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William A. Wellman
John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris, Robert Newton, David Brian, Paul Kelly
Writing Credits:
Ernest K. Gann (also novel)

When a commercial airliner develops engine problems on a trans-Pacific flight and the pilot loses his nerve, it is up to the washed-up co-pilot Dan Roman to bring the plane in safely.

Rated NR

Widescreen 2.55:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 148 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 8/2/2005

Disc One
• Introduction by Film Historian Leonard Maltin
• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Leonard Maltin, Director’s Son William Wellman Jr., Actors Karen Sharpe and Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, and Aviation Expert Vincent Longo
Disc Two
• Introduction by Leonard Maltin
• “The Batjac Story” Featurette
• “Stories from the Set” Featurette
• “On Director William A. Wellman” Featurette
• “The Music and World of Dimitri Tiomkin” Featurette
• “Restoring a Classic” Featurette
• “A Place In Film History” Featurette
• “Ernest K. Gann – Adventurer, Author and Artist” Featurette
• “Flying in the Fifties” Featurette
• Trailers
• Batjac Montage
• Premiere Footage
• Photo Gallery


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The High And The Mighty: Special Collector's Edition (1954)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 26, 2005)

No pun intended, but 1954’s The High and the Mighty flew under my radar. I’ve never been much of a John Wayne fan, and normally releases of his films on DVD don’t impact on me. I previously reviewed four of his flicks, and I think those are the only ones I’d ever seen anywhere.

Imagine my surprise when I visited the Amazon best-sellers page and saw Mighty at the top of the chart – with two weeks before its street date! This shocked me. I knew almost nothing about the movie, but obviously it had a lot of appeal to a lot of people.

That was good enough for me, so I decided to give Mighty a look. Commercial airline co-pilot Dan Roman (Wayne) returns to the air after an absence following an air tragedy for which he blames himself. He used to be a hotshot pilot but now he simply feels content to play second banana on the flight from Hawaii to San Francisco. Among the passengers we find sullen drunk former nuclear scientist Professor Donald Flaherty (Paul Kelly), ebullient vacationers Ed (Phil Harris) and Clara Joseph (Ann Doran), lonely spinster Sally McKee (Jan Sterling), stage producer Gustave Pardee (Robert Newton) and wife Lillian (Julie Bishop), frequent flier and airline stockholder Ken Childs (David Brian), sassy aging broad May Holst (Claire Trevor), unaccompanied minor Tobey Fields (Mike Wellman), wealthy Howard (John Howard) and Lydia Rice (Laraine Day), fisherman Jose Locota (John Qualen), Korean émigré Dorothy Chen (Joy Kim), handicapped and ill Frank Briscoe (Paul Fix) and newlyweds Milo (John Smith) and Nell Buck (Karen Sharpe). We also see businessman and last-minute arrival Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer), a guy desperate to be on the same plane as Childs.

When we look at the crew, we find no-nonsense pilot John Sullivan (Robert Stack), navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown), arrogant young second officer Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell), and stewardess Miss Spalding (Joy Avedon). The flight takes off without incident, and we see some of the dynamics among the passengers as well as the flight staff. We also get a hint of Roman’s jitteriness and some of Sullivan’s burgeoning fears.

The latter come to the forefront when some odd bumps and rattles emerge. However, these prove not to be the flight’s main problem. Its primary concern emerges when Agnew confronts Childs and accuses him of having an affair with his wife. A tussle ensues and Agnew’s gun fires. This hits an engine and sets it on fire. At a lowered altitude, they manage to extinguish the blaze but they remain in rough shape. The rest of the film follows the flight’s travails and how all involved deal with the problems.

During an introduction to the film, Leonard Maltin implores us to try to view Mighty on the terms of its era. I tried – oh lord how I tried! Unfortunately, the movie has aged so poorly to become nearly unwatchable 50 years after the fact.

