John Wayne is known for its many westerns and WWII movies, movies which shaped him into a legendary actor known for his grit. But The High and the Mighty isn’t one of this movies – it can be considered one of his (more or less) hidden gems.
The plot is quite simple and it resembles the one of any average disaster film (a genre that has reached unimaginable heights during the most recent years): a pilot loses his nerve when his plane malfunctions, so it is up to his co-pilot (John Wayne) to handle the situation.
And, even more, if you view it today for the first time, The High and the Mighty may seem a bit weird, not because of the plot but because of the characters. But then again one mustn’t judge a film only by today’s standards, but must delve into the historical context of the movie. And thus a new perspective is cast upon the film.
And that is because as much as it is a film about a disaster waiting to happen, The High and the Mighty is actually a character study in which John Wayne shows how good an actor he is. Jokingly, some critics said that they were surprised to see that the plane actually took off with so much personal baggage.
And there are quite a few characters in the movie. In fact, John Wayne’s role can be considered secondary – his role is already established early in the film, from there off the other characters and their stories being introduced.
Nonetheless, it is still John Wayne’s Dan Roman that is imprinted in the viewer’s mind. It isn’t just because of the face behind the character, but because of the tragic story that seems to be continues in the present: a crash-accident survivor that witnessed his family’s death.
Predictably, he is the one that takes the reins as the story unfolds, being extremely direct with all the passengers and informing them about the imminent crash-landing at sea. Then follow the necessary preparations, including in here a scene in which he wraps a picture of his wife and child in a waterproof envelope.
Of course, all is well when it ends well – in another typical manner, when the crisis is over, Dan Roman lets the pilot take the controls and assumes his previous role as a co-pilot.
As a conclusion, The High and the Mighty does have all the prerequisites of a disaster movie. But it shouldn’t be viewed in such a manner, because its point would be lost. As John Wayne said, if you’ve got a story, you’ve got a motion picture.