The High and the Mighty (film): Wikis


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The High and the Mighty
Directed by William A. Wellman
Produced by Robert Fellows
John Wayne
Written by Ernest K. Gann
Starring John Wayne
Claire Trevor
Laraine Day
Robert Stack
Jan Sterling
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Archie Stout
Editing by Ralph Dawson
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) July 3, 1954
Running time 147 min.
Language English

The High and the Mighty is a 1954 CinemaScope drama adventure film[1] with a star-laden ensemble cast released through Warner Brothers. The film starred and was co-produced by John Wayne, directed by William A. Wellman, and written by Ernest K. Gann who was also the author of the novel on which the film was based.[2] 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 did not win. The film follows the lives and interactions among the passengers and crew on board a Douglas DC-4 airliner while making a trans-Pacific flight (Hawaii to California) during which a catastrophic prop failure and engine fire leads all to the brink of disaster. The High and the Mighty served as a template for later "disaster" themed films such as the Airport series (1970-79), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenburg (1975) and Titanic (1997).[3]



"Digital watercolor" image of DC-4 N4726V in TOPAC livery prior to moving to "Gate 4" for passenger boarding (from a screenshot)

While The High and the Mighty is often categorized as both an adventure/drama as well as an early example of the Hollywood "disaster" film,[3] it also very much fits the additional genre of the complex, heavily character-driven ensemble cast picture. The film explores the personal dramas and increasingly strained interactions that develop among the 17 passengers, as well as the self-doubts and professional conflicts among the five crew members on board an unpressurized DC-4 commercial airliner operating as "Trans-Orient-Pacific (TOPAC) Flight #420" on a fictional overnight hop from Honolulu (T.H.) to San Francisco. Just past its midway point, the flight is suddenly transformed by mechanical failure into a tense, nerve-wracking, and life-changing ordeal for everyone aboard. The first half of the unusually long (2:27) motion picture is devoted to the careful development of the film's 22 principal characters through both extensive interactive dialogue and many long, expensively produced flashback sequences before the life-threatening crisis occasioned by the film's in-flight "disaster" begins. The 22 "souls on board" the flight are:


  • May Holst (Claire Trevor): a loquacious, overly dressed, self-described "broken-down old broad" who seems to always be on the lookout for a man;
  • Ken Childs (David Brian): an avuncular, middle aged, silver-haired playboy and TOPAC investor/board member who soon receives the attentions of May Holst;
  • Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer): an unctuous Honolulu "snake oil" manufacturer ("Agnew's Aides") and insanely jealous husband who is convinced that Childs is having an affair with his wife, Martha, and brings a revolver (there was no TSA then) with him on the airliner to help "discuss" the matter with Childs;
  • Sally McKee (Jan Sterling): a platinum blond, overly made up, self-doubting mail-order bride going to meet her sight-unseen future husband;
  • Prof. Donald Flaherty (Paul Kelly): an alcoholic U.S. Atomic Energy Commission scientist and amateur painter who has become conscience-stricken about his work on nuclear missiles;
  • Lydia Rice (Laraine Day): a rich, shrewish, and aloof social climber from New York City who is not at all happy with, and intends to divorce, her husband...
  • Howard Rice (John Howard): who has infuriated Lydia because he wants to sell the New York advertising agency she bought for him ("as a new toy") and use the money to leave New York to buy and operate "a broken down old mine in Canada;"
  • Gustave Pardee (Robert Newton): a philandering, self-centered, English accented (although New York-born) theatrical producer who is terrified of flying ("the original Frightened Freddie") and just about anything else he can't control, and...
  • Lillian Pardee (Julie Bishop): Gustave's placating, much younger wife who, despite all her husband's faults, still loves him;
  • Ed Joseph (Phil Harris): an exuberant, overweight, loud-mouthed tourist from New Jersey who is returning home from a nothing-went-right "vacation from hell" with...
  • Clara Joseph (Ann Doran): his overly emotional Utah-born wife;
  • Nell and Milo Buck (Karen Sharpe and John Smith): a misty eyed young couple returning from their honeymoon;
  • Frank Briscoe (Paul Fix): an ailing, wheelchair bound, grandfatherly gentleman who, although constantly in pain and having "signed over" virtually all his possessions to others, is still gracious and generous to a fault;
  • Dorothy Chen (Joy Kim): a soft spoken, self effacing young Korean refugee looking to start a new life in America;
  • José Lacota (John Qualen): a heavily accented, soft spoken, harmonica-playing commercial fisherman who is flying for the first time in his life;
  • Toby Field (played by the director's son, Michael Wellman): a cap pistol-toting seven-year old who, returning to his mother from a visit to his father, sleeps through all the excitement;


