Nothing enhances a movie’s image more than unavailability. The High and the Mighty (1954), starring John Wayne, is finally out on DVD after being out of circulation for many years, but it hardly lives up to its reputation as a lost classic. The High and the Mighty is little more than a “soap opera in the sky” disaster film, and it was often compared to Grand Hotel. The slapstick spoof Airplane! (1980) did such an extraordinary job of skewering airline-disaster films, it’s really difficult watching the real thing with a straight face. Admittedly, I’m not Wayne’s biggest fan, but I can overlook his stiff presence in his better films.
Can you imagine Wayne as a Swedish sailor? He couldn’t, either, but John Ford talked him into playing Ole Oleson in the forgotten classic The Long Voyage Home (1940). Wayne’s dialogue was kept to a minimum, and his Swedish accent wasn’t an embarrassment. Later in the decade, Wayne starred in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy,” which consisted of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). In Fort Apache, the best of the series, Wayne shares the lead with Henry Fonda, who plays a stubborn and reckless commanding officer.
The High and the Mighty might inspire you to look for other Wayne clunkers, and the 1950s provided him with two of the best. If Joe McCarthy had ever written a movie script, it would probably look something like Big Jim McLain (1952), a ridiculous film that sends Wayne to Hawaii to hunt down Commies. Wayne was also a producer, and we all know his politics. Wayne managed to survive as a Swedish sailor, but taking on the role of Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956) was absolutely the stupidest thing he ever did. Just thinking about it makes me laugh.
Wayne quickly erased that embarrassment with The Searchers (1956), which is considered by some cinephiles the greatest film ever made. Don’t watch it with that attitude, or you’ll be disappointed, but it is among Wayne’s best films, despite a bit of racism toward Native Americans. My personal choice for Wayne’s best film is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which was also his last great film directed by his friend Ford. Wayne plays James Stewart’s protector in his feud with the evil Valance (Lee Marvin). Wayne’s movie swan song, The Shootist (1976), about a cowboy dying of cancer, gave the star one of his best acting roles. He was better here than in his overrated Oscar role in True Grit (1969).
DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (Aug. 16): Sin City, The Wedding Date, and The Brown Bunny.