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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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

sheworeayellowribbonpostDirector John Ford is known, remembered and respected for any number of westerns from a long, distinguished career. For me, I’ve always been a big fan of his ‘Cavalry trilogy,’ starting with 1948’s Fort Apache and 1950’s Rio Grande. Smack dab in the middle? A movie featuring — for me — star John Wayne‘s best role, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

It’s the fall of 1876 and the U.S. cavalry is dealing with the fallout following the massacre at the Little Big Horn where George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry was wiped out. At isolated Fort Starke, Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is just days away from retirement after a distinguished 40-year career. He’s been given one last mission; to take a patrol out and see if he can’t drive a growing Indian force back to the reservation. Brittles is saddled with an additional job though, transporting two women to safety in the wake of the likely coming attacks. With a potentially huge assault mounting as the Indian tribes band together, Brittles and C Troop has their work cut out for them.

Recently I reviewed Ulzana’s Raid, a cynical 1972 revisionist western that showed what the cavalry, the Indian wars and the American west was really like. Ford’s Cavalry movies? More like the way the west should have been. I liked ‘Ribbon’ as a kid but didn’t love it. It’s too slow with not enough action. It’s only as I grew up that I appreciated it more and more. Now, I think of it as John Wayne’s best role (along with The Searchers and The Shootist) and in general, one of the best westerns ever made. Other Ford-Wayne pairings usually get the attention, but this definitely belongs in the conversation.

What an enjoyable movie. The kicker? There’s little to no story in a 103-minute running time. Brittles is retiring in a few days, an Indian uprising looms…and go! ‘Ribbon’ features an at-times leisurely pace, moving from episode to episode. It doesn’t need a detail-oriented story. We’ve got the situation, a laundry list of great characters and so much more. Filmed on location in Monument Valley (a Ford favorite), ‘Ribbon’ is visually stunning, the Technicolor filming absolutely popping off the screen. The cinematography rightfully earned an Academy Award win. Throw in a memorable score from composer Richard Hageman, and you’ve got a lot of key pieces kicking into place left and right.

As an actor, Wayne often gets the short end of the stick. With the right script, the man could A-C-T. After seeing Wayne in Red River, Ford exclaimed “I didn’t know the SOB could act,” resulting in this pairing. Wayne as Brittles is pitch-perfect. Here’s the Duke playing a man 20 years his superior (gray in his hair and mustache, lines on his face), and nailing it. Brittles is a career officer, a loyal, brave and honorable soldier who gets the job done but looks out for his men in the process. What’s always appealed to me about the performance is that it never feels like show-boating. This is understated, emotional and never feels forced.

Two memorable scenes come to mind. One early on has Brittles visiting the grave of his wife who passed away some 9 years before. Watering plants on the grave and sitting in a small folding chair, he tells her about the new developments in his day-to-day life. He smiles, filling her in on all the details. A scene that easily could have been overdone or fake, but Wayne delivers in subtle, scene-stealing fashion. The same for a late scene when Brittles receives a silver watch with an inscription from C Troop. An embarrassed Brittles reaches for his glasses and holds back tears as he reads the inscription. Anyone who thinks Wayne couldn’t act should watch those scenes and then re-evaluate their opinion.

Plenty of the John Ford Stock Company join Wayne in an impressive cast. Joanne Dru plays Olivia Dandridge, a young woman visiting her uncle at Fort Starke who’s also caught the attention of two lieutenants in C Troop, Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.). The dynamic isn’t great and is the weakest aspect of the movie, but it’s not as bad as Red River! Ben Johnson is another scene-stealer (as usual) as Sgt. Tyree, the scout and point man for C Troop, the man Brittles relies on most. He’s also a real-life cowboy so all those scenes of Tyree tearing across the horizon are legit. Ford regular Victor McLaglen is a welcome addition to the cast as Quincannon, a similarly retiring veteran soldier who’s longtime friends with Brittles.

Also look for George O’Brien, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields and an uncredited Paul Fix in a small scene.

Ford movies lean toward the romantic side of the cavalry and the west. He has a respect for the men who donned the blue uniforms and curled campaign hats for $30 a month and constant danger over the next rise. These are good, old-fashioned stories with strong characters (if at times stereotyped) and style for days. Just a gem of a movie. Not always identified as Ford or Wayne’s best, but it should be. A classic worth checking out and/or re-visiting.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949): ****/****