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"I got news for you guys. We just passed the point of no return."
Through several generations, The High and the Mighty has been widely regarded as a much beloved, rarely seen film since its 1954 theatrical run. Now, the eagerly awaited John Wayne feature finally arrives on video shelves in a two-disc Collector's Edition. Has it been worth the wait?
Facts of the Case
A small group of passengers and crew board a commercial airplane headed to San Francisco from Honolulu. As the plane passes the critical "Point of No Return" it experiences some mechanical problems, forcing everyone to wonder if they'll make it home safely.
Based on the novel by Ernest K. Gann and directed by William Wellman, The High and the Mighty does a great job at providing ample exposition and character development (the opening fifth of this film focuses almost exclusively on the passengers, discussing them as they check into the reservation desk). We learn about the desperately vain Sally McKee (Jan Sterling, in an Oscar-nominated performance), the playwright Gustav Pardee (Robert Newton, The Desert Rats) and the friendly immigrant Jose Lacota (John Qualen, The Devil and Daniel Webster), among others. Robert Stack (Airplane!) plays pilot John Sullivan, unsure of his nerve and resolve. Wayne plays Dan Roman, the co-pilot who has had to live through such a disaster. Will they make it? Can they make it?
The High and the Mighty is a forerunner of the Airport disaster films of twenty years later. (It also has a lot in common with the still later Airplane! parodies, especially the presence of Robert Stack.) With its amazing array of talents and personalities, this film could serve as a sort of template for the later star-laden blockbuster disaster films. Director Wellman won an Academy Award for his silent film Wings and co-star Claire Trevor won one for Key Largo before Wayne picked up one for True Grit. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin had previously won an Oscar for High Noon, and his musical contributions to this film earned him another. Jan Sterling was nominated for her role here as Sally McKee. Laraine Day appeared in the Dr. Kildare films of the late '30s and early '40s. Rescue pilot Ensign Keim was played by Carl Switzer (a.k.a. Alfalfa from Our Gang). Before his role as Gustav, Robert Newton appeared in The Desert Rats with Richard Burton. Paul Fix went on to televised fame for his work in The Rifleman. Sidney Blackmer (who played Humphrey Agnew) and Paul Kelly (who played Donald Flaherty) were Tony Award winners before appearing in the film. All of this star power appeared two decades before The Towering Inferno, for goodness sake!
With all the stars in the film, The High and the Mighty manages to generate several commendable performances. Sterling's performance is even better than the nomination she received, and Wayne's performance isn't bad either. Of all the people in the plane you would think whose nerves would be easily frayed, he stays as calm as can be. Trevor and Newton provide some good acting moments too. The story effectively illustrates the demons that both Stack and Wayne have to deal with before (and during) the trip, along with the fears of mortality that the passengers face. It's a good film for its era.
Cinetech has done a great job in restoring this eagerly-awaited film. The color reproduction is excellent, and the film's Cinemascope presentation (from very early in the Cinemascope era) gives it the vibrancy you would expect a classic film to have. Chase Audio provides a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that even has moments where the surround speakers are active, something that you can't normally say for a 50 year old movie.
To complement outstanding audio and video presentations, Paramount has included a second disc of extras to enhance the viewing experience. The only glitch is that there are introductions by film critic Leonard Maltin on each disc that you seemingly can't skip; honestly, were six minutes of introductions completely necessary? Besides the introduction, the only other extra on Disc One is a commentary track with Maltin, Wellman's son William Jr., actors Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales and Karen Sharpe, and historian Vincent Longo. Maltin moderates and keeps each participant involved, discussing the production, technical and critical aspects of the film, and Longo contributes some real-life comparisons to the film too. Among some of the more interesting details were that Spencer Tracy was originally cast to play Dan, and that Bob Cummings was asked to play Sullivan. Cummings passed and took a role Dial M for Murder and Spencer Tracy went on to become, well, Spencer Tracy.
Besides Maltin's other introduction, Disc Two has several different featurettes discussing different aspects of the film. They can be played individually or all together, encompassing about 90 minutes. The Batjac Story is titled after the production company Wayne founded, and talks about his reasons and motivations for starting it. It discusses Wayne's conduct on set and some of the films that Batjac produced, including The Alamo, Hondo, and McClintock!. It's a very good look at Wayne's brainchild. Following that is a piece titled Stories from the Set that is a self-explanatory collection of interviews, some archival, from Stack, Sharp, Gonzales-Gonzales, William Campbell (who played crew member Hobie Wheeler) and Doe Avedon (the stewardess Miss Spalding), who recall their roles and some on-set anecdotes. Separate biographical looks at Wellman, Gann and Tiomkin follow, and each are good looks into the creative forces behind the film, with Gann being the most impressive figure. He was a rancher and commercial pilot who loved to sail and paint, skydived on his 77th birthday, and rode a U2 spy plane several years before that, so it's safe to say he knew his subject matter well. Five minutes are spent discussing the film's restoration and another eight on the critical impact of the film. A 23 minute look at air travel in the '50s is next (featuring interviews by TWA and United pilots and stewardesses of the time), along with the trailers and stills of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a little difficult to stay engaged in the film, considering the advances that we've made in air travel over the past five decades. As bad as flying may be now, a 12 hour jetliner flight from Honolulu to Atlanta pales in comparison to a flight on four propeller blades from Honolulu to San Francisco in the same amount of time. And, as bad as preflight security has gotten, when was the last time you were asked for your birthplace as a qualifying question before you boarded a plane?
A very popular film that has been lovingly restored, The High and the Mighty is impressive in size and vision, a touchstone film for a lot of older film fans out there; Paramount has made sure there are plenty of supplements that make the film very enjoyable for modern viewers to boot.
Paramount is found not guilty, as they have released a quality film with an excellent transfer, but they are found guilty of providing the viewer with overexposure to Leonard Maltin. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Introductions by Leonard Maltin
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