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High & the Mighty

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high and the mighty.jpg

The High and the Mighty is a 1954 disaster film released through Warner Brothers. The film starred and was co-produced by John Wayne, directed by William A. Wellman, and written by Ernest K. Gann, who also wrote the novel (The High and the Mighty) on which the film is based.

Dimitri Tiomkin earned an Academy Award for his score, and the film's theme ("The High and the Mighty") was nominated for an Oscar. The High and the Mighty was one of the first all-star disaster films, which paved the way for the Airport films (and eventually the parody, Airplane!, whose cast included Robert Stack, a star player in The High and the Mighty).

The film explores the personal dramas and interactions of the seventeen passengers -- and professional conflicts and doubts of the five crew members -- aboard an unpressurized DC-4 flying as Trans-Orient-Pacific ("TOPAC") Flight #420 on an overnight hop from Honolulu (T.H.) to San Francisco in what proves to be a tense, nerve-wracking, and ultimately life changing ordeal for all.


In November 1953, "The High and The Mighty" was filmed with Transocean providing technical advice, pilots to fly the airplanes, and mechanics to accomplish the job of installing the drooping engine called for in the script.

The $2 million production starred John Wayne with actors Robert Stack and Phil

Harris, and actresses Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, and Jan Sterling. The film's characters were on board a flight from Hawaii to the mainland, little dreaming of the trouble in store for them. The aerial photography was accomplished in two TAL DC-4s flown by Captains Bill Keating and Bill Benge, with Benge also serving as technical advisor.

Benge spent two weeks working with Wellman's special effects department preparing for the cockpit scene and building removable doors on both sides of the plane's fuselage so that either side could be removed for filming.

The movie, which was only the fourth picture to be made in cinemascope and color, was shot at various locations. The departure scene was made at the Flying Tigers hangar at Burbank, California, supposedly Honolulu; the scene depicting an engine fire was filmed at the airport at Glendale, California. The design for tilting the "fire damaged" engine at a 30-degree angle, as called for in the script, was produced by Al Macedo, Transocean's


John Wayne on the set, photo by Bill Keating

The Aircraft
Regarding The High & The Mighty aircraft identification, Captain Bill Keating flew all the DC4 flights operated in conjunction with the movie production.  From his pilot’s logbook  the following flights were flown for The High and The Mighty  in aircraft N-4665V on these dates:

11-16-1953          OAK-SFO          18 min.
11-16-1953          SFO-OAK          1 hr. 23 min.
11-17-1953          OAK-OAK          3 hrs. 8 min.
11-18-1953          OAK-SFO          20 min.
11-18-1953          SFO-OAK          55 min.
11-19-1953          OAK-OAK          2 hrs,
11-20-1953          OAK-OAK          1 hr. 24 min.
11-20-1953          OAK-OAK          1 hr,
11-22-1953          OAK-OAK          46 min.
11-22-1953          OAK-OAK          2 hrs. 34 min.
11-30-1953          OAK-BUR          2 hrs. 3 min.
11-30-1953          BUR-OAK          2 hrs. 6 min.


Robert Stack on the set, photo by Bill Keating

chief engineer and accomplished by Hangar 28 mechanics. They also blacked out the propeller with paint so it wouldn't show in the movie. When they were in the process of changing the "damaged" engine, a large amount of oil was accidentally dropped onto the side of the cowling. The effect of the oil spill on the reattached engine caused the make-believe damage to look authentic. "Wellman thought we were the greatest artists in the world," said Bill Benge, "and it was all due to a screw-up!"

The movie company moved to the Oakland/San Francisco area for the final landing scene at San Francisco Airport. Runway 28 Right was closed for one night while photographic shots were being taken on the ground and in the air for the landing scene. Fire trucks sprayed large amounts of water on the approach of the aircraft to make it appear that it was a rainy night. During the filming of this sequence Director Wellman kept ordering Keating to take the DC-4 lower and lower during a series of landings in an attempt to get the best shots. Keating came in low enough to wipe out five rows of approach lights before Wellman was finally satisfied. Transocean received a bill for eight hundred dollars for the damaged lights; Wellman picked up the tab.

"The High and The Mighty" was one of the most successful films of the fifties. It grossed over ten million dollars during the first three years after its release.

TAL mechanics had installed the engine in the record time of 3 hours. When the filming was completed at midnight, the men reinstalled the engine in 3 more hours. Transocean's plane made its film debut, and in less than eight hours was back in service.

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