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At the time of filming, Hawaii was not a state, but it was a territory of the United States, and going through immigration between Honolulu and the mainland was not necessary. No passports for U.S. citizens were ever shown nor needed.
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The flying scenes were filmed during the third week in November 1953 using a DC-4 borrowed from Transocean Airlines. The ending scene showing all the passengers and crew disembarking in San Francisco according to the pilot was actually filmed at the old and now-defunct Glendale Air Terminal , where a special outdoor movie set was constructed to replicate the terminal gates at San Francisco in those days.
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Robert Stack bombarded director William A. Wellman with unrelenting lobbying for the part of John Sullivan, and an interview with Wellman ultimately clinched the deal. However, John Wayne had envisioned real-life flyer Robert Cummings for the role, and Stack later reported that Wellman said he planned to override his producer and insist upon Stack for the part, warning Stack that "if you screw up, John Wayne is going to strangle the both of us." Decades after the fact, Stack would lampoon his stoic character in the classic disaster film spoof, Airplane! (1980).
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Spencer Tracy was originally cast as Dan Roman. He backed out of the film, however, after hearing several negative comments about how strict a disciplinarian director William A. Wellman was.
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Nearly every one of the beloved 1970s disaster movies was strongly influenced by The High and the Mighty (1954) and another pre-genre disaster film, Zero Hour (1957).
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Unavailable for viewing for several decades due to disparate royalty and rights disputes, the film was finally made available in 2005 through the estate of John Wayne. Extensive restoration, including the recovery of a reportedly lost reel, was required before the film was realized in its current pristine condition for home video and television broadcast.
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Widely considered to be one of the best performances of John Wayne's career, and largely accidental at that: Wayne stepped into the part of Dan Roman at the eleventh hour, following Spencer Tracy's last-minute exit, merely to save the project (which Wayne himself was financing) from going over budget. The character of Roman - stricken, vulnerable and utterly unheroic - was the antithesis of Wayne's omnipotent screen persona, which forced him to play considerably outside his normal range. The result was a heartrending, unexpectedly touching portrayal.
At the time of its release, much of the film's success was attributed to Dimitri Tiomkin's masterful, Oscar-winning musical score. However, the haunting title song was heard only twice, at the beginning and the end. As was his shameless custom, the ever-self-promoting Tiomkin commissioned lyrics for his theme in hopes of winning twin Academy Awards for Best Song and Best Score. While this scheme achieved its desired effect with a double win for High Noon (1952), his title song for The High and the Mighty (1954) lost that year's award to another title song from Three Coins in the Fountain (1954).
Ernest Gann's novel clearly indicates that the character of Sally McKee has resorted to prostitution in order to survive. The film version, made at the height of Hollywood censorship, was unable to explicitly state this; however, Gann slyly managed to insinuate the information during Sally's entrance, wherein two sailors at the Honolulu airport recognize her and pointedly remark, "Hey, look! Remember?"
John Wayne's role is largely unscripted. Especially in the first half of the film, nearly all of his performance is conveyed through facial expression.
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Towards the end of the movie, when Robert Stack tells John Wayne to whistle something (because he works better with music), the tune that Wayne whistles is "I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech".
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John Wayne's whistling in the film was masterfully dubbed by musician Muzzy Marcellino.
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During the initial scenes in Hawaii, characters are shown showing passports prior to boarding the airplane. This is because at the time the movie was filmed, Hawaii was not yet a U.S. State.
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When Coast Guard personnel or aircraft are on screen, the score plays "Semper Paratus", the Coast Guard hymn.
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Features Jan Sterling's only Oscar nominated performance.
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Long considered the granddaddy of the epic 'disaster film,' The High and the Mighty (1954) was envisioned more than fifteen years before the genre would truly take off with Airport (1970). While disaster films would come to be associated with all-star casts, every major star approached for The High and the Mighty (1954) turned it down, which led to the film being populated entirely with B-level actors, with the exception of John Wayne. But William Wellman's sure-footed direction turned the material into a box office bonanza notwithstanding, garnering six Oscar nominations in the process.
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Once the film soared at the box office, director William Wellman revealed that Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers and Dorothy McGuire had all turned down their choice of roles, as none of them were willing to be seen in so unflattering a light as that shone upon the characters played by Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling - both of whom, ironically, were Oscar nominated for their efforts.
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Although it is widely believed that the DC-4 airliner used to film the passengers' boarding and flying sequences was the same plane which was lost on March 28, 1964, when the plane (a former military Douglas C-54A-10-DC built in 1944, registered as N4726V, and known as the "The Argentine Queen") crashed into the Pacific Ocean about 700 miles west of San Francisco, this is a myth. As verified by the log book of the Transocean Airlines pilot who flew the DC-4 in the film, Captain Bill Keating (see his letter to the editor in the Transocean Airlines newsletter of February 2008, page 6), the actual airplane used in the film was the Transocean Airlines DC-4 "African Queen," registration number N-4665V.
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Average Shot Length (ASL) = 11 seconds
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When the 'disaster film' genre came of age in the 1970s, one of the most suspenseful elements was determining who would survive and who would die in the course of the adventure. However, at the time The High and the Mighty (1954) was made, it was all but unheard of that non-villainous characters in peril - particularly women and children - should perish. With death off the table, the screenplay resorted to extended flashbacks into the passengers' private lives, and it is for this that the film has sustained its greatest criticism over the course of time. Some of the flashbacks are comic, others poignant, but all of them are wholly irrelevant to the essential plight of an airplane bound for a crash landing and, even more detrimental, they break the suspense by allowing the audience to leave the entrapped environment. For modern-day viewers, particularly those steeped in 1970s disaster films, the flashback sequences lend a jarring, incongruent note to the otherwise genre-faithful proceedings.
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The final film of veteran cinematographer Archie Stout.
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One of many 1950s film and novel titles influenced by the success of MGM's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Others in this mold include The Proud and Profane (1956), The Bold and the Brave (1956), The Pride and the Passion (1957), The Naked and the Dead (1958), Flame and the Flesh (1954) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).
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As John Wayne performed double duty as both star (pinch-hitting for Spencer Tracy) and producer, it is generally assumed that much of his role was trimmed prior to filming, as the character of Dan Roman has noticeably little screen time in the final print and it is unlikely that Tracy would have accepted so small a part had it initially been written that way.
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Ernest K. Gann achieved a Hollywood rarity in being engaged to adapt his own novel for the screen, minus interlopers or additional dialogue writers. He added only one element to the film that had not existed in the book, the character of Toby, the little boy who sleeps through the entire disaster. Director William A. Wellman was so taken with the character that he cast his own son, Michael, in the role.
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This film features four future Star Trek (2009) actors: Paul Fix, who played Dr. Piper in "Where No Man Has Gone Before", William Schallert, who played Nilz Barris in "The Trouble with Tribbles"; David Brian, who played John Gill in "Patterns of Force" and William Campbell, who played the Klingon Koloth in "Trouble with Tribbles" and Trelane in "Squire of Gothos".
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The lyrics to the noted title song are only heard at the very end, are sung by a large choral group, and are different from the familiar lyrics heard in the popular song released of the time.
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One of the reasons that all-star casts became in vogue for 1970s disaster films was because audiences needed to differentiate between up to twenty disparate characters in order to follow the relationships in the plot, and familiar faces cut the audience's work in half. (Director Sidney Lumet used the same philosophy in casting Murder on the Orient Express ). Because The High and the Mighty (1954) could not attract top talent, one of its primary criticisms in the intervening years has been the pronounced challenge in keeping the passengers straight because, though the film rallied some of the finest character actors in Hollywood, their faces were not recognizable enough to distinguish the characters.
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Some viewers of the film may have pondered why the plane didn't attempt a landing in either Los Angeles or San Diego, seemingly closer to Honolulu than San Francisco (the northernmost city of the three). In fact, San Francisco is over 150 miles closer to Honolulu than either Los Angeles or San Diego.
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Made it's New York TV debut on 20 June 1961 on WOR (Channel 9).
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It was essential that Jan Sterling shave her eyebrows in preparation for her climactic scene, and they reportedly never grew back. The High and the Mighty (1954) was easily the finest hour of Sterling's career, and her willingness to strip herself bare of all makeup on camera was considered groundbreaking for an actress of that era, as glamour - on and off the screen - was a 24/7 requisite for movie stardom. Sterling and Paul Kelly perform the scene in one sustained take, with director William A. Wellman moving the camera only once, tightening in on Sterling's face as she finally turns frontal to reveal herself, literally and figuratively stripped, to Kelly. The brilliantly executed scene netted Sterling a much-deserved Oscar nomination, though she ultimately lost the award to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront (1954).
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Director William A. Wellman subtly wove the theme of redemption through his film, particularly in the plights of Sally McKee (Jan Sterling) and Dan Roman (John Wayne). Wellman was bolder with the climactic landing sequence, fashioning the runway lights into the unmistakable shape of a cross.
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