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The title of the film High Flight (1957) comes from the famous poem of same name, a paean to aviation that begins "Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/And danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings..." and ends, "Put out my hand and touched the face of God." It was written by an American Royal Air Force Pilot Officer, John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who wrote it shortly before he was killed in a mid-air collision at Britain's Royal Air Force Training College in Cranwell, Lincolnshire in 1941.
The film High Flight, too, is an ode to aviation. It follows a year in the life of three 1950s Cranwell cadets as they train to become RAF flyers. The three are familiar stereotypes: Winchester (Kenneth Haigh), a headstrong, cocky experienced pilot who disregards orders and takes too many risks; Fletcher (Kenneth Fortescue), scion of a wealthy family who just wants to be one of the guys; and Endicott (Anthony Newley), the comic relief of the group, who's obsessed with flying saucers. Overseeing them is Wing Commander Rudge (Ray Milland), a World War II veteran who was in the same squadron as Winchester's late father during the war. All the characters are familiar types from dozens of military films, and they're mere sketches, pallidly portrayed in the case of two of the cadets, and played with pained boredom in the case of Milland. Only Newley brings any personality to his character, giving him a droll, goofy energy. A former child actor, Newley played the Artful Dodger in David Lean's film version of Oliver Twist (1948). Soon after appearing in High Flight, he became a successful pop singer, and in 1961 he co-wrote and starred in the London and Broadway musical Stop the World I Want to Get Off, which made him an international star.
High Flight is not a film you watch for the performances or the characters. Instead, the movie is a cult favorite among aviation buffs for the flying sequences with aircraft such as Vampires and Hunters. Shot on location at Cranwell with the cooperation of the Royal Air Force, it has some of the most spectacular aerial sequences of that era, and stunning cinematography enhanced by Technicolor and Cinemascope. One simple yet breathtaking scene of planes taking off at dawn is especially impressive.
High Flight was produced by Warwick Productions, a production company formed in 1951 by Americans Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Irving Allen to make films in Britain for the international market. They had great success with a series of action-adventure films, often starring aging American stars such as Alan Ladd and Victor Mature whose popularity at home was waning, supported by top British actors, and talented British directors. John Gilling, who directed High Flight, was a former editor who had turned to directing in the late 1940s, and would make a series of popular horror films for Hammer Studios in the early 1960s.
Warwick's use of Ray Milland was typical. The Welsh-born Milland had been a major leading man in American films of the 1940s, winning an Academy Award for his performance as an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend (1945). By the mid-1950s, he was less in demand, but still a marquee name. He had also moved into directing, and would direct both films and television, as well as continuing to act until shortly before his death in 1986.
By the end of the 1950s, the American audience for Warwick's films was shrinking, and Broccoli became interested in a series of spy novels that he thought would make good films. Allen disagreed, and the partnership ended, with Broccoli going off on his own to produce what would become the phenomenally successful James Bond series. The Bond films continue to this day, produced after Broccoli's death by his daughter and stepson. Allen also continued on his own, producing prestige films (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960), historical epics (Cromwell, 1970) and even an international spy series of his own, the Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin.
Producer: Irving Allen, Albert R. Broccoli, Phil C. Samuel
Director: John Gilling
Screenplay: Ken Hughes, Joseph Landon, Jack Davies (story)
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Film Editing: Jack Slade
Art Direction: John Box
Music: Douglas Gamley, Kenneth V. Jones
Cast: Ray Milland (Wing Commander Rudge), Bernard Lee (Flight Sergeant Harris), Kenneth Haigh (Tony Winchester), Anthony Newley (Roger Endicott), Kenneth Fortescue (John Fletcher), Sean Kelly (Cadet Day).
by Margarita Landazuri