Island in the Sky(Paramount Home Entertainment, 8.2.2005)
In World War II, the Air Transport Command dutifully and often perilously transported supplies and soldiers to and from combat hot spots without the fanfare of front liners. It's thus appropriate that John Wayne repressed his usual bravado and delivered one of his most commendable performances in 1953's Island in the Sky, the story of an ATC plane crash in subarctic Canada and the subsequent rescue effort as the crew desperately struggle to survive.
Former fighter pilot William Wellman, whose aviation-themed Wings won the first Academy Award for best picture, provides assured direction. He also voices recurring, expository narration that alternatively fleshes out military minutiae and makes the flick feel like a recruitment video. That narration is largely lifted from Ernest K. Gann's source novel (from which he adapted the screenplay) based upon his own experience successfully scouring Canada for a fallen ATC plane. These military minds establish a tone that's more technical than visceral and their sensibilities blended well enough to inspire a re-teaming in 1954 for the more bombastic and decorated The High and the Mighty.
Hugo Friedhofer's grandiose orchestral score is at times discordant with the film's otherwise earnest tone and there are some continuity problems with studio shots of icy wings and windows clashing with exterior shots of unblemished DC-3s. Nonetheless, Bill Clothier's sightly aerial cinematographry is refreshing in its pre-CGI authenticity. Faring worse is Archie Stout's (Hondo) location work with Truckee, California dubiously doubling for uncharted Canadian northlands, even with the snow and wind machines at full tilt.
Wayne, whose production company made the film, delivers an appropriately understated performance as Captain Dooley that allows him to show shades of vulnerability and empathy. Meanwhile, a cadre of character actors acquainted with Wayne and Wellman, including Harry Carey Jr. and Darryl Hickman, lend credible camaraderie and solemnity. Their staidness, though, is distilled by some humor from Carl "Alfafa" Switzer's somnambulant co-pilot, Andy Devine's (Stagecoach) paunchy Captain Moon and especially James Arness' (Gunsmoke) plucky pilot.
The black-and-white pic has fair Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with some freckled graininess. The disc is crammed with special features, but it's impossible to access them or the film without fatuous intros by film critic Leonard Maltin A commentary track by Maltin, the director's son, Hickman, and others is, like the film, more informative than entertaining.
The featurettes fare better, providing engaging looks at the making of the film, the ATC, and the careers of Carey, Jr. and Clothier. The best, though, is an incisive look at Gann's jack-of-all-trades life as pilot, author/screenwriter, painter, farmer, and, at age 16, director. The movie's trailer, a photo gallery, newsreel footage of the premiere, and a TV spot with Wayne plugging Gunsmoke and Arness fill out the disc. -- Colin Miller