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Island in the Sky

Hollywood has enjoyed a long love-affair with military pilots, all the way from the first Academy Award Best Picture winner, William A. Wellman's 1927 Wings, to Top Gun and beyond. Less heralded, but no less important, are the flyers depicted in Wellman's Island in the Sky (1953) — the civilian mavericks who made up the bulk of the Air Transport Command during World War II, hauling tons of fuel, freight, materials, and mail around the globe. They didn't see combat nearly as often as their fighter-ace counterparts, but by war's end the Air Transport Command was the world's largest airline. John Wayne stars in Island in the Sky as Capt. Dooley, skipper of a C-47 (a reinforced DC-3) who makes regular runs between the United States and points north, including Labrador, Greenland, and Iceland. He's supported by a solid crew of aviators, including co-pilot Lovatt (Sean McClory), navigator Murray (Jimmy Lydon), radioman D'Annunzia (Wally Cassell), and engineer Stankowski (Hal Baylor). However, one run up north goes bad in a hurry — poor weather has thrown the crew's position off course, and a descending cold coats their wings with deadly ice. Unsure of his location and low on fuel, Dooley is forced to roll the dice, driving his plane on a northwest course, into uncharted territory that is flat enough to support an emergency landing. All five men on board survive, but Dooley realizes he has to take stock, and fast. With a limited amount of battery power to operate the radio, and barely enough food to feed his crew for more than a day or two, he directs the construction of a primitive shelter and fire. Meanwhile, the Air Transport Command, having received Dooley's final transmission, launches a long-odds rescue operation under the command of Col. Fuller (Walter Abel). The civilian pilots he assembles don't respond well to orders, but they're determined to save one of their own, flying day and night if necessary to bring Dooley and his boys out of the Arctic wasteland, where temperatures regularly drop past 40-below.

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Far outshone by The High and the Mighty (1954), a box-office smash in colorful CinemaScope, Island in the Sky has become a forgotten film over the years, in part because it never arrived on home video until this 2005 DVD release. And yet this preceding film teamed up Mighty's three formidable principals: director William Wellman, novelist-screenwriter Ernest K. Gann, and producer-star John Wayne. Despite being an Academy ratio picture with black-and-white cinematography, it's easily a peer to The High and the Mighty, thanks to a smart cast and Gann's script, which delights in raising the stakes. The black-and-white stock image also is appropriate, stripping away any hint of life or color in the snowy, desolate northern climes, where the missing men are forced to plot their own survival. Meanwhile, Dooley keeps a sharp eye out for the first signs of insubordination — the first step towards cracking up, or worse. The aviators on the hunt for their lost colleagues include favorites of Wayne and Wellman, among them James Arness, Andy Devine, and Lloyd Nolan. But they're upstaged by the picture's unbilled star attractions — the shimmering, aluminum-paneled DC-3s, captured in graceful formation flight by cinematographer Bill Clothier, whose association with William Wellman stretched all the way back to Wings. Paramount's DVD release of Island in the Sky offers a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a restored print that is virtually flawless, with smooth gradients, barely a hint of collateral wear, and doubtless looking as good as it did on premiere night, while the clear audio can be heard on a Dolby 2.0 track. The disc offers an introduction by film critic Leonard Maltin, while supplements include a commentary featuring Maltin, William Wellman Jr., stars Darryl Hickman and James Lydon, and aviation buff Vincent Longo. Also on board is the multi-part documentary "The Making of Island in the Sky" (41 min.), the featurette "Flying for Uncle Sam" (8 min.), newsreel footage from the premiere (46 sec.), John Wayne's promo for CBS-TV's "Gunsmoke" (1 min.), a promo reel for Paramount's John Wayne titles (5 min.), a stills gallery, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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