This post is written for the Avaition in Film blogathon hosted by Taking up Room, be sure to read the other fun entries!!
Growing up, I had always been curious about, Island in the Sky (1953), because my grandfather, “Bop-Bee“, was very much a fan of the movie. Bop-Bee was a major fan of John Wayne, and always used to say, “John Wayne reminds me of me.”
While Bop Bee was halfway joking, I think there were similar qualities in the two: both were pro-armed forces (I’m not going to say pro-war, no one technically wants to go to war, but they supported those who honor the call; Bop-Bee fought in WWII), had high moral codes, were great card players, and both of them had a “coolness” about them that can’t be explained verbally, it had to be seen visually, in person.
Yet ,there was one more similar thing Bop-Bee had in common with John Wayne, but this time it was with one of his characters: flying a plane.
I didn’t find out until my late teens, but Bop-Bee used to fly Piper Cub planes (1 passenger max plus the pilot) which is why I think he was drawn to the movie Island in the Sky, as he resonated with the Dooley character of flying such an intimate plane. I always gravitate to compare Bop-Bee’s plane with the one in Island in the Sky rather than The High and Mighty (1954) or The Flying Tigers (1942), because Bop-Bee did not go see Flying Tigers in theaters (he was at war, and probably did not see the movie until years later on TV) and in H&M its the commercial airline sort of plane, something Bop-Bee never flew.
Both the Douglas C-47 used in the movie and the Piper Cubs were extensively used during WWII. Bop-Bee did not pilot planes in WWII, as he was an army infantryman, but he did fly after the war for a little while when he returned to Indiana. I bet in 1953 when going to see Island in the Sky in theaters, Bop-Bee was thrilled to see John Wayne flying a plane, probably excited to see him “do” something he did!!!
Oddly, I didn’t watch Island in the Sky for the first time until I was in my 20s, and viewed it a few years ago.
Directed by William Wellman, Island in the Sky is the survivor movie in the Duke’s resume. Usually I don’t enjoy survivor and rescue movies, but its John Wayne not only in the picture, but also behind the picture as this was one of his and Robert Fellows collaborations (a precursor to Batjac). The story is loosely based on the real life event of Ernest K Gann’s memoir Fate is the Hunter who also was involved with the writing of The High and Mighty.
Duke stars as Dooley, a former airlines pilot who flew supplies over the Atlantic during WWII. During a flight along with 4 crewmen: co-pilot Lovatt (Sean McClory), radio man D’Annunzia (Wally Cassell), navigator Murray (James Lydon), and engineer Stankowski (Hal Baylor) they are forced to make an emergency landing on a frigid lake on the border of two Canadian provinces: Quebec and Labrador. With limited supplies, limited communication devices, and the weather getting worse, its up to Dooley to keep his crew not only alive, but get them to work as a team so they all can be rescued.
When headquarters hears word, “Dooley is Down“, there is no shortage of searchers on the rescue team. To only name a few: Col. Fuller (Walter Abel) and his sergeant (Regis Toomey); as well as fellow pilots: Stuz (Lloyd Nolan), McMullen (James Arness), Moon (Andy Devine), Handy (Allyn Joslyn) and Fitch (Louis Jean Heydt) are all in on the search.
The movie has a great pace and it covers all the elements of a survival movie without tiring you out. You have the weather element, the guys arguing about whose ideas are better, the moments of hope and despair all equally and emotionally well played.
And not to mention the supporting cast is stellar. Aside from those I mentioned you also had: Harry Carey Jr, Paul Fix, Andy Devine, Bob Steele, Darryl Hickman, Gordon Jones, Carl “Alflafa” Switzer, Fess Parker, Mike “Touch” Connors and George Chandler. Add that on with John Wayne producing, its difficult to dislike the movie.
Surprisingly, Island in the Sky was out of circulation on home video and TV for nearly 2 decades until the officially licensed and restored DVD was released in 2005. It’s still pretty unknown by movie fans and even sometimes John Wayne fans, and I think its under-rated. It has Duke in a different but not so different role and its refreshing and fascinating to see his acting.
I can understand why Bop-Bee considered it to be one of his favorite non western JW movies, and I have to agree with him, as there is so much to adore about the movie. My biggest regret is not sitting down to watch this movie from start to finish with Bop-Bee when I was a child, but I think me watching the movie now and understanding it as an adult is more than satisfying. It still connects me to him even after he passed away- and that’s the most important thing of all.