Reeling BackwardRating: 3 of 5 yaps

No Highway in the Sky (1951)

“No Highway in the Sky” was an early progenitor of the disaster -flick genre and quite possibly the first film ever made about a commercial airliner in peril. A quarter-century later, this sort of thing would become fodder for a moviegoing public with a ferocious appetite for things that crash, burn, erupt or sink. Of course, then came the inevitable “Airplane” spoofs, followed by the whole thing coming full circle with modern plane disasters like “Red Eye,” “Air Force One” and “Flightplan.”

The latter picture most resembles “No Highway in the Sky” in that it’s about a socially awkward scientist trying to convince everyone that the airplane is unsafe and must turn back immediately. No captain ever follows this advice, at least in the movies.

I imagine the film was quite bothersome to the nascent commercial-airline companies when it came out in 1951, especially with that title explicitly contrasting the safety of the American highway to the dangerous, untested machines hurtling through the air. Within a few years, flying would surpass driving as the preferred — and safest — mode of long-distance transportation. 

Jimmy Stewart plays Theodore Honey, a British scientist — with a curiously absent English accent — working for a large airline company, the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This is not exactly a plausible-sounding name for a real company, but then “No Highway in the Sky” is a pretty awful-sounding title, too. The film is based on the book by Nevil Shute, adapted for the screen by R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel and helmed by journeyman director Henry Koster.

Honey is a widower who lives alone with his 12-year-old daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott), wears only one suit and can’t remember the number of the apartment where he has lived for the past eight years. It’s the classic cinematic genius archetype, his head so filled with physics and high-end mathematics that the mundane challenges of the workaday world leave him baffled.

Honey is running an experiment about the reliability of the tail section of the new “Reindeer” propeller airliner. He’s convinced that metal fatigue will cause the tail to fall off after 1,440 hours of flight time, based on his calculations. One Reindeer already crashed under mysterious circumstances, and Honey is sure it was the tail section that caused it.

His experiment involves shaking a Reindeer tail in a laboratory to see if it’ll snap off. Unfortunately, he’s only allowed to run the vibrating machine for eight hours a day due to noise complaints from the neighbors. It seems like Honey’s only function is waiting around in that vast hangar, hoping the tail will split off.

He’s recruited by a new forward-thinking company executive (Jack Hawkins) to fly out to the site of the Reindeer that crashed. Honey resists at first, saying that scientists must concern themselves with facts and not be swayed by the emotional factor of human lives and relationships. Indeed, Honey had not even told anyone about his theory that the tail sections will fall off until the exec questioned him about his work.

Honey has, in fact, never even flown on a plane before; I enjoyed Stewart’s gangly crab-walk up the boarding stairs, like a man suddenly plopped on the moon and told to traverse the foreign landscape. In fact, well into the flight, he learns that the plane is in fact a Reindeer, and one of the oldest ones with more than 1,400 hours of flight time.

Honey appeals to the captain to turn back — we already know how that turns out — and then turns his attentions to two women aboard the flight. Marjorie (Glynis Johns), a young and helpful stewardess (don’t bark, that’s what they called them then), tries to control the situation of a passenger causing a panic. The other is famous movie star Monica Teasdale, played by the great Marlene Dietrich. Because Honey’s deceased wife adored Teasdale’s pictures, he tries to warn her about their impending doom. The actress at first is put off by this strange man but then puts faith in his analytical mind. When the plane lands without incident, though, she dismisses him.

Dietrich’s character is really unessential to the story, but having her around jazzes things up. Dietrich — 50 years old and without a line on her iconic face — has a mesmerizing effect on any film and her presence is used to good effect here.

Honey sabotages the plane by pulling up the landing gear while it’s grounded, causing it to collapse and be destroyed. The last third or so of the movie is concerned with the aftershocks of this incident, in which Honey is accused of insanity and ineptitude. In an unlikely turn of events, Marjorie comes to live with Honey and his daughter, taking care of them during his travails.

The plot is pretty contrived hokum, even by the standards of a dawning airline industry that was uncharted territory for 1951 audiences. In the end, of course, Honey is proved right all along and vindicated.

The airline honchos, played by Hawkins and Ronald Squires, seem awfully accommodating to an oddball egghead whose ideas are threatening a major blow to their company’s reputation and financial standing. As the inquiry commences and the pressure mounts, they’re shown to be firmly in Honey’s corner, if trying not to be too obvious about it. Perhaps my own encounters with the corporate world of late have left me cynical, but I doubt men in their position would be doing anything other than frantically covering their own tail sections.

I should note that the airplane is a model, both in its ground scenes and in the air, and not very convincing in either case. When Honey collapses the Reindeer, part of the engine tears open to reveal a hollow wooden frame. The passenger compartment and especially the cockpit are laughably cavernous; the pilot and co-pilot are joined by no fewer than three other officers working their own stations along a corridor between the pilots’ seats and the passenger cabin.

“No Highway in the Sky” is notable for its depiction of airline travel and disaster-film dynamics, each then in emerging stages. Unfortunately, it’s not very skilled at executing either one.

3 Yaps

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3 Responses to “No Highway in the Sky (1951)”

  1. Charles Wardrop says:

    Further to my comments on Christopher Lloyd’s notes, it is stated in the movie script that Mr Honey is American, having been a Rhodes Scholar who’d stayed on to work in England.

    Lloyd’s error about the responsibilities and roles of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, Hampshire, England, a UK Government body, makes his criticisms involving commercial firms’ attitudes to risk ("covering their own tail sections") invalid. Suggest "Yap" shows these comments to Lloyd, who owes the movie an apology or two!

    I very strongly recommend all those interested in this movie, including Lloyd, to read the book "No Highway," in print still, like many others of Nevil Shute’s novels, even tho’ old-fashioned in some ways. and not so much in fashion as they deserve. After all, the "old-fashioned" aspects of historical novels are inevitable, and do not detract from their usefulness and interest and relevance today. I’d take the book on my desert island, even before the film if both not allowed! [In fact, all of Shute’s novels are well-worth getting to know altho’ perhaps under-appreciated at present.]

    I fully agree with the recent new comments above, from Diane Wyder.

    Hopefully, they might just encourage re-release of this wonderful movie, unaccountably difficult to obtain as a HD DVD, but rentable thro’ "Apple TV." Imperfect , but usable, rough DVD copies may be obtainable through Amazon.

  2. diane wyder says:

    I loved this movie!!!!! and it made me fall in love all over again with Jimmy Stewart, BRILLIANT acting!…I want a copy of this film. I was very touched by the love story. I loved everything and I knew it was from 1951 so none of the hoky sets bothered me. I LOVE this movie!!!!

  3. The Royal Aircraft Establishment , Farnborough, was /is a UK Gov. instiution concerned with aircraft development and safety, not a commercial airline, as erroneously stated here. Therefore, in that critical error, Christopher Lloyd has quite misunderstood Shute’s logical plot. (The "Comet" disasters of the 1950s were investigated and explained at Farnboro’ in true history following the novel. When the film was shown in the UK in c. ’54, the plot was corectly stated to have antedated the movie by several years.)

    This rather sneering review does not do justice to a novel/plot of originality and a movie of brilliant story and action:remember- it dates from a half-century ago before modern techniques and tastes in disaster movies. The acting is also a great tribute to the casting and demonstrates the quality of players of former times.
    (For some reason, it’s not currently possible to get a DVD of "No Highway," so hopefully, it might be released again. I had access to it through "Apple TV" in a rental.)

    Think again, MrLloyd!