  • Captain John Sullivan (Robert Stack): while an experienced, sober, and no-nonsense pilot, nevertheless he is also one whose "nerves are getting rusty";
  • First Officer "Whistling" Dan Roman (John Wayne): a troubled 20,000+ hour veteran flyer ("I've been flying since 1917.") who a few years earlier was the captain and only survivor of a DC-3 that crashed on takeoff in Colombia killing, among others, his wife and young son;
  • Second Officer Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell): the flight's smart aleck young relief pilot;
  • Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown): the rumpled, often logorrheic navigator upon whose skills all will soon depend for their survival;
  • "Miss Spaulding" (Doe Avedon): a young, rookie flight attendant ("I've only been with the company for four months."), and the airliner's only cabin crew member.[4]

Although the TOPAC dispatcher in Honolulu advises Capt. Sullivan that there are to be "21 souls on board (16 passengers, five aircrew), the rest cargo, 73,000 pounds gross" on the flight at take off, shortly before departure (but after the dispatch paperwork has been signed off by the captain and the aircrew have boarded the airliner), one unexpected last minute passenger (Humphrey Agnew) purchases passage on the flight without a previous reservation thus increasing the actual passenger count to 17 when the flight leaves the gate.[4] (In aviation and maritime parlance, souls on board (SOB) refers to the total number of persons (passengers and crew) on board an aircraft or vessel.[5][6])

Soon after departing Honolulu (HNL) for the scheduled 2,393[7] statute mile trip over the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco (SFO), an intermittent yet almost imperceptible shudder alerts First Officer Roman to a potential problem with the airliner. None of the other aircrew and passengers seem to notice anything amiss at this time, however, except for Flight Attendant Spaulding who is alarmed when she looks into the flight deck mirror and sees it shake. A short time later Capt. Sullivan is resting in the crew bunk when he senses a problem with the propeller "on either #1 or #3" which he perceives is slipping out of "sync" with the other three, but the cause can not be found.

View of the fire in Engine #1 (as created by special effects) that emperiled the fictional TOPAC Flight #420 just after it passed the "point of no return" between Honolulu and San Francisco. (screenshot)

Shortly after passing the point of no return at an altitude of 9,000 ft (MSL) on a trip anticipated to last 12 hours and 16 minutes ("exactly"), the left outboard engine (#1) seizes, causing its three-bladed propeller to separate and a serious engine fire ensues. Although quickly extinguished, the engine nacelle has become badly twisted in its mounts, which greatly increases aerodynamic drag, and the airliner loses 4,000 ft of altitude ("and still sinking") before the aircrew regains full control. What proves to be of greater concern, however, is the damage caused by a separating propeller blade which has breached the left wing's outboard fuel tank (#1), resulting in the loss of a critical 200 gallons of the less than 1,300 of fuel that remained from the original 3,050 gallon load which the DC-4 had taken on at Honolulu.

With more than a thousand miles yet to go, the crew does not know if they can nurse the crippled airliner to a safe landing at San Francisco or will be forced to ditch at night in a storm-tossed Pacific. Each of the 17 passengers and five crew members on board react differently to the stress of this uncertainly. In the cabin, several personal crises were already brewing among the passengers. Agnew brought a chrome-plated revolver on board with which to confront Childs, whom he suspects of having an affair with his wife, Martha, who once worked for Childs. Just as Agnew makes his move, however, engine #1 seized, beginning the hours of terror for all on board.