Mighty features about 90 minutes of movie spread across almost two and a half hours. Hoo boy does this film take a long time to get going. I fully understand Maltin’s directions to see it through different eyes, and I usually can do so more successfully than I could here. I’ve seen enough older films to understand that they have slower rhythms, but there’s only so much one man can take.

Unfortunately, Mighty exceeded my level of tolerance for turgid pacing. Much of the problem stems from the insanely clumsy exposition. Mighty stands as a textbook example of how not to introduce your characters. First we meet an airline crewmember who knows Dan and just happens to be able to share his story to co-workers, and then we get the smarmy gate agent who just happens to have the backstory and virtually every damned passenger.

Does this dude work for the feds? The movie crawls as all of the participants come through his line and we get their life stories. Granted, a few of them fill in the details to us, but most are known by the agent. That stretches practicality and acts as nothing more than a ridiculously artificial plot convenience.

And why do we need to get to know every passenger anyway? It’s not a stretch to say this; we literally learn at least a little about everyone who flies on that plane. A sane movie would introduce us to a few participants and leave it at that. I suppose one can admire the attempt at completeness but it doesn’t work. It makes the movie run too long and never allows us to know much about the different characters anyway; the film features way too many of them for any form of depth to occur.

Not even Wayne’s character gets much detail. He’s the lead and the hero but he feels lost in the morass of all those roles. The film never gives us much about him, so he feels generic and stiff.

It’s the tedious exploration of the passengers and other side characters that really kills the film, however. Even when a little excitement occurs, the movie quickly returns to soap opera. A lot of these go on for a long time, such as the flashback to the Josephs’ ill-fated vacation. I couldn’t figure out what purpose this served. It certainly didn’t move the story, and it – along with the many other sidetales – just bogged down the pacing.

Mighty lacks even the appropriate claustrophobia and tension that should come from this kind of story. Some of that happens because it often leaves the plane to explore rescue efforts – and even more characters! These probably should add to the mix, and they’d become a staple of later disaster flicks like Airport, but these scenes don’t work here. They just dispel any potential drama with nonsense.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s saccharine score doesn’t help matters either. It also undercuts any sense of tension with something that would be more appropriate for Lassie. Occasionally it blasts us with shock music but it usually sticks with sappiness. This alleviates much anxiety since it’s either heroic or lulling. I know many admire Tiomkin’s work here, but I don’t understand why; the music actively distracts from the film.

Mighty can’t even achieve anything logical. There’s little excitement since most involved handle the problem so well. They don’t evidence many concerns, as the film prefers to stick with the drippy character drama. We also find idiotic scenes such as the one in which Locota gives back the gun to Agnew? That’s arguably the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. And then they just let him go when they land? On what planet does this stupidity take place?

Boy, does The High and the Mighty go down as a huge disappointment. Regarded by some as the granddaddy of all disaster flicks, it suffers from all of the genre’s flaws but presents none of its successes. Slow, boring, and stupid, I genuinely disliked this film.

The DVD Grades: Picture C/ Audio B/ Bonus B+

The High and the Mighty appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the movie seemed watchable as a whole, it definitely showed its age.

Sharpness was erratic. With such a broad aspect ratio, we got a lot of wide shots, but those weren’t the sole reason for the moderate softness. Much of the movie came across as slightly undefined, though it usually seemed reasonably accurate. I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, but mild edge enhancement manifested itself at times.

Source flaws never became heavy, but they created consistent distractions. Through the flick, I noticed specks, spots, blotches, lines, grit and marks. Though these weren’t dominant, they occurred more frequently than I’d like, and few parts of the film got away without any signs of them.

Colors tended to be somewhat dull. They seemed a little faded and brown. Granted, Mighty didn’t feature a dazzling palette, but I still thought the hues lacked much dimensionality or vivacity. Blacks were acceptably dark, but shadows tended to be somewhat dense. Outdoor nighttime shots looked more impenetrable than I’d like, and interiors also were moderately flat.

