No Highway In The Sky

NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY, popular in Britain, was mostly overlooked by audiences in the States in 1951, a $3,300,000 gross flying beneath the radar at 111th place for the year. Even the popularity of James Stewart, and reteaming him with Marlene Dietrich (a dozen years after they made Destry Rides Again a winner) didn’t draw crowds. Too late to board loss, they missed out on a taut drama with a top flight cast knocking back a smart, topical (eerily prescient) script laced with humor and suspense.

Working in England at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, American scientist ‘Theodore Honey’ (Stewart) insists that the new ‘Rutland Reindeer’ airliner has a design flaw—metal fatigue—that will, according to his calculations, cause the tail to fall off when flight hours reach 1,440. Airline executives take a dim view of the eccentric Honey, especially when he takes dramatic and drastic action during the transAtlantic flight of one of the planes he believes is doomed.

Directed by Henry Koster (The Robe), the excellent script was the work of Oscar Millard (The Frogmen), R.C. Sherriff (The Four Feathers) and Alec Coppel (Vertigo), who adapted Nevil Shute’s 286-page novel “No Highway”. Though the prickly novelist took umbrage at how his story was retooled for the screen, the end result for us non-engineer-author types is a fine mesh of shrewd casting, intelligent writing and assured dramatic pacing.

Stewart deftly manages the role of eccentric egghead without resorting to “cute” actorish mannerisms. Dietrich, in a glorified supporting turn as ‘Monica Teasdale’, a famous actress who is a passenger on the flight, wisely keeps in check any temptation to star-showboat. The supporting array of aircrew and corporate officials couldn’t be better, spearheaded by Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More and Niall MacGinnis. As the bright and charming daughter of the widowed, fuddy duddish Mr. Honey, 12-year-old Janette Scott is remarkably good (in films since from age three; sci-fi fans know her as a grownup facing The Day Of The Triffids and Crack In The World). We like all the characters in this story, and care what happens to them. Speaking of charm, Glynis Johns….

Airplane enthusiasts will note that the fictional Rutland Reindeer is a greatly modified Handley Page HP-70 Halifax. The particular craft used had served duty in the Berlin Airlift, carrying out 116 missions of mercy. The special effects for the flying sequences are decent, and kept to a minimum so they don’t jar the presentation with obviously being dated by the advances made in that arena. Adding to the authenticity element is the knowledge that besides being a successful novelist, the man who came up with the story, Nevil Shute, most famous for writing the apocalyptic “On The Beach”, was a noted aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer (credit him with retractable undercarriage), and star Stewart’s 20 WW2 combat missions and eventual rank of Brigadier General made him the most illustrious airman-actor in the movies. His other airplane-oriented pictures are all commendable to one degree or another: Strategic Air Command, an extravagant commercial for the nation’s B-52 force; The Spirit Of St. Louis, a salute to aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, and—best of all—the superb crash-landing adventure of The Flight Of The Phoenix. 

 Affable, capable studio craftsman Henry Koster had just directed Stewart’s praised comic performance in Harvey, and would later work with him on the gentle larks Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation (a fave), Take Her She’s Mine and Dear Brigitte. 

98 minutes, with further ace British cast members Ronald Squire, Maurice Denham, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Felix Aylmer.





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