John Wayne Flying High

Kevin Killian


Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty

For years the Wayne estate held onto its treasures, keeping its materials dark and playing its cards close to the vest. And eventually the public began to fear the great silence of Batjac—the production company Wayne left behind. John “Duke” Wayne (1907-1979) was such a powerful star that he owned the negatives to some of the films he’d made—not necessarily his best pictures, but they’d all made money for him. And as the years went on, and fans found themselves unable to order them on video or from Netflix, our curiosity grew in leaps and bounds.

Batjac has kept from us not only some of Duke’s pictures, but also five or six films he produced without appearing in them, including the estimable Seven Men From Now with Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher—the kind of director who separates the sheep from the goats cultwise. Above all, the fans wanted to know, where is The High and the Mighty? And then, secondarily, where is Island in the Sky, a lesser Wayne epic with some interesting links to H & M?

And now that hell has frozen over, both films have just appeared on newly spruced up DVD versions and the fifty year wait is over.

It isn’t that they were the only “lost” movies unavailable on video or DVD. Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam, Irving Berlin musicals from the 1950s, were held back for years, while we show-queens writhed in the tortures of the truly upset. Racial issues may be impeding the DVD release of Disney’s Song of the South, with its tricky, some say minstrel retelling of the Bre’r Rabbit legend, while the Gershwin estate was said to have disapproved so deeply of Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess that they’ve been able to block it from being shown for nearly forty years.

Ace in the Hole, Renaldo and Clara, Bigger than Life, all these movies have their partisans, men and women counting the days till they get released, like Bastille prisoners marking out the days with pen knives, four stripes at a time, then a diagonal to slash them together into a solid 5. Then start again, because waiting is forever.

Looked at from the opposite angle, waiting is the pleasure; waiting makes us fans, for anticipation, which used to be everything, is still very much a part of excitement.

One way or another, we’re all waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, and what is there to look forward to now that The High and The Mighty is among us? I loved it, but not everyone will.

I don’t even know if I can recommend it to anyone. I watched it with a willed fascination, but here at Fanzine we take the worst with the best, and nothing comes out on top.

None of you are going to mistake it for Luis Buñuel, but surely one or two will find yourselves screaming like I did when red, white and blue spotlights on the runways of SFO bob up and happen to assume the form of a crucifix!

Conventional wisdom is that the young don’t understand John Wayne’s appeal, so that Batjac had better release these films before their core audience passes on.

Certainly nothing ages faster than a disaster flick. Way back in 1980 Airplane, itself now a weird relic of film comedy, tore The High and the Mighty a new asshole, lampooning its absurdities, but cleverly, tenderly, going to the trouble even of hiring back Robert Stack and casting him in the very same role (as pilot, he goes a little nutty and has to be slapped back to sanity) (then he says, “Thanks! I needed that!” with his face like Grauman’s cement filled with handprints). After such parody, what do we make of the original now?

In The High and the Mighty, John Wayne plays Stack’s co-pilot, Dan Roman, as kind of a mope, one whose tuneless whistle masks a secret sorrow. Director Wellman must have not wanted to prolong the suspense over Wayne’s back story because instantly gossipy crew members stage a scene right away which reveals everything—how years ago, through no fault of his own, Dan survived a plane crash which sheared off the back end of the plane—like Lost!—killing little Tony, his boy, and Mary, his wife. He’s haunted by these visceral memories every time he sees a boy’s face or turns on the ignition of a jet.

From nowhere the torment returns full blast and the only thing that will quell it for him is whistling that tune. Dmitri Tiomkin’s High and the Mighty theme was a Top Ten smash, unusual because even in 1954 people weren’t whistling as much as they did in the days before musical instruments. But once you hear this melody, you never forget it, it’s haunting, and often enough Duke Wayne is disappearing into the fog as he whistles it, and the fog surrounds the screen and you have no idea if he’s still alive in there, except you hear the courageous whistle, as if to say, “I’m still in here somewhere.” Maybe that’s why people like this theme, it reminds them of death, it brings it up close.

I could write a whole column about “John Wayne music”—the musical numbers that illustrated, perhaps deepened his screen persona: that song from Red River, the Irish pub songs that punctuate The Quiet Man, Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin harmonizing in Rio Bravo, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” from Fort Apache, most of all the theme fromThe High and the Mighty, and how deeply a non-musical star Wayne associated himself with music all the time. Henry Mancini wrote the perky “Baby Elephant Walk,” for Hatari, and Burt Bacharach the poppy, insane “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” by Gene Pitney.

