Island in the Sky (1953): Wellman’s Adventure (Disaster on Air), Starring John Wayne, James Arness, Harry Carey Jr.

John Wayne starred in and produced the action-adventure Island in the Sky, directed by William A. Wellman (aviation expert), and adapted to the screen by Ernest K. Gann from his own novel.

Dealing with an aircraft crash, Island in the Sky bears thematic resemblance to the far superior The High and the Mighty, also starring Wayne and directed by Wellman.

Island in the Sky
Island in the Sky (1953 film) poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster


Set in wartime, the tale centers on Captain Dooley (Wayne), the chief pilot of a four-engine transport plane, which breaks down over the frozen land north of Labrabor.  Dooley heads the plane towards a terrain where he can, as he says, “ride the ship down,” onto the flat surface of a frozen lake.

A vet of decades of flying experience, Dooley then gets his crew into shape to in order to endure six days of limited food and supplies.

Like his characters in his military films, Wayne’s Dooley is not above smacking one of his weakling crew members (played by James Lydon), who goes through hysteria.

He is working hard at keeping his unit’s morale high, despite the harsh circumstances.

Meanwhile, back home at the headquarters, Col. Fuller (Walter Abel) assembles Dooley’s pilot-peers (Played by Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, and Allyn Joslyn).  Though they are all weary from just-completed flights, or spending time at home with their families, they dutifully rally to the search of one of their members.  Planes engage in searching for the missing Dooley and his crew through the radio transmits, which are feeble.

The film’s second half crosscuts between the rescue operations and the worsening survival conditions of Dooley’s group.

In flashbacks, we see some of the domestic stories of the men, their mother, wives, and children.

Disasters occur along the way, when Dooley’s co-pilot Lovatt (Sean McGlory) wanders off during a storm, hunting for live game, and then altogether vanishes.

Tension and suspense increase when several efforts fail, as when a plane files above the men, but it is unable to spot them.

Finally, on the sixth day, the downed fliers are spotted and food is dropped down before the rescue mission could succeed.


Captain Dooley (John Wayne)

Stutz (Lloyd Nolan)

Col. Fuller (Walter Abel)

McMullen (James Arness)

Moon (Andy Devine)

J.H. Handy (Allyn Joslyn)

Murray (James Lydon)

Hunt (Harry Carey Jr.)



Warner (Batjac, Wayne-Fellows Production)

Produced by Robert Fellows, John Wayne

Directed by William A. Wellman

Screenplay: Ernest K. Gann. From his own 1944 novel

Camera: Archie Stout

Camera (aerial): William Clothier

Art director: James Basevi

Editor: Ralph Dawson

Music: Emil Newman

Running time: 109 Minutes

Release date: September 5, 1953

Narrated by William Wellman
Budget $967,000 (estimated)
Box office $2.75 million