Wild Bill and the Duke Made an Island in the Sky


(This is the second in my monthly series on classic black-and-white movies. Island in the Sky stars John Wayne as Capt. Dooley, a man determined to bring his crew back home after crash landing in unchartered Canadian wilderness. William Wellman, a decorated aviator, did the directing.)

By Glen Sparks

William Wellman earned the nickname “Wild Bill.”

The future Hollywood movie director enlisted in World War I as an ambulance driver. He later joined the French Foreign Legion as a fighter pilot.

Wellman recorded three official “kills” while flying his Nieuport aircraft and probably shot down at least five other German planes. The French awarded him the Croix de guerre (Cross of War) with two palms for his bravery in battle.

Anti-aircraft fire sent Wellman falling from the sky on March 21, 1918. Stateside, he taught combat tactics to U.S. pilots at Rockwell Field in San Diego. Wellman also befriended the actor Douglas Fairbanks. On weekends, Wellman liked to fly up to Los Angeles and land his plane on Fairbanks’ polo field in Bel Air. Fairbanks got Wellman his first job in Hollywood, as an actor.

Wellman liked the picture business. He just didn’t like acting. He thought it effete. Soon enough, he quit acting, took a job as a messenger boy and worked his way up to director. That was more like it. As director, he could be in charge.

Wellman lacks the star-power name recognition of yesteryear directors John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. The Massachusetts native did, however, put together, quite a resume. He directed, among other movies, Public Enemy (1931), A Star Is Born (1937), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and The Story of G.I. Joe (1949).

Not surprisingly, the works of Ernest Gann interested Wellman. Gann, an aviator, wrote several popular books about flying, mostly notably Fate Is the Hunter, published in 1961. He wrote Island in the Sky in 1944. Wellman decided to make a movie for Warner Bros. out of this crash-and-rescue tale.

Based on a true story, Island in the Sky follows the crew of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain that makes an emergency winter landing in uncharted wilderness on the Quebec-Labrador border. Wellman’s film cuts between the crew and its attempt to survive in minus-70 degree cold, and the rescue aircraft that must spot a C-47 (the military version of a DC-3) while flying long hours in the ice and fog.

The mission seems nearly impossible. But, the calls goes out: “Dooley’s down.”

Capt. Dooley is the pilot of the downed plane. He must lead the rest of the men as they try to find food and shelter. Wellman cast John Wayne as Dooley. The Duke, coming off the forgettable Trouble along the Way with Donna Reed, gives a great performance in this one.

Other big names in this black-and-white production include Walter Able, Lloyd Nolan, Harry Carey Jr., and James Arness. Carl Switzer of Little Rascals fame (He played Alfalfa) has a decent-sized role; Fess Parker and Mike Conners (billed as “Touch” Conners) got bit parts.

Filming on Island in the Sky began in December, 1952, at snow-packed Donner Lake in Truckee, Calif., a.k.a. the High Sierra. Veteran actor James Lydon, who played Murray, one on the crew members, said it was the most difficult location shooting that he ever did, according to Scott Eyman’s excellent biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend. Piles of snow surrounded the location, 14 feet in spots. The hotel was five miles away; a Snowcat transported cast and crew back and forth.

Wellman, Lydon noted, “was no cinch to work for.” He had a reputation for being a taskmaster. Fortunately, he added, “Duke was a love, as usual.” Wayne everyone in good spirits, Lydon said.

Shooting wrapped up Feb. 25, nine days ahead of schedule, according to Eyman. (Wellman, accustomed to mild southern California temperatures, probably disliked the cold as much as anyone.)

Warner Bros. President Jack Warner loved Island in the Sky. The movie, made for less than $1 million, was a big hit. It opened in Hollywood on Sept. 3, 1953, and earned $2.75 million.

Island is about courage and bravery, shown by both the stranded crew and the team of pilots. Wellman and Wayne do voiceover narration in a movie that is both big and personal at the same time.

The Duke teamed up with Wellman a few years later to make another aviation picture based on a Gann story, The High and the Mighty (Wayne plays Capt. Dan Roman in this one. He is the pilot of a DC-4 full of passengers on a Honolulu-to-San Francisco flight. He must land the severely damaged aircraft before it falls into the ocean.) That one is more famous than Island in the Sky, but maybe not deservedly so.

Both movies were unseen for decades due to a Hollywood contract rights squabble. Even today, High and the Mighty gets more attention than Island in the Sky. That might in part Mighty is a Technicolor production.

In Eyman’s view, Island in the Sky is clearly the stronger picture. He rates it as one of the Duke’s top 15 movies. He calls it one of Wellman’s best movies, much better than The High and the Mighty. Watch both and make your own decision.


Island in the Sky DVD

The High and the Mighty DVD

William Wellman biography

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