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Paramount Home Video presents
The High and the Mighty: Special Collector's Edition (1954)

"I got news for you guys. We just passed the point of no return."
- Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown)

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: August 04, 2005

Stars: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris, Robert Newton, David Brian, Paul Kelly, Sidney Blackmer, Doe Avedon, Paul Fix
Other Stars: Julie Bishop, Gonzales-Gonzales, John Howard, Wally Brown, William Campbell, John Qualen, Ann Doran, Joy Kim, Michael Wellman, Karen Sharpe, John Smith, George Chandler
Director: William A. Wellman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some mild violence)
Run Time: 02h:27m:13s
Release Date: August 02, 2005
UPC: 097368876347
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It's amazing to think about how many good movies have been lost over the years, falling into a void where they will never be recovered—we'll never know for sure if some hidden masterpiece is among the celluloid ruins. As a John Wayne fan, I've heard about The High and the Mighty for many years without having the opportunity to see it—or, at least, not being able to see it in its full CinemaScope image. Now this classic bit of fanfare from 1954 makes its debut on DVD with tremendous success.

The story is basically the same as Grand Hotel and Airport (or Airplane!, for that matter), featuring a string of stars who board a plane flying from Hawaii to San Francisco. The exposition is blatant and probably would never be attempted today, with each major character introducing himself to the seemingly omniscient ticket-taker (Douglas Fowley). It's a long scene, but brims with the aura of 1950s cinema. Containing sharp dialogue and to-the-point acting, the introduction of the 20 passengers to the audience feels cinematic because the widescreen picture is aptly used by cinematographer Archie Stout. Every frame reminds us that this was a time when movies were BIG, from the musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin to the cinematography to the cast of characters.

Each person boards the DC-4 airplane that's piloted by John Sullivan (Robert Stack—if that doesn't remind you of the Zucker classic, nothing will), co-pilot Dan Roman (John Wayne), navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown), and first officer Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell). The crew is skeptical of Dan Roman because he crashed a plane years ago, resulting in the deaths of all on board—including his wife and child. Now they'll need to work together and with the stewardess, Miss Spalding (Doe Avedon), to ensure the comfort and safety of their passengers during the 12-hour flight.

The thing is that the passengers, and each of them is a starring part in his or her own right, have problems that cannot be attended to. There's a former beauty queen, Sally McKee (Jan Sterling), who is now losing her youthful looks and lives a life of isolation. A jealous husband, Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer), suspects another passenger, the wealthy Ken Childs (David Brian), is his wife's lover. Mr. Childs currently woos the glamorous May Holst (Claire Trevor) between the aisles and over drinks and cigarettes, but will his efforts be thwarted by the scheming Agnew? There are many more stories and back stories involved here, some revealed through dialogue and others through flashbacks. An attempt to explain them will fail, but director William A. Wellman and screenwriter Ernest K. Gann (adapting from his own novel) successfully develop each character during the first hour, which helps the emotional impact of the film.

Anybody can predict that the plane will lose one of its engines and there will be many scenes of excitement, such as when Dan Roman opens the plane's door in order to throw the luggage out to save fuel. The story of people's personal troubles is symbolized through the crisis and the decision that needs to be made between a crash landing in the ocean or attempting to fly into the airport. It's a soap opera, with cheesy moments and a first act that takes forever to get the story going; however, it's an earnest story told well, focusing more on the characters than the special effects. The High and the Mighty could not be made like this today, especially with a running length of 147 minutes. In an age dominated by painfully obvious and gratuitous CGI shots, Wellman's melodrama offers a much-needed change of pace.

The performances are impressive, with the actors fitting into their parts quite easily. Despite having top billing, John Wayne is largely a passive performer here. I wish there was more of him, but the few scenes in which Dan Roman takes charge are winners. Claire Trevor, despite her Oscar nomination, passes by almost unnoticed. There doesn't appear to be anything important about her character, so it's difficult to engage the performance. However, Jan Sterling's turn as the emotionally shattered Sally McKee is a standout. One particularly effective scene is when she strips off all her makeup. Yet the most impressive role seems to belong to Doe Avedon. Her stewardess becomes the center of the story's action, which uses her to shift focus from one character's story to another's. There's a humanity to Avedon's performance that causes it to stand above the other fine pieces of acting.

Seeing all of this through to its end is director Wellman, who is no stranger to aviation movies. Wellman's storytelling is far more relaxed here than in his other work, but he still guides the audience with an assured hand. There's nothing profound about this story, but his handling of the material makes the most of it. Dimitri Tiomkin's score underpins every emotion perfectly, delivering some of his most memorable themes. With his music, Wellman's direction, and this cast, The High and the Mighty soars above stormy weather.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.55:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: The full CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1 is preserved here and looks fantastic. Depth and detail are absolutely rock solid, creating a delicious filmlike look. Blacks largely are impressive, but a few scenes have a bit of a flicker in them. Colors look nice and skin tones are accurate. Some print defects can be noticed, but they're few and far between. This is an excellent restoration effort.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: A newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 mix accompanies the restored picture quite nicely. It's a front heavy mix, but this seems fitting considering the age of the film. Some rear channel activity is noteworthy, especially with Dimitri Tiomkin's main theme during the opening credits. Sound separation opens up the front sound stage, though a couple of instances of it are slightly distracting. Dialogue is crisp and I detect no hiss or other flaws at all. There's also a Dolby Stereo 2.0 English mix available.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The John Wayne Collection, Batjac Montage
1 TV Spots/Teasers
4 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, Vincent Longo, Leonard Maltin, Karen Sharpe, William Wellman, Jr.
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:13m:41s

