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The High and the Mighty

Nobody could accuse John Wayne of not understanding the value of a dollar. After establishing himself as one of Hollywood's foremost leading men in the early 1940s, Wayne took on the role of producer for three films he starred in at Republic. A savvy veteran of the studio system, "The Duke" donned the producer's hat not only because of his top-to-bottom knowledge of the industry, but also because he stood to share in the profits of his own movies. After he completed his trio of Republic titles, Wayne turned to one of his colleagues, producer Robert Fellows, with a proposition — creating their own production company, Wayne-Fellows, which they launched in 1952. The new venture arrived at a time when the studios' seemingly impenetrable contract-system was on the wane: In the '40s, Cary Grant made the bold move of going "freelance" by refusing to sign exclusive multi-picture contracts; now, John Wayne was taking the helm of his own film projects. The history of American movie-making has perhaps a handful of disruptive tectonic shifts such as these, and while some critics may too-readily dismiss Wayne as an actor, hanging out a shingle in Hollywood with his own name on not only placed him in the same company as Cary Grant, it also blazed a trail for the self-produced blockbusters of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as well as the explosion of independent film led by Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Before long, Wayne bought out Fellows and chose to change the name of his production company, selecting "Batjack" from a trading firm in his 1948 picture "Wake of the Red Witch." When the first lot of stationery arrived with the misspelled "Batjac" on its folio, Duke proved his was just as qualified to be a producer as a star — he changed the name of the company rather than pay to have the printing done again.

One of Wayne-Fellows' most popular releases, The High and the Mighty (1954) bears the inimitable mark of director William A. Wellman, who directed no less than 11 aviation films during his long career. Based on the novel by Ernest K. Gann (who also penned the screenplay), John Wayne stars as Dan Roman, a co-pilot on Trans-Orient Pacific Airlines' routine Honolulu-San Francisco run. Dan's one of the oldest pilots in the ranks, but it's unlikely that he'll ever sit in the captain's seat again, not after a horrific crash in South America that claimed the lives of his wife and son. Fellow co-pilot Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell) wonders why the airline hired the old "fire-horse," but Capt. John Sullivan (Robert Stack) seems altogether indifferent — a no-nonsense aviator who prides himself on his attention to detail, he treats the senior flyer with due respect. As the flight's passengers check in, we learn that each has their own personal story to tell: One couple is on the verge of divorce, another is returning from a disastrous vacation, a former beauty queen is preparing to meet her pen-pal boyfriend for the first time, a Chinese woman is making her first trip to America, and a lonely young boy is a mere pawn of his separated parents. But as the flight gets underway, the pilots notice small problems. At times, the plane inexplicably shakes. Capt. Sullivan is convinced the props are out of sync, even though they aren't. It's only after the "point of no return" over the Pacific that one of the engines explodes — forcing the crew to plan for an emergency ditch into the sea.

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Nominated for six Oscars and running for two years in Times Square, The High and the Mighty was not only an enormous financial windfall for Wayne-Fellows, but it also can be credited with kicking off an honest-to-goodness film genre: the disaster flick. The Airport movies, The Towering Inferno, and innumerable other pictures have arrived in its wake, and the fact that this early effort is unencumbered by audience expectations makes it a little downbeat by comparison, particularly with a generous exposition that only hints at the trouble that lies ahead. It's also surprising that John Wayne takes on a co-starring role in a true ensemble film — he only has a few words of dialogue in the first 30 minutes — but in fact he wasn't even slated to appear in the movie, taking the part of Dan Roman after Spencer Tracy turned it down. Robert Stack only earned the captain's seat after convincing Wellman to pass over Robert Cummings, who flew in World War II. The film would have been altogether difference with Cummings and Tracy at the controls. For starters, Stack's deadpan turn in Airplane! (1980) never would have happened, since it's a self-parody of his work here. Meanwhile, the Duke does a good job of underplaying his own persona. The mere presence of John Wayne on screen is a sort of cinematic foreshadowing, but Wayne tones down his rough-and-tumble charisma, offering hints of the psychological scars Dan Roman bears. He's also splendid in the script's best scene, as he boosts the passengers' morale while calmly explaining that the plane is about to ditch into the Pacific. It's a scene that Spencer Tracy doubtless would have carried just as well, but Wayne's creditable turn illustrates that he had more natural ability than his action pictures let on.

Paramount's two-disc DVD release of The High and the Mighty brings the film to home video for the first time — despite its popularity, it was never authorized by Batjac for release on VHS. Meticulously restored, the CinemaScope film looks perfect in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Supplements on both discs include introductions by film critic Leonard Maltin, while Maltin, William Wellman Jr., co-stars Karen Sharpe and Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, and aviation buff Vincent Longo can be heard on a chatty commentary. Disc Two holds the bulk of the extras, including the multi-part documentary "The Making of the High and the Mighty" (83 min.), the featurette "Flying in the Fifties" (23 min.), premiere newsreel footage (48 sec.), a stills gallery, a theatrical trailer and TV spot, and a look at Paramount's John Wayne titles. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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