1954 / Best Director

Film #619: The High and The Mighty (1954)

One director who had an interesting relationship was William A Wellman; who was the man behind the first ever Best Picture winner Wings. Despite his film winning the top prize that year, Wellman didn’t receive a Best Director nod for his role on the movie which makes him one of only four men who’ve not received acknowledgement for their roles on Best Picture winners. Wellman did receive three Best Director nominations the first of which was for the original version of A Star is Born in 1937 and the next one twelve years later for the war movie Battleground. Wellman’s third and final Best Director nod came in 1954 for directing The High and The Mighty; an aerial disaster movie which was the precursor to both the big-budget disaster pics of the 1970s and the 1980 classic spoof, Airplane!

As I’ve already seen several of the more famous disaster movies of all time; namely Airport and The Towering Inferno, most of what occurred in The High and The Mighty felt incredibly cliched. The opening expositional scenes in which each of the key passengers was introduced via Doe Avedon’s Stewardess Spalding were particularly clunky. Amongst the one-dimensional characters we met were a couple of stereotypical American tourists, a former actress, an ageing beauty queen, a nervous flyer, an unhappy heiress and a man who arrives last minute which spells out to the audience that he’ll be trouble. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to our star player in the form of John Wayne’s Dan Roman; the ship’s first officer who is haunted by a crash that killed his family and left him with a limp. Interestingly, Wayne wasn’t initially going to star in the movie and was originally only to serve as producer; however when original star Spencer Tracy dropped out he took his place in order to boost the film’s star power. This was the case for a lot of the bigger stars of the day who were unwilling to appear in a movie where they weren’t prominent for the majority of the running time. That’s why the cast is populated by character actors such as Robert Stack who portrays Captain Sullivan; who suffers from a fear of responsibility and panics when things eventually start to go wrong. Firstly, there’s disruption between the passengers when the shifty Agnew accuses the smooth-tongued Ken Childs of having an affair with his wife and confronts him with a gun. Soon after, the airliner loses a propeller and Dan discovers that they’re losing fuel rapidly and have to band together in order to save their lives. With panic setting in Dan and Sullivan have different ideas about the best way to land the plane safely and let the film have somewhat of a happy ending.

Unfortunately, The High and The Mighty ended the run of films from this era that I’ve enjoyed at least some aspects of and in fact I’m struggling to find some positives in a movie that was nominated for a staggering six Oscars. Technically the film had some merits, the use of Cinemascope made the action scenes feel bigger and they definitely provide the movie’s few highlights to the extent that I won’t begrudge the Best Editing nod that the picture received. Of the cast, I found Claire Trevor to be the most engaging as fading starlet May Holst who is supposed to meet her new love interest at the airport but is doubting her fading looks. Trevor performs her handful of scenes splendidly and I was pleased that her character was given a happy ending. Trevor was nominated for a Supporting Actress award for the movie as was Jan Sterling who I was underwhelmed by as ageing beauty queen Sally McKee. The issue was that there were far too many characters in The High and The Mighty that I struggled to care about any of them even given the two-and-a-half-hour running time. I feel this issue occurred because novelist Ernest K Gann was asked to adapt his book for the big screen which I often feel is a mistake as authors never believe that anything can be cut from the original story. In my opinion, at least six or eight characters could have been eliminated with the main plot would be unaffected and subsequently I believe that the movie would flow better. Furthermore, Dimitri Timokin’s score was far too overblown and I was shocked to learn that the film’s main theme was nominated for that year’s Best Original Song Oscar.

I can almost understand Wellman’s nomination as the direction of The High and The Mighty is possibly it’s best element and instead it’s the characterisation, running time and performances that drag it down. However, I don’t believe that The High and The Mighty deserved a Best Picture nod that year as it’s not in the same league as some of the other nominees that year. Conversely, the year’s other two Best Director pictures; Sabrina and Rear Window both deserved inclusion in the Best Picture category in my opinion as they are superior movies. Having Hitchcock’s thriller and Wilder’s rom com replace the dreary Three Coins in the Fountain and the dated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers would make 1954’s Best Picture category noticeably stronger. Meanwhile, The High and The Mighty is a film I could’ve gone without seeing and is one that I won’t particularly remember watching unless I read this review. However, it was interesting watching an early example of the Hollywood disaster film and specifically where the inspiration came for Robert Stack’s Ted Kramer character in the still-excellent Airplane!

Next time we change tone completely as we go to France to hang out with Leslie Caron and some handpuppets in a bizarre musical drama.

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