High and the Mighty, The (1954): John Wayne’s Blockbuster, Forerunner of the Disaster (Airport) Movie Genre










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.

Their new company was responsible for a series of pictures directed by William Wellman, which were 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 the 1970 Airport (and its sequels), “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).

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.

the_high_and_the_mighty_wayne_3Surprisingly, 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.

the_high_and_the_mighty_wayne_2In 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.


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