Extra Extras:
  1. Introduction by Leonard Maltin—a brief video introduction on each disc, giving general background to the film and a preview of the special features.
  2. The High and the Mighty Premiere Footage—an old newsreel of the 1954 theatrical premiere.
  3. Photo Gallery—a series of still pictures and posters for the film.
Extras Review: Paramount pulls out all the stops here, supplying an impressive collection of supplemental features. Disc 1 starts off with an Introduction by Leonard Maltin (04m:00s) that gives a brief overview of the movie's production process. Accompanying that on the first disc is an audio commentary by Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, Vincent Longo, Leonard Maltin, Karen Sharpe, and William Wellman, Jr. Maltin and Wellman, Jr. dominate this track, though the others have some interesting comments as well. Vincent Longo contributes by giving information about the history of aviation, which is his expertise. Wellman talks about being on the set and his father's views of the movie, offering up some telling tales. Maltin seems to be in the role of moderator, but offers some insights when the opportunity arises. There's also a fair bit of historical context provided by this track. Very well done.

Over on Disc 2, there's a second Introduction by Leonard Maltin (01m:54s) about the movie's reception upon release and briefly references the upcoming special features. The highlight of this second disc is The Making of The High and the Mighty, which is a collection of featurettes and documentaries that can either be played together or separately. Taking them separately, things start off with The Batjac Story: Part 1 (1951-1963) (15m:14s). Featuring interviews with associates of John Wayne, as well as his children, it chronicles the inception and first decade of the Duke's own production company. A lot of the material here is about Wayne himself, but the different strategies and personalities that make up Batjac Productions are well integrated. It's a nice, informative documentary. Following that is Stories from the Set (09m:29s) featuring interviews with cast members (including one from '94 with Robert Stack) and others. It's brief, but there are plenty of interesting anecdotes about the shoot and the casting process.

On Director William A. Wellman (09m:44s), the third part in the larger documentary, contains interviews with Wellman expert Kevin Brownlow and William Wellman, Jr. Both men discuss this particular movie in the context of Wellman's career and life, giving a brief glimpse into the man's life. Some of this is a repeat from the commentary, but it is largely a different look at the man. The Music and World of Dimitri Tiomkin (18m:41s) features numerous composers discussing his work and contributions to scoring motion pictures, both in terms of business and art. It also contains audio clips from his Oscar acceptance speech for The High and the Mighty. Take a quick look at this feature to get a greater appreciation of Tiomkin's work. The next installment is Ernest K. Gann: Adventurer, Author and Artist (18m:45s) goes quickly through the life of writer Gann, chronicling his personal and professional accomplishments. The feature makes good use of his home movies and still photographs in telling Gann's life. It's quite a interesting and, dare I suggest it, would make for one helluva movie.

Restoring a Classic (04m:28s) tells the story of how the people at Cinetech went through the restoration process for over a year. I'm a sucker for these restoration featurettes, but this one gives a great deal of information that others don't (particularly on the audio restoration process). Finally, The Making of The High and the Mighty documentary closes out with A Place in Film History (08m:03s). Maltin gives a critical analysis of the film, talking about how it shows the range of John Wayne's acting talent and its mystique. It's more of a love note than a critical analysis, but it's tough to hold that against him. All of the above-mentioned features work well together, creating a thorough making-of documentary.

An interesting supplement is the documentary Flying in the Fifties (23m:40s). Remember the time in which you could smoke on a plane, eat peanuts, and expect a comfortable seat? I always thought it was a myth, but apparently the pilots and stewardess here worked in that time period. The people interviewed emphasize their love for the job and talk about the differences in avionics between the 1950s and today. Following that is the original theatrical trailer, shown in 2.55:1 (or maybe 2.35:1, I couldn't tell) widescreen. There's also a TV spot from the movie with John Wayne, which runs almost as long as the theatrical trailer. Each of them is a nice throwback to the marketing machines of yesteryear. There's also a brief newsreel of The High and the Mighty Premiere Footage (:48s) that has the usual gala of stars flash past the screen. Additionally there's a brief Photo Gallery with publicity stills, posters, and pictures of collectibles.

There also is a DVD trailer for Paramount's The John Wayne Collection and a Batjac Montage, which previews upcoming DVD releases from the production company. It's an extensive, informative collection of special features here. Absolutely smashing!

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

A high-flying 1950s drama, The High and the Mighty: Special Collector's Edition is on of the best and most surprising releases from Paramount in some time. The image is beautifully restored and the new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is well done. Extras are an impressive collection of different materials. All aboard!


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