Any opportunity to spotlight a John Wayne movie here is usually a cause for celebration as I number myself among those who buy into the legend of the Duke. So when Now Voyaging decided to host a celebration of William A. Wellman films I settled on this aviation tale produced by the team of Wayne-Fellows.
Wayne stars here as Dooley. He’s a pilot working for the Army Airport Transport Command flying between Greenland, Iceland and Labrador. When he and his five man crew encounter harsh weather in Labrador they fly north to evade the storm and brutal punishment the transport plane is taking. They land the plane in the frozen tundra of Newfoundland on the thick ice of a inland lake. Before going down they sent off messages in the hopes that they would be picked up over the radio airwaves.
With enough food and supplies to last about six days, Duke and his crew will have to wait out the cold in hopes that they are found.
When the call goes out to the other pilots stationed with Duke they all rally to search for the downed plane and the man they obviously have much respect for. Walter Abel overseas the flights with pilots including a regular dose of the Duke’s stock company. Paul Fix, Harry Carey Jr., Andy Devine, James Arness and taking up the lead is the welcome presence of Lloyd Nolan.
The cold is taking it’s toll on both the men and the plane’s batteries. Duke is standing tall in front of the others and with his authoritative presence he takes command refusing to let either his own sense of doom or the grip of a cruel Mother Nature allow him to believe that there isn’t hope and rescue awaiting them.
The pilots themselves are beginning to feel the stress of searching uncharted lands of mountains and frozen lakes. Their shifts are long and much of the trouble relates to the rescue planes using much of their gas just to get to the area they believe the Duke is to be found in. They have very little actual search time before leaving as they`ll need enough gas for the return flight to base where Abel awaits the news of the missions.
While Duke is front and center it should be pointed out that Wellman has made this a bit of an ensemble piece by giving each actor a moment on screen to bring pathos towards the job at hand or in Duke`s case the struggle of the human spirit to survive. Also among the cast members are Carl Switzer, Fess Parker, Darryl Hickman, Regis Toomey and Bob Steele.
One year after this effort, Wellman would join forces once again with Duke in the highly successful airplane drama, The High and the Mighty. Wellman was known for his airplane drama`s including the first movie to be awarded a best picture Oscar, Wings in 1927. For his final film he was still dealing with flight in Lafayette Escadrille.
One could argue that at times the drama is a little heavy on the schmaltz and certain parts of the comedic scenes haven`t aged well. Fair enough but at heart it`s a simple story of the struggle to survive and the men who give their all to save a group of friends from certain death. Goosebumps all around when the moment of Duke`s rescue hits the screen.
I have always been a fan of the character actors who fill out the roles behind the leading actors and John Wayne films are usually a cause for celebration in this category. No different here with a first rate cast of supporting players around him.
Old pal Paul Fix is always a welcome sight in Duke films and does Andy Devine always look like he`s struggling to speak a sentence of 5 words or is it just me?
Among the crew members of the film company was Andrew V. McLaglen (son of Victor) billed as the assistant director under Wellman. Andy would himself go on to directing countless westerns for TV and ultimately movies including the rollicking comedy western McLintock with Wayne himself.
This Duke – Wellman tale of aviation is worth a look and don`t forget to check out some of the other featured titles in the career of William A. Wellman by simply clicking here.