This 1951 adaptation of Nevil Shute’s 1948 novel is often branded by some film historians as an aeronautical disaster film, but there are some significant differences between No Highway in the Sky and the better-known grandfather of the genre, The High and the Mighty (1954).
In the disaster film, the fear element is rooted in fact – a structural flaw that’s been accidentally missed or ignored due to corporate or private, vengeful negligence, or a freak accident (like a mid-air crash) – and a wealth of characters from various social levels (stars, executives, babies, and smiley-faced sick people) are placed in the danger zone’s epicenter.
During the first act, details of the imminent danger unfold until there’s a pivotal dramatic BANG! (engine failure, fire, a giant hail storm of alien cabbage) which introduces the nail-biting struggle for humans to survive a disaster that overwhelms the standard / legislated emergency resources (firemen, pilots, engineers, power supply, etc.).
There are blatant heroes, doomed fools, and striking sacrifices made by noble spirits and selfish wankers, and in the end humanity manages to survive with some basic moral lesson (‘read the fine print,’ ‘take your heart medication,’ ‘don’t drink too much coffee before a trip’) highlighted in bold before the end credit music pipes in an instrumental version of the theme song you will be compelled to buy the morning after.
Highway touches lightly upon some of these elements, but it’s more docu-drama than disaster because the characters are the means to introduce Shute’s cautionary message that every new technology has its share of unknown problems and incipient dangers, and being diligent in research is necessary to ensure we don’t blithely presume the mere miracle of commercial flying guarantees all risks were ironed out soon after the Wright Brothers made their maiden flight.
It’s a message that can apply to any new technology – in transportation, medicine, steel manufacturing – but what’s startling about Highway is the way the screenwriters don’t introduce the issue of corporate negligence.
In fact, the plane manufacturer makes the right decisions during the course of the drama: Theodore Honey’s (James Stewart) unwavering belief that the plane’s tail will fall off due to metal fatigue – then a relatively new concept – convinces new exec Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) to accelerate the ongoing lab test because he knows the consequences of ignoring such a terrifying theory will prove deadly for passengers, crew, and company. Even the chief pilot (unbilled Niall MacGinnis) sneaks to the back of the plane with a flashlight for a private inspection, and takes a few measures to minimize in-flight stress - just to play it safe.
There are no villains in Highway – everyone has reasonable doubts, is reasonably irritated, and reasonably unconvinced – and the lack of a clear foe means the screenwriters couldn’t flip between mini-dramas and lesser conflicts. The tension comes from the ongoing question of whether Honey’s theory will be proven correct - either in mid-flight, on the runway, or in the lab.
While that’s a refreshing change from the formulaic air dramas that soon followed (particularly the increasingly absurd entries in the Airport franchise), it also leaves far too much running time for the screenwriters to fill in with dialogue. The opening third introduces the characters and uses them to show us the real actions of the manufacturer’s laboratory; the middle third uses doubt-laden dialogue to intensify audience fears; and the finale becomes a blend of contrived relationships and a closing resolution to Honey’s controversial theory.
It all manages to click because there are no extremes; the actions, irrational reactions, and efforts to control chaos are reasonable, and don’t involve some giant pyrotechnical cinematic BOOM! moment.
Director Henry Koster even nixed the idea of an ongoing score, and much like Frank Capra’s nascent air disaster Dirigible (1931), and Elia Kazan’s early killer virus thriller Panic in the Streets (1950), music is isolated to the main and end credits; it’s a radical move, considering High and the Mighty is oppressively drenched in Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. (When not heard as score or source, John Wayne whistles the damn theme when he has enough hot air to spare.)
The film’s blossoming relationships, though, are a bit wobbly. Stewart plays Honey as a quirky mad professor that comes close to cliché, but his widower status (his wife having died during the London Blitz) makes his relationship with egghead daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott) compelling.
The loss of a partner also creates a bond between Honey and stewardess Marjorie (Glynis Johns), but it’s a forced union that may have worked better in the novel. There’s the question of why she quietly shirks her job (Does she still have it? Is it on hold?) in favour of mothering Elspeth long enough to fall in love with the engineer who initially scared her with scientific numeric premonitions of mid-flight disaster. And star Monica Teasdale’s (Marlene Dietrich) sudden interest in commoner Honey + Elspeth is never expanded (although more may reside in Shute’s novel).
These post-near-disaster relationships aren’t native to the disaster genre, and the closest contemporary correlation is Peter Weir’s Fearless (1993), where the focus is on those same spontaneous relationships between strangers from disparate social circles that develop after an actual plane crash. The conflicts are more stringent, and the so-called ‘disaster moment’ isn’t an ongoing thing; it’s over and done with quite expediently. In Highway, the money moment is the finale scene, vindication Honey, his supportive bosses, and a good corporate citizen which followed through on its R&D.
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Shute’s novel was also dramatized a year later on radio, with Stewart and Dietrich reprising their roles for Lux radio Theater. Eerily, the author’s premise of metal fatigue became a reality when the first batch of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, suffered a setback after two planes tore apart during flight due to bad window design which stressed the metal. Subsequent redesigns solved the engineering flaws, but the 1954 disasters were a chilling case of life seemingly imitating art.
The issue of a plane’s flawed component was also explored in the 1998 TV movie Blackout Effect (1998), where screenwriter Matthew Bombeck borrowed elements from Highway and another plane crash drama, Fate is the Hunter (1961), for his tale about a NTSB investigator discovering the source of a mid-air collision.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan