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Island In the Sky
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Island in the Sky

William A. Wellman directed the 1953 aviation drama Island in the Sky, but he was assisted by fine creative input from two gifted colleagues. One was Ernest K. Gann, the one-time filmmaker, veteran flyer, and bestselling author who wrote the screenplay, based on his own novel. The other was John Wayne, such a Hollywood icon by 1953 that his artistic stamp had to be reckoned with no matter who happened to be behind the camera. This project was ideally suited to all three, and their contributions blend seamlessly. The movie isn't a masterpiece, but at times it comes excitingly close.

The story kicks into high gear almost immediately, when a DC-3 aircraft makes a crash landing in Labrador, so far north that the area is barely on the map. Although this happens during World War II, the pilot and crew are civilians, doing their bit for the American military. Having survived the forced landing with no injuries, they quickly realize that the hard part is just beginning. Their food supply is miniscule, and their only heat is what they can coax from a modest wood fire. Worst of all, there's hardly any power to send distress signals on their rapidly fading radio. Their chances for survival are iffy at best.

Meanwhile, a small group of military flyers gather to plan a rescue mission, painfully aware they're caught in an excruciating dilemma. Too much caution means the downed aviators will freeze to death before help arrives; too much haste means they could fly right over the stranded men without seeing them, which actually happens at one point. On top of all this, the rescuers know and love the men they're searching for-especially Dooley, the greatly respected pilot-but they can't let emotions cloud their intellect as they make decisions that could mean life or death.

Island in the Sky was Gann's first major novel, developed from notes and short stories he jotted down while flying back and forth across the North Atlantic during World War II, when many commercial pilots like him were absorbed into military support roles. Hollywood had been interested in the book well before Wellman and Wayne got involved with it; both Twentieth Century Fox and Stanley Kramer had optioned it without putting it into production. Wellman discovered it when a literary agent gave him a copy during a golf game, and it was certainly up Wellman's alley: He had flown with the Lafayette Escadrille during World War I, earning the nickname Wild Bill, and his 1927 aviation epic Wings had won the first-ever Academy Award for best picture.

In addition to the aviation theme of Gann's novel, Wellman was drawn to its basic situation, with a few characters trapped by circumstances and isolated from society-a subject he'd treated in his classic 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident and other films. He expressed his enthusiasm to Warner Bros., where he was moving after a stint at MGM, and to Wayne, who made it the first project of the Batjac production company he and partner Robert Fellows had recently formed.

They hired Gann to write the screenplay, and Wellman also made Gann the technical adviser, which by Wellman's definition meant actually directing parts of the story where authenticity was essential. They hunted up locations in Northern California for the snowbound scenes, but commenced filming with the airborne material shot by (uncredited) cinematographer William H. Clothier, using what Wellman later described as "rather beat-up DC-3s" from a Kansas surplus dump. Then came the dramatic scenes, photographed by Wellman regular Archie Stout.

Numerous reviewers have found Island in the Sky a flawed adventure yarn, faulting the sometimes preachy tone of its narration and the unnecessary flashbacks that interrupt the story's momentum. Another problem is the score, by Emil Newman and uncredited Hugo Friedhofer, which occasionally lapses into "inspirational" syrup.

But plenty of moviegoers agree with David Mamet that Island in the Sky is one of the great flying films. Its most consistent asset is first-rate acting from the entire cast, starting with Wayne, who gives one of the subtlest, most nuanced performances of his remarkable career as pilot Dooley, a strong yet introspective leader who's acutely aware of the responsibility he bears for the safety and survival of his crew. Lloyd Nolan is excellent as thoughtful Captain Stutz of the rescue team, and Andy Devine is a revelation, making the chunky rescue pilot Willie Moon into a three-dimensional human being without one excess word or gesture. The only real let-down is James Arness as a southern farmer who can't wait to trade his airplane for a Carolina mule; in addition to his clunky acting, he's saddled with the film's worst dialogue scenes.

Wellman was among the fine journeyman directors of Hollywood's studio era, turning out good, sometimes important movies-including The Public Enemy (1931), Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Nothing Sacred (1937), the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and The High and the Mighty (1954), another Gann project-without achieving auteur status in the eyes of most critics. He marched to his own drummer as much as the system allowed, even when his Wild Bill personality scared or alienated his colleagues. "I'm a loner," he told me in a 1975 interview just months before his death. "In fact," he added, "I don't think I'm a very lovable guy." But being lovable is beside the point when you have the talent and temperament to make a picture as solid and engrossing as Island in the Sky.

Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Ernest K. Gann
Cinematography: Archie Stout
Film editing: Ralph Dawson
Production design: James Basevi
Music: Emil Newman
Cast: John Wayne (Capt. Dooley), Lloyd Nolan (Capt. Stutz), Walter Abel (Col. Fuller), James Arness (Mac McMullen), Andy Devine (Willie Moon), Allyn Joslyn (J.H. Handy), Jimmy Lydon (Murray), Harry Carey, Jr. (Ralph Hunt), Hal Baylor (Stankowski), Sean McClory (Frank Lovatt), Wally Cassell (D'Annunzia), Gordon Jones (Walrus), Regis Toomey (Sgt. Harper), Paul Fix (Wally Miller), Darryl Hickman (Swanson), Carl Switzer (Sonny Hopper). BW-109m.

by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt



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