, Sullivan decides against ditching. As the airliner approaches rain-swept, night time San Francisco at a perilously low altitude, the airport prepares for an emergency instrument landing. The airliner narrowly surmounts the city’s hills and breaks out of the clouds with the runway lights dead ahead, guiding them to a safe landing. As the passengers disembark, Garfield watches their reactions as they are harried by reporters. After the tumult dies down, he joins the aircrew inspecting their damaged engine and informs Dan that only 30 gallons of fuel remained in their tanks. Dan acknowledges the gamble they took and walks away, limping and whistling into the night. ‘So long…you ancient pelican,’ Garfield mutters to himself.

After Wayne and Robert Fellows had formed Wayne-Fellows Productions in 1952, the duo worked on several films including ‘Big Jim McLain,’ ‘Plunder of the Sun,’ and ‘Island in the Sky.’ In 1953, director William Wellman was releasing ‘Island in the Sky’ when he learned that his screenwriter Ernest Gann was writing another aviation story. Gann shared the story with Wellman, and the director offered to make a sales pitch. Wellman relayed the story of ‘The High and the Mighty’ to Wayne-Fellows Productions. Wayne purchased the story on the spot, agreeing to give Gann $55,000 for the story and the screenplay plus 10 percent of the film’s earnings. Wayne also agreed to give Wellman 30 percent of the earnings to be the film’s director, based on the condition that ‘The High and the Mighty’ would be filmed in CinemaScope.

It was a widescreen projection process that involved using an anamorphic lens to widen the image produced by regular 35mm film. Wellman’s experience was that the CinemaScope camera was ‘bulky and unwieldy,’ and the director preferred to station the camera in one place. Since ‘The High and Mighty’ was set on an airliner with cramped quarters, Wellman did not need to worry about flexibility in composing shots.

The High and the Mighty depicts a dramatic situation in a civil transport aviation context. Jack L. Warner initially was opposed to the film, believing that audiences would not stay interested in a plot stretching more than 100 minutes involving the passengers in an airliner. William Wellman had reservations about the ‘intimate’ storylines, which dominate the production, preferring to focus more on the airliner and pilots. Yet, after script deliberations set out the final screenplay, he endorsed the novel approach that harkened back to earlier films such as ‘Grand Hotel.’

The Douglas DC-4 (N4665V) used to film the daylight flying sequences and the Honolulu ‘gate’ sequence was a former C-54A-10-DC built as a military transport in 1942 at Long Beach, California, by Douglas Aircraft Company. When the exterior and flying sequences were filmed in November 1953, the airliner was being operated by Oakland, California-based non-scheduled carrier Transocean Airlines (1946–1962), the largest civil aviation operator of converted C-54s in the 1950s, and named ‘The African Queen.’ Ernest K. Gann wrote the original story while he was flying DC-4s for Transocean over the Hawaii–California routes. The film’s fictional airline’s name ‘TOPAC’ was painted over the Transocean’s red, white, and yellow color scheme for filming.

A second former C-54 equipped with a large double cargo door used to accommodate the loading of freight on pallets, was employed for all shots of the damaged airliner on the ground at San Francisco in the film’s closing sequences. A propellerless, fire-scorched engine on a distorted mount, with a 30° ‘droop,’ was installed on the left wing of this aircraft to represent the damage which had imperiled the flight.

Aircraft feature prominently in The High and the Mighty, including two unusual aviation events: the U.S. Coast Guard’s short-lived use of the B-17/PB-1G ‘Dumbo’ rescue aircraft along with a brief launch clip of experiments with the U.S. Navy JB-2 version of the V-1 (an early kind of cruise missile) at an atomic missile test site. The postwar use of piston-engine aircraft in oceanic flights was a key element of the film, which required the use of a then-modern airliner.

Wellman, an accomplished pilot in real life, purposely maintained the point-of-view of the flight path of the seemingly doomed airliner traveling as the support staff in San Francisco would observe it: flying from the west to the east, from Honolulu to San Francisco, film frame right to film frame left, except during takeoff and landing. Similarly, the U.S. Coast Guard rescue plane was shown flying from San Francisco to towards the stricken airliner, film frame left to film frame right.

Composer Dimitri Tiomkin scored the film and composed the theme song ‘The High and the Mighty’; the song was also called ‘The Whistling Song’ because John Wayne whistled the tune during production. Tiomkin’s music topped hit parade charts and remained there for weeks, increasing the film’s profile. A 1955 national survey of disc jockeys labeled the song as the ‘most whistleable tune.’


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