The High and the Mighty Review

William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty is a fascinating product of its time, with everything which that label implies. Designed to show off two immortal cinematic icons – Cinemascope and John Wayne – it’s the kind of film they don’t make anymore. Of course, there are drawbacks. It’s rather meagre in suspense and it often becomes grotesquely melodramatic with the kind of supporting cast who give new meaning to the word ‘ham’. But if watched with an indulgent eye, and a sense of humour, The High and the Mighty still offers a good measure of entertainment.

The plot is very simple. A plane travelling over the Pacific begins to suffer engine trouble, the pilot can’t cope, the co-pilot is a haunted wreck and the passengers are overacting like mad. In essence, as anyone even remotely clued-up on film history will tell you, this is a prototype disaster movie, albeit one on a relatively small scale. However, since the disaster movie developed out of classic Hollywood melodrama in the first place, this isn’t exactly a profound insight. The formula for a disaster movie is basically Grand Hotel plus The Hurricane. Eventually, a hefty dose of Peyton Place would be added but in these early stages, the personality disorders are minor and the sex appeal is virtually nil. We do, however, have psychological problems in the form of John Wayne’s rugged co-pilot Dan Roman and his nasty experiences during the war. This is interesting largely because it’s played so well and presented in such a nightmarishly believable manner. William Wellman, a keen pilot and aeronautics buff, is able to bring a sense of visceral reality to this, just as he does to the later scenes of trauma in the air. As Kevin Brownlow has pointed out, Wellman’s films always seemed to gain something whenever his characters left the ground.

He was always a tough, interesting director who was able to turn his hand to anything – from the knife-edge satire of A Star Is Born and the great comedy Nothing Sacred to the brutal realism of The Public Enemy - and it’s largely due to his refusal to indulge in camp for its own sake that The High and the Mighty is still so watchable. The actors are frequently several yards over the top – particularly Claire Trevor and Robert Newton – but the emotions are grounded in a vivid sense of men at work trying to save the day with limited resources. This is something which most later disaster movies never achieved – the exceptions being the occasional small-scale, ironic genre items such as Richard Lester’s Juggernaut. Irwin Allen’s productions are swimming in over-inflated production values and star-spotting irrelevancies and they rarely let us in to see the actual work of overcoming disaster. Wellman is far more interested in the nitty-gritty than the fripperies – which is probably why some of the actors are allowed to get away with the acting equivalent of murder.

In acting terms, however, John Wayne is at his very best and he’s so compulsively watchable as the haunted, middle-aged pilot that he dominates every scene of the film.

When he’s not on screen, you’re waiting for him to come back. When he is, you don’t watch anyone else. When he smiles, it's an open, big-hearted grin which lights up the screen. Wayne was an underrated actor. It shouldn’t have been a surprise in 1954 that he could turn in a great acting performance – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Sands of Iwo Jima should have established that – but he was undervalued then and he’s still undervalued now. Few stars took as many risks as Wayne did. For every Red-baiting piece of shit like Big Jim McLain, he made a film like the death-haunted El Dorado, In Harm’s Way or Trouble Along The Way where he was prepared to stretch himself and show a range of emotions which many still consider to have been beyond him. He’s got star-power to burn of course, but he’s also got the ability to demonstrate vulnerability and fear. Wellman seemed to understand this and, like John Ford, he encouraged Wayne to go further and play against his stereotype. If you want a simple contrast, look at Robert Stack. A fun actor when he was older certainly and a competent one as a young man but he’s a hole in the screen compared to Wayne. In 1966, Melville Shavelson paid Wayne the ultimate compliment. In Cast a Giant Shadow, instead of showing the audience one of the Nazi death camps, he plays the whole scene on John Wayne’s face, demanding that we see the horror in his face. And, by god, it works.

The High and the Mighty is fondly remembered by many moviegoers who saw it on its first release and haven’t had the chance to see it since. It’s interesting for Wayne, for the excellent widescreen cinematography by Wayne veteran Archie Stout and the ingenious, small-scale special effects work. There’s a good deal of merit too in Dimitri Tiomkin’s deservedly Oscar-winning music score with its insidiously memorable main theme.

