Judge Ryan Keefer wonders what would have happened if John Wayne decided to consult with the Professor and Mary Ann and had made airplane fuel out of trees and snow.
"They didn't turn once. They didn't even see the smoke. They were coming right over us. They didn't see us!"
Along with The High and the Mighty, another lost John Wayne film comes to the digital video disc medium. The films are very similar, both directed by William Wellman and based on novels from Ernest K. Gann, but which one are fans happy to see now after a decades-long absence?
Facts of the Case
Frank Dooley (Wayne) is a civilian air transport pilot who flies missions for the Army. He and his crew are flying above the Canadian forests when weather and low fuel force them into making a landing in uncharted territory. Dooley's name and reputation are well-known in many areas, and some of his friends are pilots as well. So with the help of the Army, the pilots embark on a mission to rescue Dooley and his crew, while Dooley tries to keep his crew focused on getting home with the resources they have, despite the weather and unfamiliar landscape.
Wayne playing the starring role in a survival film is a slight change of pace for him, because here he manages to show a little bit more of a dramatic side than in other films. But there is a scene which appears to make him out to be a bit of a, well, a dork. That may be sacrilegious to say about such an icon, but it's hard to put into words. When Wayne sees some airplanes that are turning away from his crew's location, he runs after them, but he does it in a way that seems far from convincing. One would think that the guy who appeared in Fort Apache and Rio Grande should run like John Wayne instead of George Constanza. Still, it is very interesting to watch him experiment dramatically. There are also some other parts of the film that are a stretch to accept. Exactly how one can survive in severe subzero temperatures with a collection of blankets wrapped around them is a mystery to this viewer. And after watching The High and the Mighty, the individual performances in Island in the Sky just don't seem as strong, even though the two films have almost identical concepts.
Wayne is clearly the boss on this project. Since he produced the film for his film company with Robert Fellows, he's a part of the film even when he's not around. Much of the cast worked with him previously and went on to work with him in other projects as well. There's a bit of a star quotient here in smaller, uncredited roles. Two of the actors in the "blink and you'll miss them" position are Fess Parker (who played Davy Crockett for Disney in the late '50s) and Mike Connors, who went onto star in the Mannix television series in the early '70s. Aside from those two, the only performance that appears a little larger than life is James Arness. Considering how tall he is (measuring in at 6'7"), it's only natural, but the small screen time that he experiences is pretty enjoyable. He's probably the only one who could play McMullen, an Irish stereotype from the South, but that's a debate for another time. Shortly after his role in this film, Arness went on to play a tiny role in a show called Gunsmoke which, aside from holding the mark as the longest running prime-time drama TV series in history, featured appearances from a wide variety of recognizable actors.
Paramount has put together some extra material that goes well with the film, but still doesn't get too involved. Leonard Maltin brings back Wellman's son and aviation expert Vincent Longo, along with actors James Lydon and Darryl Hickman. The track has some information that may be new to some people, but it's really more of a pleasant discussion between friends. For non-commentary extras, the feature on Gann was the same one used for The High and the Mighty, but the other material is new. Dooley's Down covers the production of the film, including a close look at how Wayne ran the set as a producer. The Art of Aerial Cinematography is an interesting look at how to film flying scenes, and also serves as a tribute to William Clothier, who did the aerial photography for the film. There's even a real-life story about the air transport crew who performed during the war. A small interview with Harry Carey Jr., who appeared in the film (and was a member of the famed John Ford Stock Company of actors with his father and Wayne) is a nice but quick look at the era. In terms of trivia, the Gunsmoke introduction that Wayne did is included, along with a series of stills and the trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is entirely too much Leonard Maltin on the Paramount/John Wayne releases. His participation on each John Wayne disc and on most of the historical and production sketches borders on overkill. At least Maltin has gotten rid of the bowties he wore a while ago and does have some historical information that's worth sharing. However, everyone has their breaking point before overexposure to Maltin causes them to revolt against the world.
Paramount's attention in bringing older films back into circulation is pretty impressive, when one considers that even their current releases never had this kind of treatment years ago.
When a film is labeled as a "forgetten gem" it is often a clear signal that it is not as good as a similar, more successful release in the same timeframe, and this may be the case with Island in the Sky.
Between this film and The High and the Mighty, the court has grown exasperated with just how much Leonard Maltin shows up in these DVDs of restored classics, and would hope that this is not repeated in future. The court gives Paramount probation, and hopes that Maltin will not be saturated on DVDs of other films with Wayne or other old Hollywood actors.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Leonard Maltin
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