The Duke is even said to have written the gospel number, “It is No Secret (What God Can Do),” and made a whole, lousy film out of a novelty track called, “Ballad of the Green Beret.”

Let us try to strip from our perceptions the Tiomkin music, its spookiness, its power to haunt, and try if we can to view the film more soberly. The plot proper details a glamorous flight from Honolulu to San Francisco on the fictional “Trans-Orient” airline. Like readers of an old fashioned novel, we see the various passengers check in at the front desk of the airport, and we get a little background on them all.

By my count there are only 16 passengers, but each is carrying vast quantities of angst, and each an upscale traveling costume, for back in the day people dressed up for flying. Even to pick someone up at the airport required dressing up. Paul Kelly plays a scientist of some kind who seems to have been working on a sort of Manhattan Project, but one that destroyed Hawaii instead of Hiroshima. He tries to paint a native couple who are spooning above a beach. He just can’t, he feels so guilty about destroying their habitat. He paints a big X over his canvas, slashing out the lovers like Lucio Fontana crossed with Robert Oppenheimer. When he confronts his superiors, they just laugh at his qualms. He’s in a terrible mood as he checks onto the plane––but we don’t really know why—some sort of misplaced liberal piety, I guess.

His opposite number is a quiet young Chinese woman, Dorothy Chen, who loves everything about America. Especially our expressions, like “dumb bunny.” This amuses her so much she spends much of the movie chuckling about it, remaining nearly untouched by the trauma of the flight. “Dumb bunny! Tee hee!” Everything about the flying experience seems like it’s from another planet. When you check in you don’t show ID, but you do state your age and your home town. All pilots and attendants smoke, non-stop, as do all the passengers but the little boy; even he seems to be ogling the Tareytons and Gauloises waved in his face by kindly elders.

Also, you can bring guns on the plane, no problem. Miss Spalding, the supermodel stewardess (played by the exquisite Doe Avedon halfway between the personal styles of Patricia Neal and Jane Russell), plans to cook all of them steaks and toss them salads in her little counter pantry.

Till it starts wobbling and shaking and knocking off the martini mix.

I’m always complaining when women don’t get enough time in the movies, but in The High And The Mighty there are far too many women. Too many characters of all kinds, but the women got me especially mixed up. Most of them look alike, in their short poodle dos and their Peter Pan collars. The greatest scene in the movie is when Robert Stack figures out that, if everyone chips in and throws a thousand pounds of stuff out the hatchway door, they will all be safe, and the passengers stand in the aisle passing their suitcases back to the end. One woman takes the high road and says, “I never thought I’d be throwing my Mainbocher out the window of a plane!”

I like her, I thought, but realized I had no idea who she was. She was a redhead, but which one? What was her backstory? I was thinking she was Laraine Day, the socialite wife unhappily married to a henpecked drudge who was trying to get out from under her velvet rope by buying a mine in Alaska. Once I saw her ready to throw aside her Mainbocher, I was thinking, oh good, she’s showing some aplomb, some sense that the social register isn’t the be-all and end-all of human existence. But if it wasn’t her, where was the arc?

Or rather, the arc was there, but of whom? Common sense finally told me that The High and the Mighty must have been chopped up and individual scenes tossed out willy-nilly, for time reasons probably, and these have not been restored for the DVD, so you won’t know why half the characters are doing the things they do, so watching the film has a disconnected aura, it moves in stutters and jumps and starts, like riding a bronco.

The whole scene of abandoning luxury goods is an elaboration on the bit from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in which swanky Tallulah Bankhead plucks an emerald bracelet from her wrist and lowers it into the Atlantic to use for bait. The screenwriters must have remembered this very vivid scene in Lifeboat (written by John Steinbeck) and said, “Let’s multiply it by 100.” We were watching the action, Claire Trevor shrugging off a blue mink coat and dropping it out the hatch, and asking ourselves why didn’t they take out one or two of the dozens of empty seats that made up the cabin of the plane? And why don’t people just get sucked out of the plane themselves for they’re throwing whole trunks overboard—John Wayne straining to keep one fist on the hatch’s inside handle.