It’s also important as one of the most successful films made by Batjac productions, Wayne’s own company and one of the million small cuts by which the Hollywood studio system was hacked down to size. It’s not a great film by any means and some younger viewers may find it slow and silly. But it’s the kind of event movie that they don’t make anymore; at least not without editing the shit out of it and speeding it up to fever-pitch so we don’t get to know who the characters before they’re placed in jeopardy. Some of The High and the Mighty is certainly ludicrous. The introductory scene in which each character is able to state who they are and where they are going is laughable and I suspect it wasn’t taken entirely seriously back in 1954.

Yet, like so much of the film, it works on a basic storytelling level and if it raises a smile, it’s a smile of nostalgic affection for a time when a Hollywood blockbuster was willing to take a breath or two before throwing you into the action. I think that what mainstream Hollywood has gained in kinetic excitement during the intervening half-century, it has lost in character and I’m not entirely sure the sacrifice was worthwhile.

The Disc

The High and the Mighty hasn’t ever been available for home viewing and many people despaired of ever seeing it again. Thankfully, Paramount’s new DVD is everything it should be and more. It looks and sounds glorious with extra features which are genuinely fascinating.

The transfer is exceptionally good. Reactions from other reviewers have ranged from the ecstatic to the curmudgeonly. It’s framed at 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The original ratio was 2.55:1 and there is a slightly cramped feel at times but nothing too serious. I found the colours to be variable but there are some exquisitely subtle shadings at times. Some compression artifacting in places. The best thing about this transfer is the level of detail which is consistently impressive. Overall, however, I can only echo other reviewers in praising the painstaking efforts which have been made to restore a film which was apparently in appalling condition. I hope similar efforts are made with Hondo which is released in the Autumn.

The soundtrack is also very pleasing. There are two options. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track is the one to go for as it replicates the original theatrical soundtrack. It’s not a particularly elaborate track but every element is in place and beautifully clear. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix doesn’t add a great deal apart from occasional surround effects.

There are plenty of extra features, although they don’t add up to quite so much as you might hope. This is partly due to an excess of Leonard Maltin, a man who is either delightfully enthusiastic or nauseatingly gushing depending on your point of view. He pops up frequently here, introducing not only the film (which is understandable) but the extras as well (which isn’t). He also looms large on the commentary track, reminding us every five minutes of the merits of The High and the Mighty, presumably fearful that Michael Wayne will change his mind and lock the film away in the Batjac vaults for another fifty years. But there’s plenty of interest in hearing from William Wellman Jr, Karen Sharpe, Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales and Vincent Largo. There are no dead spots on this track and Maltin is undoubtedly gifted with astonishing amounts of relatively useless information.

The second disc contains some meaty featurettes to get your teeth into. Some are more nourishing than others and a piece on writer Ernest K. Gann is particularly infuriating for failing to tell us anything of any great interest. But there’s a great bit about the formation of Batjac and some wonderful on-set anecdotes. I enjoyed a disappointingly brief piece on William Wellman – featuring the welcome presence of early Hollywood expert Kevin Brownlow – and a lengthy, in-depth featurette about Dimitri Tiomkin. A twenty-five minute segment called “Flying In The Fifties” is a particularly fascinating bit of social history and a documentary on the restoration process demonstrates just how much work had to be done on the film before it was ready for DVD release.

We also get some amusingly over the top trailers for this film, a montage of trailers for future Paramount/Batjac releases, some dispensable premiere footage and an interesting photo gallery.

Be warned that the introduction to the film by Leonard Maltin contains spoilers and will play automatically when you start the movie. You can skip this but it’s rather annoying.

The film is accompanied by optional English subtitles. The featurettes are also subtitled but the commentary and trailers are not.

Paramount’s efforts on this DVD are to be highly praised. The transfer may not quite be in the Warner Brothers league but considering what they had to work with, it’s a remarkable achievement. Fans of classic Hollywood cinema will find a lot to interest them on this disc and it’s well worth a purchase.

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Last updated: 29/05/2018 01:45:19

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