Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 1954. Wayne-Fellows Productions. Screenplay by Ernest K. Gann, based on his novel. Cinematography by Archie Stout. Produced by Robert Fellows, John Wayne. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin. Production Design by Alfred Ybarra. Costume Design by Gwen Wakeling. Film Editing by Ralph Dawson. Academy Awards 1954. Golden Globe Awards 1954.
The original disaster movie! Seventies exploitation and those hilarious Airplane movies owe a lot to this William Wellman hit whose dialogue and drama is, if you can believe it, a hell of a lot more dated than its presentation of the experience of commercial flight (you don’t have to a smuggle a gun on board if no one’s even bothering to check your pockets). Ernest Gann adapts his own novel about a group of passengers who board a plane in Honolulu that is destined to land in San Francisco, sort of an airbound Grand Hotel whose cast of characters all have their own backstories and complications. The plane’s co-pilot, a top billed but underused John Wayne, is haunted by memories of the past but has decided to get back in the cockpit, while Robert Stack stresses out all the way across the ocean about the propeller engines. Among the passengers are an unhappily married wealthy couple, a happily married middle-class twosome experiencing the worst possible luck on their vacation, an Asian woman who fulfills all the narrow exotic stereotypes required of her (played with as much grace as she can by Joy Kim) who is moving to America for the first time, a lonely middle-aged woman (Claire Trevor), a nervous young woman (Jan Sterling) on her way to meet a man with whom she has only corresponded by letter, a famous musician and his underappreciated wife, and a vengeful man (Sidney Blackmer) who has gotten aboard with revenge on his mind. Mid-flight, the crew notices a problem with one of the plane’s four engines that becomes a crisis when it explodes and takes a great deal of fuel along with it. The passengers must prepare for a water landing while the pilots argue about whether or not they can actually make it to shore and land at the San Francisco airport without needing to ditch the plane earlier. Very dramatic stuff and the performances are great, but the bright and beautiful cinematography detracts from the feeling of danger that could be possible if the interior set wasn’t so spacious and stable, while the personal dramas that the characters are working out (like the couple who are worried that their honeymoon passion won’t last, or the woman who is mad at her husband for buying an ore mine) are too corny to be believed.