Monday, July 30, 2012

Island in the Sky (1953)

I've made brief mentions of the 1953 film Island in the Sky on several occasions, but a search of the blog claims I've never done a full-length post on the movie. It's airing again tonight at 9:30 PM, and is well worth the watch if you haven't seen it before.

The story is quite a simple one. John Wayne stars as Dooley a pilot who is a civilian working for the military transporting army supplies. His current mission is taking him over the northern part of the Labrador peninsula and Quebec. It's a desolate place in good times; in the winter it's downright hostile. So, you can probably guess what's going to happen. The plane develops technical problems and has to make a forced landing. How are they going to get out before the cold gets them all? Well, there's an emergency transmitter that's powered by hand cranking. But they have to get the thing to start running in the first place so that they can relay their position to the rescue crews, who aren't otherwise going to know there's a problem until the plane fails to show up where the flight plan said it would.

The search isn't a bed of roses for the search pilots, either. This was 1953, long before there was anything like GPS to calculate somebody's position to within 100 feet or less. If the downed pilots could accurately relay their location to within a tenth of a degree of latitude and longitude, that's still a good 40 square miles the searchers would have to cover, looking for a needle in a haystack.

Island in the Sky is a bare-bones story that on the face of it doesn't have much to it. But that's not to say the movie isn't much; not by any means. Indeed, director William Wellman tells the story quite well. Wayne, as the leader of the flight crew, has to be a leader, but just like everybody else in the downed crew, he has the same fears that nobody's going to make it out alive. And technically, as the leader he does bear the responsibility if anybody dies on his watch. There's also the issue of that emergency transmitter. Apparently that part is relatively accurate from a technical point of view. (Not that you should expect anything less from director Wellman, who was a World War I pilot.) Transport planes in those days did have the hand-crank transmitters that you see, and from what I've read they were a pain to keep cranked in good conditions. I can only imagine trying to keep them cranked in the bitter cold of northern Quebec.

The search pilots don't have it much easier. They're looking for mere specks, and for a large portion of the movie they're not certain where they should even be looking. Add to that the fact that these specks they're trying to find are their friends, as the transport pilot fraternity is a small one. The searchers are played by a cast of well-known character actors: Allen Joslyn, James Arness, Andy Devine and Lloyd Nolan. Watch for Devine in particular. Before he takes off on the search, he's got a scene in which he's at the local swimming hall with his children. We get to see Devine do a cannonball into the swimming pool. Now, everything I've read suggests that Devine was a dear, sweet man, and that almost everybody who worked with him liked him. But by this point of his life he was also almost morbidly obese. Seeing him in a pair of swim trunks doing a cannonball is almost as disturbing as anything you'd see in a horror movie.

Island in the Sky has gotten a DVD release.

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