“In his efforts to constantly improve his craft, he made many film and television appearances that sometimes slip under the radar when discussing his body of work. Viewed today, these undersung entries tell a story beyond the ones playing out between the characters on screen, speaking directly to Duke’s desire to get it right.” —Ethan Wayne
The High and Mighty
By the 1950s, John Wayne’s characters had already faced plenty of perilous situations on the big screen. From floods to fires to bloodthirsty bandits, the types of dangers Duke’s heroes typically encountered would likely scare the bejesus out of the average man, but apparent fearlessness was a staple of the John Wayne persona. And for 1954’s The High and the Mighty, the legend would take his portrayal of enviable tranquility to new heights.
Though he had never made a movie that takes place in the sky before, John Wayne was able to enjoy the comfort of familiar faces on the set of The High and the Mighty. Appearing as part of the ensemble of passengers is Claire Trevor, with whom the legend lit up the screen in Stagecoach (1939) and Dark Command (1940). And at the helm of the fi lm was William A. Wellman, the director Duke had worked with the year prior for Island in the Sky (1953), a film that coincidentally stars the icon as a captain dealing with the aftermath of a downed plane.
The High and the Mighty sees John Wayne as “Whistling” Dan Roman, a commercial airliner copilot who’s often teased by the crew for being “old” and “washed up.” But on a trans-Pacific flight, Dan’s years of experience come into play when the plane’s mechanical problems appear dire and Capt. “Skipper” Sullivan (Robert Stack) panics and plans to ditch. Haunted by a past crash of his own, Dan slaps some sense into Sullivan and takes the helm. While not quite whistling in the face of danger, Dan is as calm and collected as anyone could be in such a terrifying situation. With the lives of numerous passengers on board at stake and hardly a drop of fuel to spare, he eventually determines they can indeed make it to a safe landing at the airport.
Naturally, Duke was completely convincing to critics in the role of the heroic copilot. The New York Times had particularly high praise for the legend, writing in its review, “John Wayne makes the best show as a veteran pilot, second in command, who has the coolness and courage to knock some clear sense into the muddled head of the captain.” The role even earned the star the 1955 Laurel Award from Motion Picture Exhibitor for Best Dramatic Performance—further proof that John Wayne could succeed beyond the battlefields of World War II or the saloons of the Old West.
Read these stories and so many more in John Wayne: The Official Collector's Edition Volume 43.