John Wayne's Roman Hero is more Desperate Dan
When you think of airplane orientated disaster movies the chances are you will think of "AirportAirport" and most likely the disaster spoof "Airplane" but the chances are you wont think of "The High and the Mighty" starring John Wayne. The reason being is that whilst "The High and the Mighty" features every aspect of a classic disaster movie it is rather dull with far too much time dedicated to trying to build up the characters of the various passengers on the plane rather than the excitement of the disaster. It also doesn't help that John Wayne seems to have been cast not for his skills as an actor but so that the movie has a star name attached as for almost the first half of the movie his greatest contribution is his sporadic whistling. As such "The High and the Mighty" is rather a routine disaster movie which never really gets going as it lacks the excitement and thrill of other disaster movies.
Sometime after being the only survivor of a plane crash which saw his wife and son killed, pilot Dan Roman (John Wayne - Hondo) returns to work as a co-pilot on a trans-Pacific flight from Honolulu. But during the flight things start to go wrong as first everyone notices the plane has a slight tremor and then the plane loses an engine. With it unlikely that the plane will reach land and the Captain stricken by nerves it's up to Roman to be the hero and try and bring the plane and it's passengers in safely.
Like the disaster movies which filled the screens of the 70s "The High and the Mighty" very much works to a well worn formula. During the first half of the movie we meet all the various passengers aboard the plane and as you would imagine it is a diverse bunch from a successful business man through to a little kid. At the same time we get the inkling that something is not right with the plane as it appears to be suffering from sporadic tremors. Then the second half kicks in where the plane loses one of its engines and loses fuel meaning that it will take a miracle and some heroic piloting for it to reach an airport rather than having to ditch in the ocean. It is all very stereotypical and the added element of one passenger having an issue with another is not much of a surprise.
But the trouble is that for the whole of the first half it is incredibly dull. We meet all the passengers as they go through the airport booking desk and in an unbelievably heavy handed manner the booking in clerk knows them all and gives us a potted history as to who they are. It is painful and laughable as are the various scenes during this first half which elaborates on the characters histories and ultimately how they come to be on the plane. One of the most painful and cliche is that of Dan Roman, played by John Wayne, who prior to this flight had been the sole survivor of a plane crash where his wife and son were killed leading to Roman having flashbacks over that fateful day.
All of which would be excusable if the second half of "The High and the Mighty" made up for all this heavy handed history malarkey but it never really gets exciting. In fact it borders on the comical when having learned that the plane is in dire trouble the passengers lead by Roman try to offload excess baggage which leads to them opening the planes door in mid flight and throwing stuff out. If that wasn't bad enough after having spent half the movie basically whistling suddenly John Wayne is called on to do some acting and become the hero as he takes control of the stricken plane. Unfortunately what Wayne has to do is completely corny and basically relies on him looking pensive as he struggles to control the crippled plane as it gets lower and lower. It most certainly isn't a character to test Wayne as an actor and it almost feels like he was cast because he was a big name rather than for what else he could bring to the movie.
Amusingly John Wayne isn't the only big name in the movie as there are the likes of Claire Trevor, Robert Stack and Laraine Day taking on some of the other roles. But like Wayne none of them are called on to do much despite many having entire flashbacks relating to why they are on the plane or scenes focussing on emotional issues. And it's strange because for a movie which focuses so heavily on building up these characters so that we connect with them not a single one ends up more than a 2 dimensional passenger on a stricken plane. Actually that's a lie as Jose Locata played by John Qualen is likeable but that is more to do with him being a humorous Italian/ Mexican stereotype rather than for being a good character.
What this all boils down to is that "The High and the Mighty" is not a bad movie but then neither is it very good. Running to a set formula it is a disaster movie which never delivers anything which is original and most disappointingly never manages to deliver the excitement or the tension when the disaster finally happens. As for it being a John Wayne movie, well Wayne does look good in a pilot's uniform but is more there as a big name rather than to deliver a big performance.