It seemed like an ordinary flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, but nobody had an inkling of precisely how different it would be. The co-pilot was Dan Roman (John Wayne) who was a veteran flyer, having been a pilot in both world wars, but tragedy stalked his reputation as a professional for there had been that crash in South America where he had been the pilot, but turned out to be the sole survivor. It had been an accident that was not his fault, but you trying telling that to a man who felt responsible not only for the deaths of the passengers and crew on that flight, but also those of his wife and child, who were there too - many noted it was amazing Roman had decided to keep living himself after that tragedy.
So how about a spot of redemption for the poor guy? Interestingly, screenwriter Ernest K. Gann, adapting his bestselling novel, opted not to delve too far into the psychology of a man who had been through that suffering and (just about) emerged from the other side, as Wayne would give a subtle hint of the turmoil behind his eyes and leave it at that (yes, the Duke could be subtle). Mostly this was stuck in soap opera mode for the duration, a hit influential enough to spawn countless aeroplane disaster movies from that day to this, from Zero Hour to Julie to the Airport series of the seventies to Air Force One to Sully and beyond, they each owed a substantial debt to the novelty of watching airline crew and passengers interact under pressure.
The appeal was human interest mixed with action, so we could get to know the potentially doomed characters and enjoy the thrill of not knowing whether they would survive or not. At least that was the case until Airplane! came along in the late seventies and had everyone laughing the concept off the screen, although Airport '79: The Concorde may have had something to do with that as well. But The High and the Mighty was a prototype for the disaster movie in the air, and on that level quite a bit of cheesy fun with a reliable cast of pros emoting in the face of their impending demise. The concerns were there when the plane they were on began making odd noises and shudders every so often; these were dismissed but Roman knows something is up.
As do we, for we did not settle down with this lot to hear them discuss their holidays and the in-flight menu. That said, we did get a spot of backstory, with such clichés as the honeymooning couple, the nervous flyer, the resident maniac (Sidney Blackmer) who has managed to smuggle a gun on the plane (how times change), the little kid (though he sleeps through the drama) and so forth, though there were variations such as the sozzled passenger (David Brian) who we find out is a nuclear scientist carrying bomb secrets to the mainland and feeling desperately guilty about it, or the hapless couple who see their holiday ruined by bad luck, and then this happens (the husband may not look familiar, but his voice should be, he was Phil Harris, whose friendly tones were lent to Baloo the Bear in Disney's The Jungle Book).
Funnily enough, Wayne took a back seat, almost literally a co-pilot role, for much of the movie, for this was an ensemble piece, and in the first hour he must have had about ten lines all told, before taking a more prominent part in the plot later on as actual pilot Robert Stack needs a slap around the chops from the big guy to realise there's a strong chance they might not run out of fuel before their destination is reached after all. In the meantime, the passengers bonded, after a brief altercation between the maniac and the man he mistakenly believes has been conducting an affair with his wife (this is where the gun is drawn), though the second it seems a shot will be fired, there is a lurch in the aircraft and one of the engines catches fire. All very exciting, though was it really? It could be the passing of the years rendering this hackneyed, or maybe it was hackneyed even back in 1954, but there was the suspicion that The High and the Mighty was going to be appreciated more by those with a taste for camp than thrills. Still, it was slickly produced, the cast were game, and director William A. Wellman kept things powering along in his accustomed versatility. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin (often whistled).