John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Jan Sterling. A disparate group of passengers are trapped aboard an apparently doomed aircraft in this legendary disaster film. 2 DVDs. 1954/color/147 min/NR/widescreen.
Batjac is a strong, legendary-sounding name--the corporate logo for the last among several production companies John Wayne established, and the evocative catch-all label to designate the producer-star's late-career legacy apart from his milestone work with the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks. The name seems to summon up associations with flying and Native American culture and maybe a lean jungle cat... but it was a made-up word that had been applied to an East Indian trading company in Wayne's little-remembered 1948 production Wake of the Red Witch. The actor took it for his own company, the one he formed after breaking with his Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty partner in Wayne-Fellows Productions (Robert Fellows). He chose it because he remembered he'd enjoyed pronouncing it while making Red Witch. It was Batjack back then, with a k, and it was supposed to be Batjack again--only the first order of stationery came back with the name misspelled, and rather than spring several hundred bucks for a new batch, Wayne let "Batjac" stand.
That droll tidbit is characteristic of the inside reminiscences shared in "The Batjac Story," one of eight featurettes accompanying the DVD release of The High and the Mighty. From it we also learn that a Wayne unit shot "from sunup to sundown"; that the Duke was the egalitarian boss of a tight-knit company wherein relatives, co-workers, and the relatives of co-workers earned advancement by merit; and that the star was shrewd enough and powerful enough to retain full possession of copyright on Batjac films. A short on the career and personality of director "Wild Bill" Wellman includes the revelation that a lot of major stars declined roles in the ensemble movie (probably to their eventual regret), and that Spencer Tracy--originally cast as "Whistlin' Dan" Roman--"ankled" at the last moment ... necessitating Wayne's reluctantly taking on the part that became one of his best-remembered, indeed iconic, roles (the H&M theme music accompanied his final public appearance, at the spring 1979 Oscars). An especially entertaining profile of composer Dimitri Tiomkin notes that he collected the only Oscar among the film's many nominations--for music score, not (as is widely believed) best song. The theme song, a huge popular hit that helped make the movie such a pervasive Event of the '50s, wasn't even in the film as most people saw it; it had been cut in the effort to get the length down, but was cut back in for a week's run in Los Angeles to qualify for an Academy nomination. Nor was it the tune Whistlin' Dan actually whistled during filming; that was George M. Cohan's "Mary"!
Anchored by pop film historian Leonard Maltin, and backed almost nonstop by musical themes recycled from the H&M soundtrack, the featurettes occasionally resemble weekend sports highlight reels designed to keep armchair fans revved up till the main event. The overall tone is nostalgic/reverential, ceremonially befitting the re-emergence of a long-"lost" treasure. Only British film historian and heroic restoration specialist Kevin Brownlow quietly supplies some authoritative critical perspective: The High and the Mighty is not now and never was a great motion picture, but it was an understandably and deservedly beloved movie with "a mystique" unique in its power and endurance. That's well worth celebrating. --Richard T. Jameson