Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Tell them we're in a jam. Loosen up and lose some altitude. We're turning North West until we run out of gas."

"Island in the Sky" is high concept.  An airplane is forced to make an emergency landing north of the Arctic Circle plunging the crew into a fight for survival while their friends desperately search for them.  Add to the mix John Wayne as Captain Dooley, the manly but sensitive leader, and a kid that looks a lot like Wally from “Leave it to Beaver”.  (I refuse to look it up, just on general principals.)  Then stir in a healthy amount of hoo-ah and a dash of chauvinism.  That, my friends, if you can see through all the cigarette smoke, is the movie.

I must confess that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.  It reminded me very much of a book that I read a couple of times when I was kid - "Arctic Survival" or something like that.  It was about an Air Force brat in Alaska and his friend visiting from California.  They go on a sight-seeing tour to Point Barrow and the plane goes down.  What follows is literally a dramatization of the military's arctic survival guide - complete with happy ending - but in a telling worthy of Jack London.  As I watched the movie, I kept thinking, "Now they need to do X" and low and behold, in the next scene they would.  If I can remember that silly book, why can't I remember to brush my teeth?

There was nothing the least bit surprising about the storyline of the film.  WYSIWYG all the way.  Why was it still fun?  Simple - it's a good story.  I knew they weren't going to crash, I knew somebody would have to die for not following orders, and I knew they'd get rescued.  You would too - no spoiler warning needed - it's John Wayne!

I was paying close attention to the construction of the film as I watched and a few things stood out.  The first was that it seemed to me to have far more in common with a play than a modern film.  The scene would be set, the characters would make busy work where they were but hardly ever actually move, and then they would talk the story rather than do it.  After a scene like that you'd get a cut of a DC-3 (C-47) flying over mountains, or through clouds, or being covered with ice.  Then you'd go back to the talking heads.  Even wandering around in the blizzard, it was essentially a still camera watching someone on stage stumble in circles.  All well done, but not what's done now.

There was a lot of voice over narration.  I think the narrator had as many lines as John Wayne.  I get it for setting the story, but he also read character synopses the first time we met the cast.  There were only two of the other pilots that were introduced through action (both well done scenes) and they were the supporting characters I remembered.  I couldn't tell you anything about J.H., but Mack?  Oh, I know all about him and I’d love to be part of his crew.

I don't think my wife would have stayed awake for it and while they may obediently sit through it, I'm not sure that my younger boys would like it.  Maybe - the story is good - but I think there wouldn't be enough on-screen excitement to keep them engaged.  As for my older children?  It's black and white, they won't give it a chance.  Besides, what kind of movie ends with the line, “Six of ‘em.”?

"Well I'll tell you what kind.  A good one.  A story about men surviving against all odds.  A story about men I'm proud to call my friends.  That's what kind.  Now shut up and watch it." said John as he pulled the last drag from his Camel.  "Well go on!"


  1. I saw that movie late one night -- wasn't that the one with the crank generator? Hand crank -- it is should have been leg powered.

    1. That's the very one. They called it the "coffee grinder" and had to take turns becuase it was so hard to turn.