In defense of the transfer, I know that the source print had a lot of concerns. For instance, “WarnerColor” doesn’t age well, and the material has had its problems over the years. However, when I compared it to my expectations for movies from its era, it showed more problems than I’d prefer and thought it seemed average based on those thoughts. I know fans will be happy to see Mighty look as good as it does, and in its original aspect ratio to boot; this isn’t an objectively positive transfer, though.

At least the Dolby Digital 5.1 worked better. The soundfield was decidedly above-average for its era, especially since so many movies from that period only offered monaural audio. This one presented a nicely broad forward spectrum. Music showed pretty reasonable stereo imaging, and we got a lot of moderately directional speech. The lines rarely went all the way to one side or another, but they seemed fairly well balanced.

Effects added some good activity to the mix. Aircraft-related elements broadened across the front to create a nice sense of setting, and these occasionally spread to the rear as well. One particularly good sequence featured the plane as it zoomed from front to rear. Those showy pieces were infrequent, but the back speakers added a moderate feeling of reinforcement and involvement. The soundscape rarely excelled, but it created a pretty good piece.

Audio quality was less consistent but usually seemed fine. Though speech was a little stiff, the lines mostly came across as concise and easily intelligible. Effects occasionally betrayed a little distortion, but not frequently. Those elements fared best and even added some nice oomph to louder plane-related sequences; the subwoofer roared to life surprisingly well on a couple of instances. Music appeared slightly restricted and without great impact. Still, the score was reasonably vivid for a movie from this one’s era. Some hiss popped up but other flaws were absent. Overall this added up to a generally positive piece of audio.

Paramount have packed this DVD of The High and the Mighty full of extras. On Disc One, we start with a four-minute and one-second introduction from film historian Leonard Maltin. He gives us a quick synopsis of the story and a few background notes. It sets the table for the flick fairly well, as it hints at the plot without spoilers. It acts as a decent opening, though I think it’s not essential.

We also get an audio commentary with Maltin, director’s son William Wellman Jr., actors Karen Sharpe and Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, and movie aviation buff Vincent Longo. Maltin and Wellman watch the movie together and add running, screen-specific remarks. The others sit individually with Maltin; he asks questions and their statements are interspersed throughout the track.

Not surprisingly, Maltin and Wellman dominate the piece. They talk about the cast, the restoration and film stock issues, changes between the book and the movie, production concerns, and the elder Wellman’s career. Sharpe gets into her career and her screen test, while Gonzales-Gonzales goes over his own show business work and his experiences on the set. Longo discusses the aircraft featured in the film and gives us some perspective on related topics.

These should add up to an informative and lively chat, but they don’t. Quite a lot of dead air occurs and we also hear Maltin and Wellman praise much of the film. Good information pops up infrequently and we’re left with a generally tedious commentary that doesn’t give us a very good feel for things.

Disc Two launches with another introduction by Leonard Maltin. In this 115-second clip, he essentially just tells us what to expect from most of the disc’s extras. It’s inconsequential.

The majority of the second platter’s extras come under the banner of The Making of The High and the Mighty. This comprises seven chapters that run a total of 84 minutes, 27 seconds. The individual chapters include “The Batjac Story” (15:15), “Stories from the Set” (9:29), “On Director William A. Wellman” (9:44). “The Music and World of Dimitri Tiomkin” (18:41), “Ernest K. Gann – Adventurer, Author and Artist” (18:45), “Restoring a Classic” (4:29) and “A Place In Film History” (8:04).

All of these use the same format. Maltin hosts some of them and we get a mix of movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. For “Batjac”, we hear from writer/producer Andrew J. Fenady, producers Michael and Gretchen Wayne, director Andrew V. McLaglen, producer Mike Moder, and actor/singer Frankie Avalon. It covers the collapse of the studio contract system and the rise of actor-sponsored production companies, the creation of Batjac and the origins of its name, Wayne’s role as a producer and the atmosphere on his sets, the deals made with the studios, various Batjac staff and what they contributed, use of 3D and Cinemascope, and some overviews of a few Batjac productions.

