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Out of circulation for a quarter-century following the death of producer-star John Wayne, Island in the Sky is a tale of survival focused on the pilot (Wayne) and crew of a DC-3 forced to crashland somewhere in the uncharted Canadian wilderness, and the fellow airmen (Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, Paul Fix) determined to find them before hunger and the 70-below winter do them in. The movie, set in the post-WWII era when military and commercial aviation were still intertwined, was written by bestselling novelist Ernest K. Gann and directed by William A. Wellman, an aviation-movie veteran whose Wings won the first-ever Academy Award (192728).
Wellman resolutely downplays the histrionics and conventional heroics; Wayne indulges in none of the macho posturing that his detractors carelessly identify him with, and the crewman who breaks rank in a bid for salvation meets a grim, almost mythically absurd demise. But Wellman also condoned (and himself speaks) the ill-advised narration that aims to tell us what's going on inside the stoic characters. The director does better with throwaway details like the ice pick kept handily embedded in a barracks wall so that pilots can break the frozen skin on their morning wash water. And there's a distinctive war council among the search pilots when no one's quite sure what to do next--the wrong decision could doom the missing crew--and so no one looks anybody else in the face. The black-and-white cinematography by Archie Stout (dramatic scenes) and William H. Clothier (flying scenes) leaves nothing to be desired, and in this crisp restoration it sometimes literally glows.
The extras include production reminiscences by William Wellman Jr., assistant director Andrew V. McLaglen, and supporting players Darryl Hickman and Harry Carey Jr.; a short essay on the art of aerial cinematography; and an intriguing profile of Ernest K. Gann, who in his teens directed and starred in a motion picture of sorts. Wayne, Wellman, and Gann reteamed to create The High and the Mighty, much nominated for 1954 Oscars. --Richard T. Jameson