John Wayne Classic: The High and the Mighty Special Collector’s DVD

Movie buffs and John Wayne fans, who have been wondering when the 1954 film The High and the Mighty would be released for home viewing, can now rejoice. Paramount Home Entertainment has finally released this classic on DVD–with color beautifully restored and audio carefully remastered.

The High and the Mighty is a product of John Wayne’s own film company, Batjac. It stars Wayne himself as a former flying ace, “Whistlin” Dan Roman, who is now a co-pilot for a commercial airline. Roman’s fellow crew members–younger and much less experienced than he–have him pegged as a old-timer who ought to hang it up, but when, during the course of the film, engine trouble occurs en route from Honolulu to San Francisco, they’ll all be mighty glad he’s on board.

The film presents Wayne not as the usual gun-slinging hero, but as a professional who can keep his cool and knows how to talk to both crew and passengers in a way that minimizes panic. The movie, however, isn’t all about him. A host of Hollywood stars comprises the dozen or so passengers, all of whom get the chance to shine on screen. Just a few of the big names include Claire Trevor, Phil Harris, and Laraine Day.

We meet the characters and get a sense of their quirks during a fun opening scene at the Hawaiian airport. Here, a check-in clerk gossips with the stewardess Miss Spaulding (Doe Avedon) about each of the famous (and not so famous) passengers. Everyone on board has a story or a secret which gradually unravels as tension mounts. One is a young newlywed who fears the future; another is a professor who drinks to escape his disgust at the missile testing project back on the Islands.

Joy Kim plays a sweet Korean woman who is eager to assimilate into American society; on the opposite end of the plane is a gun-toting sourpuss looking to kill the man he suspects of having an affair with his wife. Fear of death, of course, puts everyone’s problems in perspective.

A modern audience might have trouble appreciating the film, when compared to today’s marvels of special effects, rapid-fire dialogue, and quick action shots. For 1954’s film-goers, the movie’s lovely external shots of the airplane soaring through clouds or approaching a runway were brand-new and special. Characters, at times, spoke in monologues, and the camera simply sat and watched attentively.

The anxious newlyweds, the stewardess who never objects to being called “little girl”, and the popularity contest winner who hides her years behind a slathering of makeup are all a bit quaint today, but stand as indicative of their time. The scenes involving both toy and real guns easily brought on board certainly remind us of how much has changed!

With its constant reassurances that plane crashes and engine troubles were exceedingly rare, and crews well-trained in disaster management, The High and the Mighty at times comes off like an advertisement for the budding commercial aviation industry. Perhaps, in a sense, it was, but the film continues to be an exciting story, finely directed by William Wellman and faithfully adapted from aviator/adventurer Ernest Gann’s popular novel.

This two-DVD set includes plenty of bonus material, including a short documentary on Batjac, a bit on the airplane industry in the 1950s, and commentary by some of the surviving actors, such as Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales and Karen Sharpe. The unrestored trailer shows just how beautiful the film is by comparison, and the commentary on composer Dimitri Tiomkin leaves no doubt as to why his score earned him an Oscar.

Introductory material by Leonard Maltin puts it all in perspective. Whether you’re a classic film enthusiast; John Wayne fan; nostalgic because this film hasn’t been on television since the 1970s; or just looking for something the whole family can enjoy, The High and the Mighty is a good choice.

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