This post is part of the William Wellman Blogathon, hosted by Now Voyaging. Click here to view the other articles being exhibited during this event.


In the entertainment industry that was filled with many notable names, who were prolific at their craft, William Wellman shone for his creative directorial efforts in films of almost every genre. With a career spanning since the silent era of cinema, Wellman had started off as an actor and worked his way up the ladder to director and became fruitfully productive for his work in the crime, adventure and action productions.


The title could be contradicting. To some it may mean Sci Fi, while to others it could be seen as a sea epic, but the main theme of the movie is aviation, adventure and survival. An intriguing topic that is all about hope and fighting for mans durability of life.


Island In The Sky was based on real life events with the script loosely following the February 3rd, 1943, aviation incident. However many aspects that are depicted in the film did not actually occur. For instance Ernest K Gann the co-pilot did not die in the true story. In truth he was a highly qualified aviation expert that acquired many years experience. In 1961, he wrote a memoir titled “Fate Is The Hunter”, which describes his long tenor as a pilot with evoking memories of that catastrophic disaster he ensued.


When it was announced that Robert Stillman Productions were interested in adapting the story into a movie, Gann planned to write the screenplay with the assistance of Seton Miller. Though when Stillman abandoned the project it was left idle for a while until Wayne-Fellows Productions obtained the rights in December 1952.

Island In The Sky served as the third of seven eventual productions. A year later “The High And The Mighty”, another Gann film that strongly resembles “Island In The Sky” was picked up. With the similarities between both vehicles, the two movies shared the same production staff and crew and were both directed by William Wellman, who with his astuteness for adventure was the perfect candidate for this type of work.


During World War I, William Wellman had been a pilot with the Lafayette Flying Corps. Due to his amiable qualities, it was here where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill”. Once the war was over, he joined the United States Army Air Service until becoming an aviation movie director, where he attained the first ever Academy Award for “Wings” in 1927 – 1928.

Once William Wellman was officially signed as director, the production for the film began in late January 1953, and the cast endured long laborious days of location shooting at Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada range. By March 2nd, filming was completed, and was ready for release the following year.


The plot captures the entire unfolding of the cataclysm. From the moment the former airline pilot, Captain Dooley ( John Wayne ) started experiencing icy conditions during a journey by the northern route to England to deliver war supplies, he knew that he would have to make a force landing, but because they land in the frozen wastes of Labrador, a forgotten territory with a myriad of trees, that could be classified as a picturesque landscape in more convivial times, the task of providing the exact location to rescuers prove to onerous.

Landing in formidable conditions, Dooley and his men must fight for hope while trying to survive in the extreme Winter cold with a diminutive quantity of food supplies and clothing.

In the meantime the rescue team endure a series of altercations while in the process of canvassing for Dooley’s whereabouts, but manage to remain determined to save the downed crew before tragic results strike.


Due to the observable similarities of “The High And The Mighty”, “Island In The Sky” is now considered to be one of John Wayne’s most underrated works. That being said, the film was not a failure on it’s release. It was actually recorded as an early version of the famous disaster films, and would pave the way for “Airport” and it’s sequels that would soon start to dominate Hollywood.

In fact, “Island In The Sky” is one of the greatest aviation disaster epics that I have seen. Not only is it directed by William Wellman, who was profoundly specialized in the action and adventure genre, it’s abounded with Archie Stout’s masterful cinematography with spectacular aerial views by William Clothier.

What better actor is there to play the lead role in this sort of film other than John Wayne, who is primarily remembered for his exceptional efforts in the western and action genre. John Wayne loved nothing more than being a boy at heart. He relished in this field, and by witnessing his performance as Dooley, it’s easily evident that John Wayne was in his element during filming. Though he was accustomed to these type films, his role in this goes against type. Instead of portraying a character with plenty of machismo, he displays a deluge of acting potential by just appearing convincing and realistic.

The film also spotlights a stellar supporting cast, which include, Lloyd Nolan, Walter Abel, James Arness and Andy Devine among several others who all provide solid backing to John Wayne. Even though John Wayne is the main actor, each cast member gets their moment to shine. Behind each character is a distinctive personality and different story. Andy Devine as the low key pilot, Willie Moon brings out the comic relief in the movie. Whether he is swimming at the pool with his boys or leaning back casually in his pilots seat, he always appears simultaneously calm and completely in command.

“Island In The Sky” is a must see for any classic film enthusiast. From William Wellman’s precise detail in aviation situations to the commendable cinematography, the impeccable script and the superb cast, this is a film that will continue to enthrall audiences for many decades to come.



The little yellow radio shown in the movie was a actual radio. Its design is based on a WWII German emergency transmitter. It is a BC-778/SCR-578/AN-CRT3 emergency transmitter (it could not receive) affectionately called ‘Gibson Girl’, a name taken from the narrow-waisted female drawings of 1890s fashion artist Charles Gibson. Its shape allowed the operator to hold it between the legs while cranking it the necessary 80 RPM to produce enough electricity to operate. It could be set to automatically send an SOS signal or switched to send Morse Code signals. Early models transmitted only on 500kHz, later models also could transmit on 8280kHz (later modified to 8364kHz). It was notorious for being tough to crank.



Captain Dooley: [to navigator Murray] “You’re a lousy guy to sleep with.”

Captain Dooley: “I’ll shoot the first one of ya to leave camp. I’ll aim for your legs. I may miss and hit ya in the back of the head. Either way serves ya right.”

Captain Dooley: “I know you’re down in the middle of a big nowhere. They’re all dependant. I ate today and it’s still strong. But tomorrow. So find food, that’s number one. Find out where nowhere is, that’s number two. And you can help the others find nowhere. They’ll come, they won’t leave you alone waiting on a pin point of nowhere.”



John Wayne: Born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26th, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. Died: June 11th, 1979 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 72.

5 thoughts on “ISLAND IN THE SKY ( 1953 )

  1. I agree this is an underrated film! In fact, I got nervous and emotional in various moments, afraid that they wouldn’t survive. And this film also taught me how to pray Holy Father in English!
    Now I wonder how much Wellman’s experience as an aviator shaped his career as a filmmaker…
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂


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