The flight crew, left to right: First Officer Dan Roman (John Wayne), Navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown) and Captain John Sullivan (Robert Stack)

The passengers and crew face this impending doom by reevaluating their lives. Navigator Wilby at first believes the airliner has enough fuel to make land, but then finds an error in his calculations and realizes they will run out "11 minutes short" of the airport unless the winds change. Meanwhile an air-sea-rescue (ASR) effort by the United States Coast Guard has also been launched in case the aircraft is forced to ditch. Capt. Sullivan becomes resigned to the inevitability of the ditching option despite the extreme risks involved until Roman, the far more experienced First Officer, finally rebels against the Captain's orders and literally "slaps some sense" into the Captain and convinces him to try to make the airport even though the crippled airliner may not have enough altitude to clear a hill on their approach path.

After more than six hours of terror, the airliner ultimately just makes it to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) but touches down with only two of its four engines still operating as Roman had been forced to feather #4 (right outboard) when it also failed owing to fuel starvation shortly after passing the outer marker on its instrument landing system (ILS) approach to that field's Runway 28R. A check of all the tanks on the tarmac shows them to be effectively bone dry ("just 30 gallons left, too little to really measure") thus revealing how really very close the flight had come to not reaching the airport. The film ends with Dan Roman whistling as he walks off alone into the darkness while TOPAC's operations manager, Tim Garfield (Regis Toomey), says "So long. So long, you ancient pelican."


Casting problems plagued the production. After the originally chosen lead Spencer Tracy "ankled the project" shortly prior to preproduction,[8] a surprisingly reluctant John Wayne agreed to take on the role. For the other major male lead, Wayne had promised the role to his friend, "Bob" Cummings who was a pilot and had Wellman's recommendation as well. The interview with Robert Stack eventually convinced Wellman that a nonpilot could effectively portray the drama of a cockpit conflict.[4] After Trevor and Sterling were nominated for Academy Awards, Wellman revealed that Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers and Dorothy McGuire, in turn, declined the roles, apparently unwilling to essay the parts of "a broken-down broad" (Holst) or "a mess" (McKee).[4] Stanwyck's refusal was especially galling as the director had always treated her as a "pet."[9]

Credited cast members (in order of on-screen credits) and roles:[4]

Actor Role
John Wayne Dan Roman (First Officer)
Claire Trevor May Holst
Laraine Day Lydia Rice
Robert Stack John Sullivan (Captain)
Jan Sterling Sally McKee
Phil Harris Ed Joseph
Robert Newton Gustave Pardee
David Brian Ken Childs
Paul Kelly Donald Flaherty
Sidney Blackmer Humphrey Agnew
Julie Bishop Lillian Pardee
Gonzalez-Gonzalez Gonzales (Amateur Radio Operator, SS Cristobal Trader)
John Howard Howard Rice
Wally Brown Lenny Wilby (Navigator)
William Campbell Hobie Wheeler (Second Officer)
John Qualen José Locota
Paul Fix Frank Briscoe
George Chandler Ben Sneed (Far East Crew Chief, Honolulu)
Joy Kim Dorothy Chen
Michael Wellman Toby Field
Douglas Fowley Alsop (TOPAC Agent, Honolulu)
Regis Toomey Tim Garfield (TOPAC Operations Manager, San Francisco)
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer[10] Ens. Keim, USCG (ASR Pilot, Alameda)
Robert Keys Lt. Mowbray, USCG (ASR Pilot, Alameda)
William Dewolf Hopper Roy (Sally McKee's fiancé)
William Schallert TOPAC Dispatcher (San Francisco)
Julie Mitchum Susie Wilby (Mrs. Lenny Wilby)
Doe Avedon Miss Spalding (Flight Attendant)
Karen Sharpe Nell Buck
John Smith Milo Buck
Robert Easton (uncredited) TOPAC Dispatcher (Honolulu)


