Proficient Pilot

Hooray for Hollywood!

June 1, 2004

Retired TWA captain Barry Schiff is the coauthor of two aviation-related novels.

The 1954 motion picture The High and the Mighty has become an aviation cult film for a number of reasons. The movie was tightly based on the best-selling novel of the same name, which was written by Ernest Kellogg Gann, one of aviation's best and most popular writers. (Gann wrote numerous other bestsellers including Fate is the Hunter, Island in the Sky, and Band of Brothers.) It was also one of those rare aviation films in which there are few, if any, aeronautical blunders. Little wonder. Gann not only wrote the screenplay, but also he was the technical director and would not permit the perpetuation of aeronautical myths no matter how minor.

The High and the Mighty also was the first successful motion picture about an airliner in distress. Perhaps most responsible in the evolution of the movie's mystique is that it has never been released on videotape or DVD.

The plot deals with a crippled airliner, a Douglas DC-4, flying from Honolulu to San Francisco when it loses two engines and develops a fuel leak that threatens safe completion of the flight. On board are 22 passengers who eventually become the stereotypes for passengers in the Airplane series of the 1970s as well as other disaster movies.

It was intended for Spencer Tracy to play the role of pilot Dan Roman, but he declined, and co-producer John Wayne opted to take the part himself. The other pilot, Sullivan, is played by Robert Stack.

Andrew McLaughlin, the first assistant director of the movie (and son of famous actor Victor McLaughlin), told me that Gann was pleased with the movie but was upset when he attended the world premiere and saw "William Wellman's The High and the Mighty" on the marquee. (Wellman was the director.) "What in the [heck] does that mean?" Gann barked. "I wrote that movie."

The aerial photography featured an actual DC-4 (Gann would not tolerate a model), but the cabin and cockpit scenes were shot using realistic mock-ups at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios. The movie was filmed in less than two months.

The enduring and haunting musical score for The High and the Mighty was composed by Dmitri Tiomkin and won an Oscar. John Wayne appeared to whistle the song in the movie, but it was really Muzzy Marcellino who whistled the sound track. (How's that for a trivia question?) The music became so associated and synonymous with John Wayne that it was played at his funeral.

I met John Wayne once when he accepted my invitation to ride in the cockpit of a TWA passenger flight between Amarillo, Texas, and Wichita. He was bigger than life and appeared to be the synthesis of the roles he played. I met Ernie Gann many times and always marveled at how beautifully he managed to convey his sense of flight while most of us seem so comparatively clumsy when attempting to arrange words into meaningful messages. He was an artist with words, and his books are chock full of literary pearls.

Another of Gann's movies, Island in the Sky, came out a year earlier, in 1953, also starred John Wayne, and similarly has not been rereleased.

The movie is about an Army pilot (Wayne) flying a C-47 that takes on a load of structural ice in winter and is forced down in uncharted Labrador. Wayne and his crew struggle to survive in a brutally harsh land of snow and ice while the pilot's friends conduct search-and-rescue efforts in other C-47s. Ernie Gann did much of the DC-3 flying for the movie, some of which was filmed over the Truckee-Tahoe area of Nevada and California during the winter.

Gann also sold the motion-picture rights to his enduring book Fate is the Hunter but was extremely disappointed in the movie (to put it mildly and without expletives). It turns out that the producers wanted only the title as a marketing ploy; the mediocre storyline had nothing whatever to do with the book, which most pilots know is a collection of marvelous vignettes based on Gann's personal airline experiences.

Batjac, Wayne's production company, owns the rights to the two classic movies. When Wayne died in 1979, the Batjac reins were assumed by his oldest son, Michael, who died last year. Batjac is now operated by Michael Wayne's wife, Gretchen.

Rumor had it that the Wayne family did not want either of the Gann movies rereleased. During my recent research about this, I spoke with Gretchen Wayne and learned that Batjac wanted very much to rerelease these movies into the energetic and profitable aftermarket. She told me that the negatives to these films had been damaged by water while in storage. Recently, however, technology has evolved to the point where the negatives can be saved. As this is written, the films are being digitally restored and distribution discussions are under way. When I asked her when videotapes and DVDs would be released, she simply said, "Sooner rather than later."

This wonderful news means that many of us will get to relive these memorable viewing experiences. Younger generations are in for cinematic treats and will quickly understand what we "ancient pelicans" have been talking about all these years. Yes, the films are a half-century old and somewhat campy, but they will be appreciated by aviation aficionados and Ernie Gann fans alike.

Visit the author's Web site (