The High and the Mighty (1954)

Directed by William A. Wellman

I really wanted to like this movie. It’s an old John Wayne film, it has come out in a new special edition, restored and remastered and … well, I was just ready to see an older movie. I was primed.

Sadly, The High and the Mighty is pretty awful.

It’s a melodramatic disaster movie. But melodramatic in all the worst ways and none of the good.

To be fair to it, having been made over 50 years ago, it can be seen as a progenitor of the Hollywood disaster movies of today like, for example, Independence Day. So it was made before the formula had been tweaked and tested and nailed down.

In The High and the Mighty, you can see the formula in an embryonic stage. It takes the ensemble idea of an earlier film like a Grand Hotel (1932) – lots of characters, lots of stories interweaving – and adds a disaster scenario to it, in this case a plane in peril.

But what the movie hasn’t figured out is how to take an idea like this, which probably works well enough within a novel, where there is more room to work with (a movie has time restrictions, a novel can be pretty much as long as it needs to be), and make it work for the screen.

What we end up with then is a movie that feels like endless exposition – the character introductions and back stories take up something like an hour or hour and a half, about half or two thirds of the movie. You want to yell at the screen, “For God’s sake, crash the damn plane!”

Worse, with the exception of John Wayne and Claire Trevor, the characters are as interesting as cardboard, some simply being irritating twits (like the newlyweds – they should have been tossed off the plane in mid-air).

The movie really doesn’t get interesting until the plane’s engine knocks out and the peril is immediate, and this doesn’t happen until the film is into its final lap. But by this time a viewer is pretty numb with ennui.

The bottom line is that the film has an idea – a pretty good one for the period it was made. I’m sure at the time it came out it was probably pretty exciting. But for a modern audience, it feels old – anachronistic. It lacks a sense of cinema as a form of storytelling. Rather, it uses a literary, novelistic approach – except it’s done on film, rather than paper (not an uncommon problem with films of this period).

It doesn’t handle its characters well. They are shallow stereotypes and their stories are told ploddingly.

The result is a movie that feels as old as it actually is – maybe older. And frankly, it’s just plain dull. And that is the exact opposite of what a movie like this should be.

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