It was the kind of thing that made you wonder, how much is a thousand pounds anyhow? I looked around my apartment, trying to throw myself into an imaginative sympathy with the movie.

Kevin! I asked myself. What if you were going to die unless you could throw 1,000 pounds of things out the window in ten minutes? What would you throw? “Well, not the TV,” I replied. “What would be the point of that? But how about all these books? We probably have at least 150 pounds of Foucault I could lose with no regret. Or that file cabinet which, when I hauled it upstairs with three other fellows, weighed at least 4,000 pounds and that was years ago! Out! Out! Make everything clean, bright, airy, high, and mighty! Overboard with your frills and furbelows, your vanity, your personality! Out! Except for the TV of course.”

Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling were each nominated for the Oscar for playing in The High and the Mighty, and the odd thing is that each of them is playing the exact same part—it’s like some Ingmar Bergman film gone awry! Or more plausibly it’s as if executives realized that they had hired both women by mistake, and decided oh what the hell, we’ll just divide her part into 2 and have them both take a stab at it.

Hmmm, this movie’s more like Buñuel than I thought. Didn’t he do the exact same thing with That Obscure Object of Desire, in which Conchita is played by two actresses, and who you get to see depends on Conchita’s mood? That’s exactly what it’s like with Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor, who both play over-the-hill, beaten up blonde broads with the same character arc and nearly the same dialogue. One is called “Sally,” the other “Mae,” but outside of that, they’re Conchita. The Academy must have honored them for their willingness to share a part, for otherwise they are uniformly bad at acting, however much they shine in other movies.

There’s that haunting whistle again . . . Where’s it coming from? I’m watching this with Dodie, who hates whistling with a passion. We used to live in a building with a neighbor who whistled from time to time; and we had to move. She hates whistlers with such vehemence we have sometimes theorized that perhaps she was the victim of some Satanic ritual abuse that featured whistling.

For some reason however John Wayne whistling this Tiomkin theme isn’t exercising her much. Maybe she is now hearing behind the sound and penetrating into the very heart of existence. At any rate one of the passengers, horrid Sidney Blackmer, has smuggled a gun onto the plane and has fired it at another passenger, a well-known lounge lizard. Missed the guy, but shot out the gas tank and thousands of gallons of gas drip onto the Marianas. Thus the panic, the evacuation of furs and trunks, and everyone changing their lives under pressure—the pressure of modernism, perhaps, the pressure that Rilke evokes in Archaic Torso of Apollo: “cabin upgrades, you must change your life.”

Robert Newton, the grand old man on UK cinema (Odd Man Out, Major Barbara, Oliver Twist, Henry V), plays a sophisticated playwright, Gustave Pardee, who despite himself winds up caring up other human beings, even his wife. I’m like, “Gustave Pardee, that sounds really English.”

The strangest thing (for John Wayne fans) is how little Wayne is in the picture. He’s just another character in the film and patches of 20 minutes at a time go by without us seeing him. Whistlin’ Dan is far from the star role; it’s perhaps the size of the part Tom Cruise plays in Magnolia—you know, it’s not a small part, but cut it out and you’d still have the whole show.

Thus maybe this film adds on to his complicated screen persona a layer of humility, or at any rate modesty. The commentary suggests that producer Wayne cast himself as Dan at the last moment when their hoped-for choice, Spencer Tracy, backed out. It doesn’t seem like much of a part no matter who plays it. They could have had another over-the-hill, hardened bottle blonde play it, and it could have then been Conchita Has Three Faces. The only star is the plane, and the only thing that matters is keeping the little boy from waking up.

Now in Island In The Sky, released simultaneously, it’s a whole different story. There are hardly any women; Duke plays a heroic part; his plane goes down and he has to survive in Canada with some more boyish pilots while every other pilot he ever flew with is out in their own plane scanning the icy snow-covered meadows for his primitive fires. It’s just like Lost!, except with more guys.

All kinds of guys, even Alfalfa from the Little Rascals, here all grown up and looking, dare I say it, almost hunky. Not hunky quite; but at last call you’d be, like, “Hi, my name’s Kevin.” Then the next morning the blear begins, the sun pokes into the bedroom through the cockeyed shade, the alarm bleats and you look at the pillow next to you and you scream, “Oh my God, it’s Alfalfa from the Our Gang comedies!”