William Wellman on location during filming for The High and the Mighty

The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky (which was released a year earlier in 1953) both depict dramatic situations in a civil transport aviation context. William Wellman had reservations about the "intimate" storylines which dominated both productions, preferring to focus more on aircraft and pilots, yet after script deliberations set out the final screenplay, he endorsed the novel approach that harkened back to films such as the Grand Hotel.[9][11]

Wellman's films were produced two decades before Airport and its sequels (along with the later Airplane! parodies). They were early John Wayne co-productions in which he also starred, a practice which would not become widespread until the 1980s and 1990s. The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky shared many of the same cast and production crew. Along with Wayne, six other actors appear in both films: Regis Toomey, Paul Fix, Carl Switzer, Ann Doran, George Chandler and Michael Wellman. Ernest K. Gann wrote the original novels on which both films were based along with both screenplays.

After their original theatrical runs and many years as a television staples, both films were withdrawn from circulation for about a quarter-century because of legal issues. Significant portions of the film stock of The High and the Mighty also showed color fading which was dealt with through a restoration process.[4] In July, 2005, both films returned to public view when they were broadcast on television for the first time in two decades and also released in a DVD two disc edition that August.

Aircraft feature prominently in The High and the Mighty, including two unusual aviation events: the U.S. Coast Guard's short-lived use of the B-17/PB-1G "Dumbo" rescue aircraft along with a brief launch clip of experiments with the U.S. Navy JB-2 version of the V-1 (an early kind of cruise missile) at an atomic missile test site. The postwar use of piston engine aircraft in oceanic flights was a key element of the film which required the use of a then-modern airliner.[12]


Douglas DC-4 N4726V

N4726V in fictional TOPAC colors as the passengers wait at "Gate 4 in Honolulu" to board "Flight 420" to SFO (screenshot)

The DC-4 (N4726V; ex-N66694, ex-LV-ABR) used to film the tarmac, passenger boarding (at "Gate 4")[13], takeoff, and daylight flying sequences was a former C-54A-10-DC (c/n 10315) built as a military transport in 1942 at Long Beach, California by Douglas Aircraft Company under U.S. Army Air Force contract (USAAF s/n 42-72210).[14]

When the exterior and flying sequences were filmed in mid-November, 1953, the airliner was being operated by Oakland, California-based non-scheduled carrier Transocean Airlines (1946–1962), the largest civil aviation operator of recycled C-54's in the 1950s. Novel and screenplay author Ernest K. Gann wrote the original book while he was flying C-54s for Transocean over the Hawaii-California routes. The airliner was named The Argentine Queen and had once been the personal aircraft of Juan Perón, the controversial three-time President of Argentina. It was later operated by Slick Airways before being acquired by Transocean in 1953. The film's fictional airline's name "TOPAC" was painted over the Transocean's red, white and yellow color scheme for filming.[15]

Originally acquired by Transocean in 1953, N4726V was transferred just two years later to Airwork which in turn leased the aircraft to a variety of operators. It was subsequently acquired and operated by World Airways and finally by Facilities Management Corp., a charter air carrier.[16]

Transocean Airlines director of flight operations Bill Keating did the stunt flying for the movie. Keating and Gann had flown together and the author recommended his friend for the work.[17] During preproduction filming, Keating was involved in a near-incident when simulating the climactic night emergency landing. After several approaches, Wellman asked for "one more take" touching down even closer to the runway's threshold. Keating complied, taking out runway lights with his nose landing gear before "peeling off" and executing a go-around. Wellman quipped that the crash would look good in another film.[18]

The "damaged engine" installed on the second "TOPAC DC-4" on a specially built mount with a 30º "droop" (screenshot)

