So where did disaster movies get their start? If you are thinking Irwin Allen, I suggest you are off by a few years. The High and the Mighty predates any of his films by two decades. In fact the classic Airport (which wasn’t directed by Allen, and in fact predates even Allen’s disaster movies by a couple of years) was still 16 years away. I would consider The High and the Mighty to be the father of all disaster movies.
It has all of the elements of those classics that you remember, such as Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and others. It has an all-star cast all pitted in a classic nail-biting event where unfortunate events may or may not mean death and destruction to the people caught up in those events.
Starring John Wayne, Robert Stack, Claire Trevor, Phil Harris, Robert Newton and a host of others, the plot is a plane ride from Honolulu to San Francisco in which it appears that the plane just might not make it to its final destination. All of the characters are either running from their respective pasts or their futures. It is Melodrama with a capital “M”.
The movie garnered six Oscar nominations, including one for both Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling for Best Supporting Actress (both of which lost to Eva Marie Saint for her role in On the Waterfront). I note that both of of those were pretty good in the film, but their screen time is shared by so many others that they sometimes seem lost in the shuffle.
The High and the Mighty(1954):
Dan Roman (John Wayne) prepares to help pilot a transatlantic flight from Honolulu to San Francisco. Roman is rather old to be a co-pilot, but he has a past that has haunted him. It seems that a few years earlier he had been a pilot on a plane that crashed, and among the dead were his wife and young son. So he has not had an entirely great life in the interim.
The passengers include a variety of characters. May Holst (Claire Trevor) is an actress who hasn’t had much luck in recent years. Sally McKee is a former beauty queen who is on her way to meet a future husband, except the potential mate, she thinks, is attracted to her because he thinks she is the young beauty queen he saw in a picture that is several years old. Lydia Rice (Laraine Day) is an heiress whose husband, Howard (John Howard), has rashly invested in a gold mine and she doesn’t want to be with him anymore because of it. Donald Flaherty (Paul Kelly) is a professor who has been helping the government with some project (probably a bomb, but it is never really established) and has left the project in disgust to go back to his university. Ed Joseph (Phil Harris) and his wife (Ann Doran) are returning from a less than spectacular vacation on the islands. Throw in a few more people, each of which is trying to deal with their own personal problems (John Smith and Karen Sharpe play a young married couple returning from their honeymoon with worries about the future) and you have an assortment of people that only a Hollywood movie could pit together.
On the flight things are going smoothly until one of he four engines catches fire. The fire is put out forthwith, but damage has caused some of the fuel needed for the flight to leak out. This creates the drama that drives the film. The navigator, Lenny (Wally Brown), insists they could make the coast if the winds will just play along, but it turns out that he has made a miscalculation. The pilot, John Sullivan (Robert Stack), thinks the best course is to ditch the plane in the Atlantic and wait for a rescue from the Coast Guard, which is on its way to intercept them. But Dan is convinced by Lenny that they could actually reach the coast.
As the flight goes on, the passengers and crew deal with their personal problems, as well as face the uncertain future that they may not actually survive to face it. The tension mounts, as it must do, and there are some twists along the way. Don’t miss the scene where one unstable passenger confronts another with the accusation that the other has been tempting his wife into infidelity. This being 1954 and not 2020, you will see some things that nobody could get away with in these post-9/11 days. Not including the fact that in those days you could actually smoke on a plane.
Whether the plane arrives in San Francisco or not, some or all of these people will experience their own individual rebirth into life. As must needs be in classic Hollywood style.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.