High and the Mighty, The: John Wayne Starred after Spencer Tracy Dropped Out

Functioning as a producer and star was such a gratifying experience that in 1952, John Wayne established the Wayne-Fellows Productions, with Robert Fellows, a veteran producer. This company was responsible for a series of pictures directed by William Wellman and highly profitable at the box-office.

One of the company’s blockbusters was “The High and the Mighty,” a forerunner of the “disaster” movies, which became very popular in the 1970s. Similar in plot to that of “Airport” (and its sequels), “The High and the Mighty” could be described as “Grand Hotel in the air,” in the same way that Ford’s “Stagecoach” was “Grand Hotel” in a Western carriage.

Initially only a producer, John Wayne was cast in the film after Spencer Tracy dropped out.

The tale centers on a diverse group of passengers aboard a big plane over the Pacific. The threat of crash landing motivates each member to react in a different way, based on his or her personality and problems. The narrative is the equivalent of a quasi-psychological experiment that studies people’s reaction in stress-induced situations.

Surprisingly, even the pilot has his demons, which could cloud his judgment just when it’s needed the most. Of the four crew men, John Wayne is the strongest, a vet pilot who’s second-in-command but has the cool and courage and alert but calm awareness to bring some sense back into the confused captain

The two standout performances (both Oscar nominated) were given by Jan Sterling and Claire Trevor. Sterling plays Sally McKee, a faded and soiled beauty on her way back to the U.S. to marry a man she has never met. All the “mysterious” man knows about Sally is based on an old photo of 6 years back, when she was younger and more appealing. Fearing both life and death, Sally the former playgirl is helpless, when it’s time to apply her life vest. She is a middle-aged woman, who’s deeply frightened and at the same time tries to be hopeful about her unknown future.

In contrast, Claire Trevor plays Mary Halt, an all-knowing woman, who has been around and has seen it all. Mary was dedicated to a married man until he died, never caring about what people thought of their relationship, because their love was true and fulfilled needs that his wife could not meet.

“The High and the Mighty” was based on a book by Ernest K. Gann. The movie was so popular with audiences that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the film with four Oscar nominations, winning an Oscar for Dimitri Tiomkin’s melodic music. (See Oscar Section).

Though the movie is 147 minute long, some critics complained that there were too many roles with too many problems, to the point where each persona was “only a draft of a character,” as the Herald Tribune pointed out.

Detailed Plot

In Honlulu, a DC-4 airliner is about to take off for San Francisco with 17 passengers and a crew of 5.

Former captain Dan Roman (John Wayne), the flight’s veteran first officer known for his habit of whistling, is haunted by a crash that killed his wife and son and left him with a permanent limp.

The captain, Sullivan (Robert Stack), suffers from a fear of responsibility after spending enormous time looking after the lives of passengers and crew. Young second officer Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell) and veteran navigator Lenny Wilby (Wally Brown) are contrasts in age and experience.

Flight attendant Spalding (Doe Avedon) attends her passengers, each with personal problems, and befriends the terminally ill Frank Briscoe (Paul Fix) after being charmed by his pocket watch. A last minute arrival, Humphrey Agnew (Sidney Blackmer) causes her misgivings by his strange behavior.

After a routine departure, the plane experiences sudden vibrations, but the crew cannot locate the problem. When a vibration causes Spalding to burn her hand, Dan inspects the tail compartment but finds nothing amiss.

Agnew confronts fellow passenger Ken Childs (David Brian), accusing him of having an affair with Agnew’s wife. The men struggle and Agnew pulls out a gun, intending to shoot Childs, but the plane swerves violently when it loses a propeller and the engine catches fire. The crew extinguishes the fire, but the engine has twisted off its mounting.

In mid-ocean, the crew asks for help and sets in motion a rescue operation. Dan discovers that the airliner is losing fuel from damage to a wing tank. Along with winds and the damaged engine, the plane will eventually run out of fuel and be forced to ditch.

Unassuming José Locota (John Qualen) disarms Agnew and confiscates the gun, compelling him to sit quietly. Gustave Pardee (Robert Newton), who had fear of flying, inspires calm in his terrified fellow passengers. Dan calmly explains the situation, trying to lessen their anxiety, but warns that their chances of making the coast are “one in a thousand.”

The passengers rally around each other. In San Francisco, Manager Tim Garfield (Regis Toomey) comes to the airline’s operations center. A change in the winds raises the crew’s hopes that they have enough fuel to reach San Francisco but Wilby discovers that he made an error in navigation and their actual remaining time in the air is less than he calculated.

Sullivan panics and prepares to ditch immediately, but Dan slaps him back to his senses. Thinking clearly again, Sullivan decides not to ditch. As the airliner approaches rainy San Francisco in the middle of the night and at a low altitude, the airport prepares for an emergency instrument landing. The plane narrowly surmounts the city’s hills and breaks out of the clouds with the runway lights dead ahead, guiding them to a safe landing.

As the passengers disembark, they are harried by inquisitive reporters. Dan is informed that only 30 gallons of gas remained in the tanks. Dan acknowledges the gamble they took and walks away, limping and whistling. “So long…you ancient pelican,” Garfield mutters to himself.


John Wayne as Dan Roman (First Officer)

Claire Trevor as May Holst

Laraine Day as Lydia Rice

Robert Stack as John Sullivan (Captain)

Jan Sterling as Sally McKee

Phil Harris as Ed Joseph

Ann Doran as Mrs. Joseph

Robert Newton as Gustave Pardee

David Brian as Ken Childs

Paul Kelly as Donald Flaherty

Sidney Blackmer as Humphrey Agnew

Julie Bishop as Lillian Pardee

Pedro Gonzalez as Gonzales (Amateur Radio Operator, SS Cristobal Trader)

John Howard as Howard Rice

Wally Brown as Lenny Wilby (Navigator)

William Campbell as Hobie Wheeler (Second Officer)

John Qualen as José Locota

Paul Fix as Frank Briscoe

George Chandler as Ben Sneed (Far East Crew Chief, Honolulu)

Joy Kim as Dorothy Chen

Michael Wellman as Toby Field

Douglas Fowley as Alsop (TOPAC Agent, Honolulu)

Regis Toomey as Tim Garfield (TOPAC Operations Manager, San Francisco)

Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer as Ens. Keim, USCG (ASR Pilot, Alameda)

Robert Keys as Lt. Mowbray, USCG (ASR Pilot, Alameda)

William Dewolf Hopper as Roy (Sally McKee’s fiancé)

William Schallert as TOPAC Dispatcher (San Francisco)

Julie Mitchum as Susie Wilby (Mrs. Lenny Wilby)

Doe Avedon as Miss Spalding (Flight Attendant)

Karen Sharpe as Nell Buck

John Smith as Milo Buck