In addition to this aircraft, a second Transocean C-54/DC-4 equipped with a large double cargo door[19] used to accommodate the loading of freight on pallets, was employed for all shots of the damaged airliner on the ground at San Francisco in the film's closing sequences. A propellerless, fire-scorched engine on a distorted mount with a 30º "droop" was installed on the left wing of this aircraft to represent the damage which had emperiled the flight. Exterior airport scenes were filmed at the Glendale Grand Central Air Terminal, east of Burbank, California, where an outdoor movie set was constructed to replicate the terminal gates at SFO in the early 1950s. Additional exteriors utilized Oakland International Airport for all boarding, engine run-up, taxiing and takeoff scenes used in the opening sequences.[20] The external night and damaged in-flight sequences were filmed in a studio where a large scale miniature was photographed against backdrops. Passenger cabin and flight deck interior scenes were all filmed on sets built on a Warner Bros. sound stage.

Loss of N4726V

Unlike the fictional engine fire in the film which the stricken DC-4 airliner portrayed by The Argentine Queen survived and reached San Francisco safely, ironically a decade after its appearance in the motion picture this same aircraft suffered a similar engine fire during an overnight trans-Pacific flight and was lost with no survivors. At 8:47 PM (HST) on March 27, 1964, N4726V took off on a charter flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles with a crew of three and six passengers on board. A few minutes before 6 AM (PST), eight hours into the anticipated 11 hour, 40 minute flight, a Mayday call from the pilot was heard reporting the flight's position as about 700 miles west of San Francisco with a serious fire in engine #2 (left inboard), and saying that "...we may have to put it in" (aviation jargon for ditching in the ocean). No further transmissions were heard.

The United States Coast Guard conducted a five-day search for the missing DC-4, but no traces of either the airliner or its occupants were ever found. Later investigation revealed engine #2 had a recurring oil leak in the propeller governor assembly on an earlier flight that had resulted in temporary grounding. The cause of the in flight fire remained undetermined.[21]

Original release and reception

The High and the Mighty received considerable critical acclaim when it was released in July, 1954, and although the choice of the new Cinemascope format limited theater use, it was also one of the most commercially successful films that year.[2] Within two months of its release, it was ranked No. 1 in box-office receipts and set the record for the "fastest return of negative cost" (screen jargon for making back production costs).[9] John Wayne provided a critically praised role "against type" while supporting actresses Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling earned 1954 Academy Awards nominations for Best Supporting Actress. The film earned additional Oscar nominations for director William Wellman and film editor Ralph Dawson, along with composer Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington for the film's title song. Tiomkin received the film's only academy award, for the film's original score. The popular title song by Tiomkin and Washington was included on only one print of the film so as to qualify it for an Oscar nomination. It is not heard on the prints issued for general theatrical release.[22]

Restoration and re-release

DVD re-release of the film

By the 1960s and 1970s, The High and the Mighty became a television staple, but due to tighter broadcast schedules and several royalty disputes, however, the film's last appearances on broadcast television were in 1982 on the TBS cable channel, and on Cinemax in March/April 1985. One crucial element in the The High and the Mighty's resurrection was the extensive restoration required after decades of languishing in the Wayne film vault where the film suffered major water damage and one reel was lost for a period of time, making the possibility of such a pristine restoration seemingly unlikely.[1]

As a result of the film's rarity, it developed a cult following, which led to petitions to get the film released in home video formats. The estate of John Wayne, through Gretchen Wayne, the widow of the actor's late son, Michael, made a deal in the early 2000s with Cinetech (film) and Chace Productions (sound) to update and restore both The High and the Mighty and another "lost" Wayne film, Island in the Sky.[23] This led to a distribution agreement with Batjac Productions (Wayne's production and distribution company) and both American Movie Classics (for TV rights) and Paramount Pictures (home video rights).[2] Following the recovery of the lost reel, The High and the Mighty, after its meticulous restoration, was rebroadcast on television in July 2005, the first broadcasts in 20 years.[1] Together with Island in the Sky, the film was released as a "special collector's edition" DVD in August of the same year by Paramount Home Entertainment. It was also broadcast on Turner Classic Movies on October 27, 2007.


