Island in the Sky

island_in_the_sky_281953_film29_posterSince I moved over to WordPress from Blogger this past fall, I’ve struggled with what to review. Life gets in the way and what not, huh? Should I stick with solely westerns? Guy’s guys movies in general? I’d been sticking with westerns of late, but when watching 1953’s Island in the Sky, I had to expand the parameters a little bit. A John Wayne movie many fans have never heard of, much less seen, it’s a hidden gem, a true classic.

It’s early in World War II and many civilian pilots have been enlisted in the armed forces to help transport supplies to Europe. One of the routes is over Canada to Greenland and eastward into England and beyond. Among those pilots is Dooley (Wayne), a longtime flier, and his four-man crew. In horrific weather, Dooley’s plane goes off-course and the pilot is forced to land in the wilderness of Labrador, mostly uncharted land that’s never been explored. With food in short supply and temperatures at -70 degrees, the five men must band together to survive. All over the region though, civilian pilots report in to aid in the search. In the uncharted wilderness though, the search proves to be almost impossible across 10,000 square miles. Can the rescue effort find them? Can Dooley and his crew hold out?

Originally released in 1953, ‘Island’ went unseen for over 20 years as it languished under copyright and legal issues. It was finally settled on released on DVD in the early 2000s with another Wayne aviation movie, The High and the Mighty (also recommended). Some 15 years before disaster movies were in style, both films set the bar high and are obvious influences on countless flicks to come (both serious and spoof). ‘Island’ is as straightforward as they come with a downed crew and the rescue effort in the air. No frills, no tricks, just a survival movie at its absolute best. A must-see film.

Director William Wellman had a pilot’s background himself, flying in a fighter in WWI. He’d done several aviation movies already — including 1927’s Wings — and just has a knack for it. ‘Island’ is filmed in a stark, haunting black and white that adds a layer to the film. With color filming, it would lose some of its minimalist edge. The aerial sequences are quite impressive as WWII-era planes fly through weather, in and around mountain ranges, and all in sub-zero, frigid temperatures. Much of the movie is spent in tough, cramped quarters on the search planes, and we’re there with the pilots the whole way. A solid musical score from Emil Newman and an uncredited Hugo Friedhofer underplays all the action.

Rarely mentioned as one of Wayne’s best, this definitely belongs in the conversation with The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist. His part as veteran pilot Dooley is his most human part. He’s not a superhero, a cowboy, a war hero. He’s just a good pilot trying his damnedest to get his crew home safe. The voiceover narration Wayne delivers adds an excellent element to the character as we see his doubts creeping into his head while trying to hold the situation together. There’s a good twist in the final scene too concerning his character. Nothing crazy, but it adds a nice touch. As for the crew, look for Sean McClory as Lovatt, the co-pilot, Wally Cassell as D’annunzia, the radioman, Hal Baylor as Stankowski, the engineer and Jimmy Lydon as Murray, the navigator.

The survival and rescue effort is delivered in almost documentary-like fashion. In brief snippets, we get little windows into the lives of the crew as they look back on what they’ve left behind. It’s never heavy-handed or too distracting, but is instead highly effective in letting us feel like we know the crew well. It goes a long way in simple fashion of getting us invested in their survival. A solid ensemble.

And then there’s the rescue efforts, featuring plenty of recognizable stars, character actors and future stars. ‘Island’ features an excellent ensemble all-around, starting with the rescue pilots, including Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, Paul Fix, Allyn Joslyn, Cass Gidley and Louis Jean Heydt. Walter Abel leads the effort from base as the Army officer in command, an effortlessly effective part as he spells out what’s going on. As for some of the crew members, look for Harry Carey Jr., Fess Parker, Bob Steele, and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer.

I’ve seen this movie several times now, and I go along for the ride each and every time. The tension is beyond uncomfortable at times as the days pile up and supplies begin to dwindle, all the while the extreme, bitter cold wreaking havoc. SPOILER ALERT I absolutely love the ending too, one of the best, most emotional finales around. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Hidden away in a vault for years, ‘Island’ is must-see for fans of aviation, of John Wayne, of survival stories, and more simply, just of good stories. Definitely check this one out.

Island in the Sky (1953): ****/****

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The Hangman

the_hangman_posterGrowing up, I wasn’t always a fan of Robert Taylor movies. As I look
back now, I figure it’s because I just didn’t see many of his movies.
I was too busy with John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood
flicks. I’ve caught up though in the years since and have definitely
come to appreciate Taylor, especially in his western and war movies.
He gives an interesting turn in a flawed 1959 western, The Hangman.

After several years and hundreds of miles on the trail, Marshal
Mackenzie Bovard (Taylor) has put all but one member of a gang behind
bars from a notorious stagecoach robbery. His last man? Johnny
Butterfield, a former cavalry trooper who Bovard can’t identify. How
do you arrest a man you’re not sure what he looks like? His leads have
led him to an isolated town when he finds out a woman, Selah Jennison
(Tina Louise), who worked at the outpost Butterfield served at, may
know what Butterfield looks like. Offering her a large reward and
telling her where to meet, Bovard heads off looking to close the book
on the case and retire as a successful peace officer and move to
California.

This western from director Michael Curtiz aired recently on Encore
Westerns. I’d never heard of it – much less seen it – so I gave it a
shot. Filmed in black and white, ‘Hangman’ doesn’t have much in the
way of action (there’s basically NO action), and the majority of the
story is set in a town. In several ways, it reminded me of an extended
TV western, a la Bonanza, Gunsmoke or The Rifleman meets The Twilight
Zone. It surely is not a traditional western which isn’t a
deal-breaker in itself. The deal-breaker? Slow pacing, kinda dull and
an odd tone at times.

What drew me in here was the casting. Taylor, Louise, Fess Parker and
Jack Lord headline the cast. How’s that for an eclectic quartet?
Taylor gets the archetypal western peace officer, looking to retire
and close out his career by getting the stagecoach rivalry off the
books. Louise proves what a great actress she was, even though she’s
remembered almost solely for playing Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.
Parker is solid too as amiable Sheriff Buck Weston, potentially
hurting and helping Bovard’s case. Lord plays Johnny Bishop, a mule driver who Bovard believes is the man he’s looking for.

It’s four main characters that never quite click because of that too
slow-moving story. The potential is there, and I especially liked the
build-up over the first 30 minutes. The last hour though drags once
Bovard arrives in town. Then we get a kinda cat-and-mouse game that
feels repetitive at best and downright dull at its worst. Then there’s
the shifts in tone to comedy – an older woman in town constantly
pursues Taylor’s Bovard – and an ending that (to me at least) feels
like a romantic comedy that could have starred Rock Hudson and Doris
Day. By the time ‘The End” popped up on-screen I was both extremely
pleased and extremely confused. So be it.

Also look for Gene Evans, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jose Gonzales-Gonzales,
and Lorne Green. Fans of The Andy Griffith Show should watch out for
Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) as a waitress who serves Bovard and Weston.

Not an awful western, but one I didn’t enjoy that much. The biggest
thing going for the proceedings is Tina Louise, a strong female
character, something all too rare in the western genre. A budding sex
symbol, ‘Hangman’ has its fair share of Louise in low-cut, no-cut,
swimming shots to play up the sex kitten status – never a bad thing,
have you seen her?!? – but the character itself is a welcome addition
to the story, even if things fall apart in the end.

The Hangman (1959): **/****