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"Most motion picture directors are a little screwy," wrote William A. Wellman in A Short Time for Insanity, his 1974 memoir. "I know that fliers are, and I have been both, so draw your own conclusions." That statement's good-natured gruffness captures the tone of Wellman's best cinematic moments, found in movies as different as Nothing Sacred, a scathing 1937 satire, and The Public Enemy, a hardboiled 1931 gangster film.
The aviation drama Gallant Journey (1946) was a perfect project for Wellman, since aviation was the grand obsession of his life. He personally pursued it as a flyer in the French Foreign Legion, a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps, and an Army Air Corps flight instructor. He also probed the subject in numerous other films. Early ones include the silent Wings in 1927-winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture-and 1930s titles like Young Eagles (1930) and Men with Wings (1938); later came projects like the fine 1953 drama Island in the Sky and the semi-autobiographical Lafayette Escadrille, which ended his career on a disappointing note in 1958.
Yet even though filmmaking and flying intertwined in every stage of Wellman's professional life, he apparently didn't regard Gallant Journey as a very important project. He doesn't discuss it in his autobiography, and most of his admirers-a club including such luminaries as Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese over the years-would hesitate to rank it alongside, say, Wild Boys of the Road (1933) or The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) or the 1937 version of A Star Is Born.
Still, the movie has its charms. Wellman exemplified a kind of filmmaker that's in short supply nowadays but was common in the bygone studio era-directors who could switch from larger-than-life mythmaking to cornier-than-life kitsch in a single movie, and sometimes in a single scene, making the transition at a breakneck pace. The most famous specimens of this breed range from D.W. Griffith and John Ford to Frank Capra and, yes, Wellman, whose hard-bitten Wild Bill persona didn't prevent him from piling on the schmaltz when the spirit moved him.
Gallant Journey proves the point. Looked at one way, it's an adventure-filled biopic about an intrepid young man who becomes a flying-machine pioneer by following his dream no matter how many skeptics call him a crackpot. Looked at another way, it's a romantic comedy-drama complete with coy dialogue, bashful courtship, and a full stock of Hollywood clichs. Wellman plunges into both aspects of the story with equal energy, whipping up a confection that's contrived and sentimental but-if you can tune into its old-fashioned emotional wavelength--surprisingly tasty all the same.
The story centers on John J. Montgomery, a real-life inventor and aviator who made America's first manned and controlled heavier-than-air flights in 1883, exactly two decades before the Wright Brothers made a more enduring mark by outfitting their plane with a gas-powered engine and propeller. Using gliders for his early experiments, Montgomery was the trailblazer who proved that a cumbersome man-made machine could soar almost as high as the clouds. He died in 1911, when he lost control of a glider and crashed.
Gallant Journey begins with Montgomery as a youth, full of flying-machine dreams that seem silly to many of his nearest and dearest. They sing a different tune after he achieves his first small successes, though, and soon he expands his experiments by teaming up with a carnival performer who uses a hot-air balloon to give his plane a higher starting position. By this time Montgomery has started suffering from dizzying fits of vertigo (sorry, Jimmy Stewart, you weren't the first) that keep him earthbound while his partner has all the fun.
Montgomery's first exploits are financed on a shoestring, but his fortunes rise when he gets a profitable patent on a gold-sifting gizmo he's invented; then they plummet when he spends all the cash on lawsuits defending the patent. Another subplot focuses on his friendship with a couple of idealistic priests who give him moral support and a place to work, keeping faith in his ideas even when others waver. This part of the story is also based on fact, since the real Montgomery attended Santa Clara College, a Jesuit school, and later became a professor there.
Flying, money, vertigo, priests-what else does a movie need? A love angle, of course. Enter the winsome Regina Cleary, forever making goo-goo eyes at Montgomery no matter how distracted he is by his aeronautical challenges. She believes in him, supports him, and stands by him right to the end. And he loves her just as much, especially when she sacrifices a silken undergarment to mend a damaged glider. Regina's scenes provide most of the movie's schmaltz, especially in the bittersweet finale, which serves up enough saccharine to season a dozen ordinary pictures.
Gallant Journey tells its tale through flashbacks, as a gang of 1940s kids learn about Montgomery from a talkative codger they've met in a park. You might expect this old guy to reveal himself eventually as Montgomery grown old, or a priest grown old, or someone from the story grown old. But the film forgets about him after a while, so he doesn't get to reveal himself at all. Which is just as well, since it allows Wellman to extract every last ounce of emotionalism from the picture's dewy-eyed climax.
The most impressive element of Gallant Journey is its camerawork, which captures the exhilaration of gliding above the California countryside in grandly picturesque images. To get these, producer-director Wellman employed multiple cinematographers, and it's a pity he (or Columbia Pictures, his studio) didn't choose to shoot it in color, which could have raised a diverting movie to the level of an enchanting one.
Wellman also assembled a first-rate cast, headed by affable Glenn Ford as Montgomery and perky Janet Blair as his loyal lady love. The supporting players include twinkly-eyed Charles Ruggles as the codger in the park, Henry Travers and Arthur Shields as the helpful Jesuits, and Jimmy Lloyd as the flyboy who gives his all on Montgomery's behalf. Gallant Journey struck New York Times critic Bosley Crowther as the work of a filmmaker "quite as cuckoo as Montgomery was thought to be." But what would cinema be without crazy dreams? Hop into your imaginary glider, suspend those pesky smidgens of disbelief, and enjoy.
Producer: William A. Wellman
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Byron Morgan, William A. Wellman
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Aerial Photography: Elmer DyerFilm Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Stephen Goossn, Carl Anderson
Music: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Glenn Ford (John J. Montgomery), Janet Blair (Regina Cleary), Charlie Ruggles (man in park), Henry Travers (Thomas Logan), Jimmy Lloyd (Dan Mahoney), Charles Kemper (Father Dickie Ball), Arthur Shields (Father Kenton), Willard Robertson (Zachary Montgomery), Selena Royle (Mrs. Zachary Montgomery), Robert DeHaven (boy).
by David Sterritt