Academy Awards



Golden Globes



  1. ^ a b c "The High and the Mighty." IMdB. Retrieved: February 20, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c Maltin ["The Batjac Story: Part 1 (1951–1963)"] 2005
  3. ^ a b Anderson, Jeffrey M. "'The High and the Mighty' (1954): Who'll Stop the Plane?", July 24, 2005. Retrieved: February 22, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e f The High and the Mighty (DVD) 2005.
  5. ^ Ezell, Robert. "How Many Souls on Board?" Retrieved: February 23, 2008.
  6. ^ Wood, Sandy and Kara Kovalchik. "When an airline pilot refers to you as an SOB..." Retrieved: February 23, 2008.
  7. ^ Air Distances Between World Cities in Statute Miles
  8. ^ Jameson, Richard T. "Editorial reviews: 'The High and the Mighty' (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) (1954)"., 2005. Retrieved: February 20, 2008.
  9. ^ a b c Maltin ("On Director: William A. Wellman") 2005
  10. ^ Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (Ens. Keim) derived his nickname from the character "Alfalfa" for which he became famous portraying as a child actor in the Our Gang comedies from 1935 to 1940.
  11. ^ Wellman 2006
  12. ^ Hardwick and Schnepf 1989, p. 66.
  13. ^ Note: According to a letter to the editor in the February 2008 Taloa Newsletter, another DC-4 called "The African Queen" (N4665V) may have been used for the Honolulu "gate" sequence, citing a partial wing registry number visible in a screen-capture image from the movie. "letter to the Editor: Taola Newsletter." Taloa Newsletter, February 2008, TALOA Alumni Association. Retrieved: May 14, 2009.
  14. ^ Douglas Production List Long Beach (Part 02).
  15. ^ "Monochrome photograph of Transocean Airlines DC-4". Retrieved: February 20, 2008.
  16. ^ Lyons, Joe. "Propliner Golden Age - When Round Engines Ruled the World: Aircraft of “The High and the Mighty:” The Douglas DC-4 & the Boeing PB-1G in 1/144 scale"., 2006. Retrieved: 20 February 2008.
  17. ^ Shane 2006, pp. 22–23.
  18. ^ Shane 2006, p. 24.
  19. ^ "Douglas images, Photo ID: 1011538 (Photograph of a double door on a DC-4)". Retrieved: February 20, 2008.
  20. ^ Shane 2006, p. 25.
  21. ^ Accident report - N4726V.
  22. ^ "1954 Academy Awards." Retrieved: February 20, 2008.
  23. ^ Shane 2006, p. 22.
  • Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade's Gone By... Berkeley, California: University of California Press; New Ed edition, 1976 (original edition, 1968). ISBN 0-52003-068-0.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • The High and the Mighty (Collector's Edition) DVD. Burbank, California: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005.
  • Maltin, Leonard. "The Batjac Story: Part 1 (1951–1963) (film documentary)." The High and the Mighty (Collector's Edition) DVD. Burbank, California: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005.
  • Maltin, Leonard. "On Director: William A. Wellman (film documentary)." The High and the Mighty (Collector's Edition) DVD. Burbank, California: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005.
  • Ricci, Mark and Boris and Steve Zmijewsky. The Films of John Wayne. New York: Citadel Press, 1970. ISBN 0-80665-022-3.
  • Shane, Bob. "The Makings of 'The High and the Mighty': A Former Airline Pilot Remembers the Filming of an Aviation Classic." Airpower, Volume 36, no. 1, January 2006.
  • Silke, James R. "Fists, Dames & Wings." Air Progress Aviation Review, Volume 4, No. 4, October 1980.
  • Wellman, William Jr. The Man And His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture. New York: Praeger Publishers, 2006. ISBN 0-275-98541-5.

External links


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