The High and the Mighty

Director: William A. Wellman
Screenwriters: Ernest K. Gann

Institute History

  • 1996 Sundance Film Festival


In The High and the Mighty, Wellman returns to the territory he loved best: the world of flyers with its isolating loneliness and courage forged in the face of crisis. Like many of his films, it depicts a small group of people trapped in a cramped environment who confront difficult decisions. When an airplane en route from Hawaii to California loses an engine just past the point of no return, pilots Sullivan (Robert Stack) and Dan Roman (John Wayne) call on all their experience and ingenuity to keep it aloft. Meanwhile, the passengers are desperately trying to illuminate and heal the crippled corners of their own lives.

The High and the Mighty may be the granddaddy of airplane disaster films, but it is head and shoulders above its successors. One reason is the finely drawn characters by novelist/screenwriter Ernest K. Gann, vividly and powerfully portrayed especially by Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling, both nominated for Academy Awards. The other is that Wellman (also nominated as best director) keeps the tension taut until the film’s final moments. In another typical Wellman touch, his young son Mike plays the little boy who manages to sleep through all the trauma. The High and the Mighty, one of the most popular films of its day, has never been released on videotape so this is a unique opportunity to see a Wellman classic.

— Barbara Bannon

Screening Details

  • Section: William Wellman: American Storyteller
  • Film Type: Dramatic Feature
  • Country: U.S.A.
  • Run Time: 147 min.
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