The High and the Mighty (1954)

Directed by William A. Wellman
Cinematography Archie Stout

The High and the Mighty is a 1954 WarnerColor American “disaster” film in CinemaScope directed by William A. Wellman and written by Ernest K. Gann who also wrote the 1953 novel on which his screenplay was based. The film’s cast was headlined by John Wayne, who was also the project’s co-producer. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin won an Academy Award for his original score while his title song for the film also was nominated for an Oscar (but the title song did not actually appear in release prints, nor, indeed, in the recent restoration, of the film). The film received mostly positive reviews and grossed $8.5 million in its theatrical release The supporting cast includes Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris and Robert Newton.

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Critical reception

At the time of the release of The High and the Mighty, it received mostly positive reviews. Variety wrote that the film “is a class drama, blended with mass appeal into a well-rounded show that can catch on with most any audience.”  Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times called the film “an enormously vital picture, amazingly associated with life’s panorama today, and thus filled with a rare kind of tingling excitement, especially for a modern air-minded public.” Joseph Henry Jackson, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, said that the film has “a story that gives you no time to catch your breath”.

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The High and the Mighty also received some negative reviews, with Richard Griffin of the Los Angeles Times writing that another reviewer had criticized the cast: “All are fabricated characters—and that is the way they are played.” The film’s running time was also commented on by several reviewers who called it “an unbelievably long trip” and “the extreme length of its proceedings, which seems almost full flight time Honolulu-San Francisco.”

Modern reviews of The High and the Mighty are mixed. Wayne biographer Ronald L. Davis described the film, “While its plot is somewhat synthetic, the special effects and performances make for an engaging film.”  David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews, called the film “bloated and overlong” and that it relies on “artificial, needlessly drawn-out speeches for its characters”.

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“When your motor conked out, my motor conked out.”

16 May 2005 | by bkoganbing (Buffalo, New York) – See all my reviews

The release of The High and the Mighty coincidentally came out at the same time I Love Lucy shifted it’s locale from New York to Hollywood and star crazy Lucy Ricardo was stalking all the big film stars of the day. I still remember when Lucy stole John Wayne’s footprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and that never to be forgotten line she said to him about his latest film quoted above.

I think a lot of people felt that way about The High and the Mighty. I was lucky to see it when it was broadcast in 1979 the week of the Duke’s demise. I had seen it earlier, but it has not been broadcast since. And that’s a pity because this film is a four star winner in every respect.

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This was produced by John Wayne as well as starring him and it is the second work he did with director William Wellman. In fact Ernest K. Gann wrote the novel this was based on and he also wrote the book that the Wayne-Wellman combination tackled in their first endeavor, Island in the Sky. That too, has not been broadcast for years, but I’ve seen it also.

In fact if you look at the credits, all the Wellman behind the camera crew is virtually the same. One big addition for The High and the Mighty is Dimitri Tiomkin, writer of so many wonderful film scores for the Duke and others. Previous to this Tiomkin had done that outstanding score for Red River for Wayne another milestone picture for him. The only Oscar the film won was for it’s score.

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It’s one of the great movie themes of all time and not too many people know this, but there were lyrics by Ned Washington. The theme was also in the Best Song award category, but lost to Secret Love. Probably because I can’t recall a vocal recording done of it. Lots of instrumentals though, a big seller.

In this Grand Hotel cast, actresses Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling both got nominated in The Best Supporting Actress category, but lost to Eva Marie Saint. It’s almost a shame that those two performances got singled out because the whole cast was brilliant. It’s always the mark of a good film that even the most minute character roles are fully developed and remembered. Case in point: In The High and the Mighty Douglas Fowley as a ground attendant at the beginning of the movie and Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as a ship’s radio operator have tiny parts, but you will remember both.

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The plot concerns a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco which develops engine problems and a fuel loss. After that the suspense doesn’t let up for one micro-second of film. Lots of flashbacks are well integrated into the plot. Flashbacks about the crew and the passengers. All of their lives are laid bare in brief vignettes. Two passenger performances I liked besides Trevor and Sterling were Paul Kelly as the cynical scientist and Robert Newton as the jaded Broadway producer.

The crew of course is headed by Robert Stack as pilot and John Wayne as co-pilot. In his memoirs Stack said the role of Sullivan was one of his favorites and he paid a heartfelt tribute to producer/co-star John Wayne. Wayne was a controversial guy, most of his co-stars liked to work with him, a few didn’t. Stack was one of his biggest boosters as a performer and his tribute to the Duke should be read by all John Wayne fans.

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Wayne had one of the best faces for closeups ever in screen history. Top directors like Ford, Hawks, and Wellman knew that and used him to best advantage. Both in Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, Bill Wellman caught a lot of the anguish and determination in closeups that said more than a page of dialog. Both as Dooley in Island in the Sky and as Dan Roman here, Wayne plays a character who is not battling bad guys, but a bad situation. In both he’s the leader of a group of people who’s lives are in his hands and he can’t show weakness. None of the usual screen fights are in either of his Wellman roles. It’s the elements and fear that are the bad guys that have to be licked.

It’s a pity they didn’t do more actor/director classics like these two films, Wellman and Wayne. They did work together on Blood Alley, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the first two films. Bill Wellman actually did work for the Duke once again in a film Wayne produced, but did not star in called Goodbye My Lady in 1956. Wellman retired two years later.

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The High and the Mighty represents an artistic triumph and a commercial one. When it came out, John Wayne was at the height of his career, in the midst of a string of years as number one at the box office. Catch this film by all means if you can. With it coming out on DVD, maybe it will finally be broadcast again on AMC or TCM.

Mike and Pat–Don’t hold this one back

Author: JB-12 from Long Island NY
14 January 2002

Probably the most popular film that has never been released to any video medium, The High and the Mighty is th4e granddaddy of all of those disaster pictures that became popular in the 70s, but they do not hold a candle to this one.

The Wayne Family in general, and I would assume sons Michael and Patrick in particular, own the film along with some others. One has to wonder why they do not release it. I have a copy I recorded from HBO many years ago and when aired it was a great print. I am fortunate to be able to see it now and then at my own leisure.

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The plot of a crippled airliner in the middle of the Pacific doesn’t accurately describe this film. It is a true character study with some of the finest actors of the day on hand delivering brilliant performances. Those that stand out include Jan Sterling (oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner), Claire Trevor (Oscar nominated), Phil Harris, Robert Newton, and David Brian. But each and every one in the rest of the cast can take a bow for a job well done. And That includes Wayne himself. His Dan Roman is complete, a man with strengths and weaknesses, but a man who eventually is the only one to step up in a time of crisis. It is one of his best performances.

William Wellman’s direction keeps the film moving, Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar winning score had viewers whistling along with Whistling Dan.

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Mike and Pat, please let this one out before it becomes an antique. A new generation of your father’s fans await this classic. It is not fair to deny them their chance to see him. And by the way. John Wayne was not the original choice to play Dan Roman. When He acquired the rights to the film he just wanted to produce it ( a la Bullfighter and the Lady). His choice wanted to play the role, but schedule conflicts prevented this, thus John Wayne had to play the role he offered to Spencer Tracy

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