During “Set”, we get notes from McLaglen, Sharpe, Gonzales-Gonzales, and actors Robert Stack, William Campbell, and Doe Avedon. The show goes into casting, impressions of Wellman and Wayne, and various tales from the shoot. “Wellman” presents remarks from Wellman Jr. and film historian Kevin Brownlow. It discusses basics of Wellman’s life and his interest in aviation, his participation in Mighty and production aspects like sets and the script, the director’s relationship with Wayne, casting concerns and the movie’s success.

When we head to “Tiomkin”, we find comments from symphonic orchestrator Patrick Russ, conductor Richard Kaufman, film historian Jonathan Burlingame, Tiomkin’s second wife Olivia Tiomkin-Douglas, and film composer Christopher Young. “Tiomkin” covers some details of the composer’s life and it also concentrates on his work for Mighty. It looks at his themes and tendencies for the flick as well as recording and orchestration and Tiomkin’s plaudits and career. “Gann” offers notes from Gann, McLaglen, filmmaker Laszlo Pal, wife Dorothy Gann, pilot/author Michael Drury and pilot Roy Franklin. It relates Gann’s early life and interest in aviation, his adventures in the air and elsewhere, how his experiences affected his writing and his method of composition, his work in films, and various personal remembrances from the participants.

In “Classic” we discover information from Maltin, Brownlow, Cinetech president Sean Coughlin, Cinetech vice president Joe Oliver, color timer Thom Nobill, transfer engineer Rocky Rieger, restoration engineer Ivan Galan, and chief restoration mixer James Young. As expected, they cover the problems with the source picture and sound as well as methods used to restore them. Finally, “History” includes statements from Maltin as he chats about the cast and crew as well as his appreciation for the flick.

Unsurprisingly, some parts of “The Making of The High and the Mighty work better than others. The Gann and Tiomkin featurettes undoubtedly are the most satisfying. We learn a lot about the composer’s work as well as his influences. Though told in a disjointed, non-chronological manner, “Gann” delves into the author’s career and life well.

The restoration program seems like little more than self-congratulatory fluff, and Maltin’s “History” is mostly the same giddy happy talk he spews in the commentary. The Wellman one reiterates a little too much of the generic praise already heard in the commentary, but it adds enough perspective to become moderately useful. “Set” is fun due to all the stories told, though, and “Batjac” offers a nice perspective on Wayne’s production efforts. All told, these don’t offer a full examination of the film’s making, but they cobble together enough pieces to give us a fair background.

A featurette called Flying in the Fifties comes next. It runs 23 minutes, 40 seconds and includes remarks from former aviators Harold Thurston, Robert C. Sherman, John R. Dobson, Vernon McKenzie, Connie P. White and Lamont Shadowens. They chat about their experiences as airline workers in the Fifties and compare the reality of their situations to what we see in Mighty.

What a great little featurette! Easily the best of the DVD’s programs, this one combines lots of fun vintage footage with the blunt recollections of the aviators to offer a terrific examination of what it was like to fly in the Fifties. It covers all the requisite aspects of commercial aviation and proves to be both informative and delightful.

Trailers presents three clips. We get the movie’s theatrical and TV ads along with a “Batjac Montage”. The latter offers a compilation of clips from Batjac flicks along with the promise we’ll be able to get them on DVD soon.

A short 49-second clip of Premiere Footage comes next. We see various notables as they arrive at the movie’s opening. The DVD ends with a Photo Gallery. 31 stills offer shots from the set, promotional images, ads and related merchandise. It’s a nice little collection.

It took decades for The High and the Mighty to receive a home video release. Maybe they should have kept this turkey under wraps forever. A truly tedious and pointless film, it’s an adventure with no excitement or tension, and a drama with no depth. The DVD offers a flawed transfer, though I believe it was probably the best that could be done with a problematic source print. Audio was pretty good, while the disc’s supplements offer an inconsistent but generally informative examination of the appropriate issues. The legions of fans who’ve waited decades to see Mighty will delight in this release, but if you’re new to the movie, I can’t recommend it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3243 Stars Number of Votes: 37
3 3:
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