Island in The Sky is a 1953 American aviation adventure/drama film written by Ernest K. Gann based on his 1944 novel of the same name, directed by William A. Wellman, and starring and co-produced by John Wayne. It was released by Warner Bros. Due to its realism depicting the events surrounding an actual aircraft crash, it is considered one of the "classic" aviation films. The film follows a pilot and crew of a World War II-era Douglas C-47 Skytrain (the military version of the DC-3) who try to survive after a forced emergency landing in the uncharted wildlands near the Quebec-Labrador border. The pilot, Dooley (John Wayne), is a former airline pilot, who, like many others, was pressed into duty hauling war supplies across the northern route to England. Icy conditions force the aircraft to land, and with the difficulties of navigating far from settled country, they can provide only an approximate position to rescuers. After finding a frozen lake for a landing field, while waiting for rescue, Dooley must keep his men alive in the extreme winter cold with temperatures plummeting to -40 degrees F. Back at Air Transport Headquarters, Col.
For the longest time, I didn’t think anything was going to happen in Island in the Sky. In fact, the very title implies that nothing is going to happen: I figured a big bomber would be flying around during WWII, drop a few bombs on Dresden or something, maybe hit some resistance, and finally return home after a successful run over Germany.
Was I wrong: Island in the Sky takes place mostly on the ground, after a transport plane (piloted by Captain Dooley, played by John Wayne in an exemplary role) crashes in the frozen wilds of Newfoundland. The film — after a good 40 minutes of useless exposition — spends the bulk of its time dealing with their attempts to be rescued.
Today’s audiences have lived through (no pun intended) films like Alive and The Edge, so difficult rescues might seem like a bit of old hat. But Island is, to my knowledge, the first example of the rescue picture, and it presents an interesting set of challenges that aren’t the case in today’s world: No helicopters, no GPS systems, no satellite maps of the world, not even any voice-ready radio. When a rescue crew goes up over Dooley and his crew, all they can do is look for smoke out the frozen, ice-covered windows and listen for a Morse code signal on the wireless (which, naturally can’t send and receive at the same time).
Dooley’s men don’t have it any easier. They’re trapped in a frozen wasteland with no landmarks, and the radio is dying. Ultimately they’ll have to resort to a hand-cranked emergency radio which is powered by a coffee grinder.
The tales of survival on the ground are the kind of hardship stories we’ve come to expect (food, fuel, emotional distress), but Wayne and company manage to keep it interesting, at least once they’ve gotten the basic story set up. Why we spend so long cruising around in an airplane I’ll never know. The first seen should have had the plane crash and simply gotten on with the real plot.
Still, it’s an admirable film, particularly when you consider the technical challenges of making a film like this in 1953.
The new DVD includes numerous making-of featurettes, an extensive commentary track, and an intro from Leonard Maltin.