John Wayne sours in ‘Island in the Sky’

John Wayne (left) headlines 'Island in the Sky'
John Wayne (left) headlines ‘Island in the Sky’

In the last few years I’ve developed a real respect for John Wayne films. The stories are often good, and while Wayne generally plays the same character, there are enough slight variations on the theme to keep it interesting.

What drew me to want to review Island in the Skywas the idea that it had never been released on VHS or DVD. Part of the recent slew of special edition DVDs — fully restored and looking beautiful — that have come out in the last month for Wayne’s movies, the story seemed intriguing. This old black and white from 1953 features an all-star cast, and while it’s probably a little longer than it needed to be, Sky is a strong feature about survival.

Wayne stars as Dooley, a former military pilot who flies transport planes in the far north. During a particularly cold trip, he is forced to land his plane in uncharted territory. He and his four-man crew land safely, but with limited battery supplies cannot take off again. They struggle against the elements in a wintry wasteland while sending out sporadic messages via Morse code.

Meanwhile, several other crews desperately search for their fallen comrades. They fly for hours at a time, over snow-covered mountains and lakes which all look alike, with the hope of spotting the downed plane.

But as Dooley and his crew slowly lose hope, their batteries begin to fade, and the weather is about to get worse.

What makes Island in the Sky work so well is that all the characters are clearly defined. The pilots, anyway. The focus isn’t just on Wayne and his group, but on those flying the search parties. Their fate, in a way, is tied to Dooley because he is one of them. And one lost pilot only reminds them all of their own mortality. That on any given day, it could be them down on the frozen plains of the north.

I also liked how Wayne’s Dooley wasn’t perfect. He makes mistakes, humanizing the character in ways that were surprising. I think that’s one of the things that made John Wayne such a star. The Duke’s characters were often flawed, never super soldiers. In Island of the Sky the days spent in the cold with no food begin to wear him down, and Dooley lashes out at one of his crewmen. Like any man, he is affected by his struggle, allowing the character to be relatable and sympathetic.

James Arness also proved a stand out character for me, even though I was disappointed that he sort of becomes less central as the story progressed. He has the best introduction in the entire movie, but sadly that proves to be his only real moment.

This special edition DVD is loaded with special features (wow, that sounded too much like a commercial). There’s an audio commentary featuring Leonard Maltin, William Wellman, Jr., Darryl Hickman, James Lydon and Vincent Longo. I’d never listened to a commentary that was not by the filmmakers, so this was kind of interesting. It features a lot of details about the making of the film, but Maltin manages to also provide biographical information and footnotes that are pretty cool.

There about 10 other featurettes, including a bio on Ernest K. Gann, the film’s writer (who wrote the book as well), a “making of” feature, and another on “The Art of Aerial Cinematography”, which is pretty insightful for movie buffs.

For Wayne fans, Island in the Sky is a good movie about pilots and survival. It’s one of the Duke’s less remembered movies, but definitely one of his best.

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