The High and the Mighty
Action / Adventure / Drama
Directed by William Wellman
Written by Ernest K. Gann (both novel and screenplay)
Produced by Robert Fellows, John Wayne
Cinematography by Archie Stout
Distributed by Warner Bros.
John Wayne as Dan Roman (First Officer)
Claire Trevor as May Holst
Laraine Day as Lydia Rice
Robert Stack as John Sullivan (Captain)
Jan Sterling as Sally McKee
Phil Harris as Ed Joseph
Robert Newton as Gustave Pardee
David Brian as Ken Childs
Paul Kelly as Donald Flaherty
Sidney Blackmer as Humphrey Agnew
Julie Bishop as Lillian Pardee
Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Gonzales (Amateur Radio Operator, SS Cristobal Trader)
John Howard as Howard Rice
Wally Brown as Lenny Wilby (Navigator)
William Campbell as Hobie Wheeler (Second Officer)
John Qualen as José Locota
Paul Fix as Frank Briscoe
George Chandler as Ben Sneed (Far East Crew Chief, Honolulu)
Joy Kim as Dorothy Chen
Michael Wellman as Toby Field
Douglas Fowley as Alsop (TOPAC Agent, Honolulu)
Regis Toomey as Tim Garfield (TOPAC Operations Manager, San Francisco)
Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer as Ens. Keim, USCG (ASR Pilot, Alameda)
Robert Keys as Lt. Mowbray, USCG (ASR Pilot, Alameda)
William Dewolf Hopper as Roy (Sally McKee's fiancé)
William Schallert as TOPAC Dispatcher (San Francisco)
Julie Mitchum as Susie Wilby (Mrs. Lenny Wilby)
Doe Avedon as Miss Spalding (Flight Attendant)
Karen Sharpe as Nell Buck
John Smith as Milo Buck
Robert Easton (uncredited) as TOPAC Dispatcher (Honolulu)
'Whistling' Dan Roman is assigned to be co-pilot on a commercial DC4 flight from Honolulu to San Francisco. Years before Dan was the pilot of a plane that crashed, killing all on board except him, including his wife and son, a fact which personally haunts him. The captain of the flight, 'Skipper' Sullivan, also suffers from a psychological condition that is known to affect pilots who have logged a large number of flight hours, causing an acute fear of flying.
The passengers of the flight are not without their ailments and issues as well. Mr. Flaherty is a nuclear physicist who is paralyzed with revulsion for how his life’s work has been utilized by the government as weapons of war. Gustave Pardee is a Broadway producer with a fear of flying, traveling with his overbearing wife Lillian. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph are flying back from a bad luck plagued “dream vacation” gone bad. Lydia Rice is the bitter wife of a rich businessman who wants to gamble his stable family business on starting up a mine. Sally McKee, a former beauty queen, is travelling to get re-acquainted with a long lost love that she has been corresponding with via mail, and is very nervous at the prospect of meeting with him again after eight years. Korean schoolteacher Dorothy Chen is traveling to a new job, and is apprehensive about this new life in a strange land. Nell and Milo Buck are newlyweds returning from their honeymoon, realizing that the reality of married life is upon them. Five year old Toby Field is flying alone between his divorced parents’ homes. Also on board are Frank Briscoe, an invalid; May Holst, a blond world traveler; Ken Childs, a wealthy playboy; and Italian immigrant and fisherman Jose Lacota. This band of travelers is joined at the last minute by businessman Humphrey Agnew.
As this motley band takes to the sky, all seems well. The take off is smooth and incident free, but shortly into the flight, Dan and Sullivan notice vibrations in the craft that they cannot pinpoint the cause of. Sullivan senses that the propellers are out of phase, but his crew is not able to confirm that. Later, as the passengers converse about their various plights, Stewardess Spalding reports to the pilots that there are vibrations in the back kitchen. Dan goes to check out the fuel compartment, but cannot find the source of the mysterious vibrations affecting the plane. A few hours later, the plane passes the point of no return, and the passengers continue to quibble amongst themselves, with Agnew accusing Childs of seducing his wife in Honolulu. The situation escalates when Agnew attempts to shoot Childs, which misses but starts a fire. The fire is extinguished, but the bullet ruptures a gas tank and damages one of the plane’s motors. The pilots radio for help, but their message is only received by an amateur radio operator named Gonzales on a merchant vessel below. Gonzales forwards the message to the Coast Guard, who mobilize in the event of a water landing.
Dan and Sullivan calculate the amount of fuel they have left and realize that they need to lighten the load in order to have any chance of making it to San Francisco. Dan has to convince the passengers to throw their luggage overboard; the passengers agree, forming a line to pass the belongings up the aisles to Dan, who pitches them out of the plane and into the ocean below. The peril that they find themselves in also unifies the passengers, as they find that in the face of crashing into the ocean, all the things in life that they felt were so important when they got on the plane aren’t all that important after all. They begin to resolve their differences, look at each other in a new light, and forge new friendships.
Although Dan and Sullivan know that a water landing would be catastrophic due to the current heavy wind, they have the crew instruct the passengers on how to use lifejackets and lifeboats. As they are nearing the final make or break moments, the navigator realizes a critical error that puts their destination 11 minutes farther than originally calculated. This dire news proves to be too much for Sullivan, and he panics, forcing Dan to take control of the situation. Dan orders a final check of their fuel and the weather conditions, and determines that they should be able to make it to San Francisco airport, although just barely. The airport staff clear and light the runway, awaiting the plane’s arrival with bated breath. Dan skillfully glides the plane through turbulence and fog to bring the passengers to their destination safely.
As the passengers disembark and are met by reporters and anxious loved ones, they contemplate their lives through the scope of the tragedy that was just narrowly averted by the courageous efforts of one man, who shrugs off the ordeal, whistling all the while.
William A. Wellman was an aviation buff who flew in World War I and later trained pilots how to fly combat missions. Another aviation movie, the silent picture Wings in 1927, gave Wellman the clout to make bigger movies after winning two Academy Awards in 1929.
The story is written by Ernest Gann, who also wrote the script for Island in the Sky (1953), also starring John Wayne, and directed by William A. Wellman.
The film was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, but only won one. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin won an Academy Award for his score, and the title song was also nominated.
Originally John Wayne was just supposed to produce the film, not star in it. Spencer Tracy was offered the role but declined it, saying the script was lousy. Without Spencer in the lead role, Jack Warner threatened to pull out of the film, unless another prominent lead was found. Wellman convinced Wayne to star in the film as well as produce it.
In addition to sharing director, writer and star with Island in the Sky (1953), both movies also had many of the same crew. Six other actors appear in both films: Paul Fix, Carl Swizer, George Chandler, Regis Toomey, Ann Doran, and Michael Wellman.
Jan Sterling, who won a Golden Globe for her performance in the film, reportedly shaved her eyebrows for the film and they never grew back.
John Wayne had originally chosen his friend Robert Cummings for the role of Captain Sullivan; however Director William A. Wellman overruled Wayne’s choice and gave the role to Robert Stack instead.
The plane used in this film for the boarding and flying sequences is a former military surplus DC-4 that was registered as N4726V. In an example of tragic irony, 10 years later, that plane went down in the Pacific on a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles. No trace of the plane or any of the 3 crew or 6 passengers was ever found. Later inspection of maintenance records revealed an oil leak in one of the engines might have been the culprit.