Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris, Robert Newton, David Brian, Paul Kelly, Sidney Blackmer, Doe Avedon, Karen Sharpe, John Smith
Written by: Ernest K. Gann, based on his own novel
Directed by: William A. Wellman
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 148
Date: 05/27/1954

The High and the Mighty (1954)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Who'll Stop the Plane?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

John Wayne's production company Batjac put together this early disaster movie with veteran action director William A. Wellman at the helm, and the result is a sharp, tense reading of a mushy script. Wayne is remarkable as an aging pilot with baggage (but not the kind you can check). Having flown in WWI and in countless other situations, he was responsible for a crackup that caused the death of his wife and child. Now his experience comes to the aid of a failing commercial flight limping from Hawaii to San Francisco.

Wayne generously allows his co-stars to steal the picture from him, Robert Stack plays the head pilot who wants to go by the book and land the plane in the water. A diverse collection of supporting players -- including Oscar nominees Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling -- play the rest of the passengers and crew. During the flight, and the 2-1/2 hour running time, the passengers pour out their life stories and problems to one another, and those speeches can get a little ripe. But Wellman, who was also nominated for an Oscar, does a terrific job of building suspense and sustaining it, using neat little tricks like a twitching mirror to indicate the first sign of trouble.

The template for The High and the Mighty has been used again and again, from the disaster movie craze of the 1970s (The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) all the way up to Titanic (1997).

Paramount has released The High and the Mighty in a 2005 double-disc DVD set, hopefully the first of a series of Batjac films to hit DVD. The cinemascope picture and sound are top notch. Extras include all kinds of behind-the-scenes featurettes -- on Wellman, composer Dimitri Tiomkin (who won an Oscar for this score), Batjac, the restoration, and flying in the fifties -- all hosted by Leonard Maltin. Maltin also provides a general introduction for the film.

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