In ‘The High and the Mighty’ John Wayne takes a long flight to nowhere

John Wayne stars with William Campbell in 'The High and the Mighty'
John Wayne stars with William Campbell in ‘The High and the Mighty’

This was the second of the John Wayne films I had elected to review recently, and while The High and the Mighty was more familiar to people than Island in the Sky, I think it pales in comparison.

The High and the Mighty is very much like an Irwin Allen disaster flick, but nothing much happens. It’s largely a series of conversations, only a few of them interesting, as each person on the plane deals with the possibly of dying.

In this Wellman film, John Wayne is Dan Roman, a seasoned pilot who is haunted by a deadly crash that killed everyone on board but him. Now a co-pilot, his flight from Honolulu to San Francisco is endangered by faulty engines after it passes the point of no return. Unable to go back to Hawaii, they must race against time to get to San Francisco. But their fuel levels are dangerously low, and they may have to risk ditching the plane in the ocean — which could likely kill them all.

Like an Allen film, which wouldn’t actually come around for another decade or so, the airplane is loaded with an array of familiar actors playing all types of characters. The difference here is that you’re less likely to recognize some of these faces, in that most of them are character actors and stars from the 30s and 40s. Aside from Wayne, Robert Stack is an easy stand out, and there are those who would probably easily recognize Robert Newton as Long John Silver from Treasure Island in 1950. AndStar Trek geeks like myself will also spot William Campbell, famous on that series as Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos”.

I could probably go on about all the actors here, as each of them have lengthy filmographies. Their performances are all flawless, but that doesn’t save this film from being… well, long and rather uneventful. Very little happens here, which is The High and the Mighty’s greatest flaw. Unlike those Allen films, once the drama starts, instead of a series of obstacles presenting themselves as they make their way over the Pacific, very little actually happens aside from a few lengthy and sometimes melodramatic conversations. Each character begins to repent, exposing their flaws and vowing — should they survive — to change and become better people.

Maybe I’m a product of my generation, but at about two and a half hours, The High and the Mighty needed to offer a little more. The real moments of drama — like when a gun-totting jealous husband attempts to shoot the man he believes is sleeping with his wife — are few and far between. The bulk of this film is made of small moments, and while good, over the two hour plus time span they aren’t enough to make this film easier or enjoyable to sit through.

Like Island in the Sky, this DVD includes an audio commentary featuring Leonard Maltin and William Wellman, Jr. Joining them on this DVD is Karen Sharpe, Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, and Vincent Longo. Because of its length, The High and the Mighty’s special features were pushed off onto a second disc. Here you’ll see a series of related featurettes, and it’s a mixed bag. I thought The Batjac Story was interesting, as it details the history of John Wayne’s production company, one of the first started by a movie star that helped produce numerous small films. There’s a great feature on William Wellman, as well as an historical documentary that helps put The High and the Mighty into perspective, “A Place In Film History”.

Perhaps there are Wayne fans who would enjoy this film, but The High and the Mighty was a mighty too high on length for me to really get into. The story needed more to happen. So much of it is kind of cliché that it’s that much harder to enjoy.

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