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1953s Island in the Sky directed by William A. Wellman is based on Ernest K. Gann's 1944 novel based on an actual incident in northern Canada involving the rescue of a downed plane. Both men were involved in aviation, Gann in WW2 and Wellman in WWI, before turning their hands to directing and writing. Island in the Sky is a harrowing story of survival produced by John Wayne's Batjac for whom Wellman would direct six pictures in the decade, including three starring the Duke.
John Wayne is the featured lead player in Island in the Sky with an ensemble cast which includes some of Hollywood's best veteran character actors and up-and-comers. Director William Wellman is the narrator.
Army Air Transport Command was vital to the transportation of goods during the war and was comprised of both military and civilian commercial pilots. Captain Dooley's (John Wayne) Corsair ran into heavy weather on a trip from Greenland to Quebec. The combined cold, wind, and the effect from the Northern Lights caused limited radio contact and navigational issues. The plane became iced and led to the following report sent to home base: -
DOOLEY ADVISES QUOTE AM IN A JAM ICING UP PROCEEDING NORTHWEST TILL GAS RUNS OUT ALL STATIONS TAKE BEARINGS UNQUOTE
Sean McClory, Wally Cassell, Hal Baylor
Jimmy Lydon, John Wayne
The plane lands on a lake in uncharted wilderness somewhere in Labrador. Dooley got his crew down safely, but now that are stranded with no generator and, if divided judiciously, perhaps six days worth of food. The sub zero temperatures require energy to keep the men alive and alert.
The navigator played by James Lydon (Life With Father) is young and feeling guilty for any part he may have played in their accident. He misses his wife and recently born child. The radio operator played by Wally Cassell (Sands of Iwo Jima) is responsible for using whatever power they have in the best way to let their whereabouts be known. Crewman Stankowski played by Hal Baylor (The Set-Up) will be vital in keeping their efforts manageable. The co-pilot played by Sean McClory (The Quiet Man) is desperate in the search for food. Desperation can be a dangerous thing.
Search and Rescue regroup
The Colonel in charge of the search effort is played with authority by Walter Abel (Holiday Inn). The one thing he has no difficulty in finding is volunteers for the search. The camaraderie among the pilots is strong, as is their fondness for Dooley.
Willie Moon played by Andy Devine (Wild Bill Hickock) may look like his often-played buffoon, with his girth and a penchant for avoiding heavy work, but he is one of the sharpest of the pilots and a leader among the group. His co-pilot is played by Harry Carey Jr. (The Adventures of Spin and Marty) and radio operator by Bob Steele (F Troop). Lloyd Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) is a determined yet sentimental fellow. His co-pilot is played by Carl Switzer (Track of the Cat), whose easy-going response to any suggestion "Whatever's customary" is a phrase I am considering adopting.
James Arness, George Chandler
A Batjac contractee with a nice featured role as a young pilot is James Arness (Gunsmoke). He is given a chance to shine and takes it. Nice to see. Allyn Joslyn (Heaven Can Wait) is another respected pilot and another actor who makes the most out of his scenes. Other familiar faces among the searchers are Paul Fix, Gordon Jones, Herbert Anderson, Darryl Hickman, Fess Parker and Louis Jean Heydt. Ann Doran fans will be pleased with her bit as Willie Moon's wife. Two of Bill Wellman's kids play their children. Of course, this being a Wild Bill Wellman picture, there is a part for George Chandler.
"I guess we're awful hard to see down here. Awful hard."
Watching the earliest of John Wayne films you are aware of his charisma and potential. Rough around the edges, it would take years of on-the-job training for Duke to become an accomplished film actor. His very presence could overwhelm co-stars and that it does not is proof that he was one of those generous actors who learned how to share a scene. The better everyone does, the better it is for the picture. With roles like Dunson in Red River, Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima behind him, John Wayne's work in the 1950s show his versatility and command of his gifts and skill. I find his performance in Island in the Sky to be among his best as he brings to life a man duty-bound to lead and care for his crew while himself battling the elements and starvation along with them. I encourage you to judge for yourself by watching this intense and moving film.