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Film Review: No Highway in the Sky

No Highway in the Sky (1951; Directed by Henry Koster)

Diverting enough for a movie full of men talking about planes, No Highway in the Sky also gives onscreen voice to rising anxieties concerning the increasing prevalence and deceptive safety of then-fresh air travel in the early 1950s.

Jimmy Stewart plays awkward, guffawing aeronautical engineer Theodore Honey, who toils mostly thanklessly for a British government aircraft research agency. Generally more at home in wind tunnels and with airplane schematics than with humans, Honey is nonetheless honourable and perhaps a bit too honest and decent. He’s a single father to a brainy daughter named Elspeth (Janette Scott) who’s more interested in books and knowledge than in dresses and baubles; the presence of a female authority figure in her life will go a long way towards reinforcing this gender-role discrepancy, and the subplot focusing on her and Honey acquiring such a feminine pole carries some of the period’s dated, traditional gender implications.

For a film about the cutting-edge air transport industry and the profound change it was affecting on Western civilization, No Highway in the Sky (based on the novel by Nevil Shute, best-known for the post-apocalyptic On the Beach) is itself rather traditional, or at least doubtful of technologically-enabled progress in a classically Burkean conservative sort of way. Honey comes to suspect strongly that the crash of an airliner in Labrador is caused by fundamental flaws in the structural design of the airplane and catastrophic failure will surely result after a calculated number of flights hours is surpassed. Unable to prove this conclusively without extensive stress test being completed over time in his lab, Honey’s warnings fall on deaf ears and flights in the offending craft continue heedless of his doomsaying. I was waiting hopefully for a signature Stewart-esque line like “Your planes are going to go down in flames, you dithering limeys!”, but to no avail.

This leads inevitably to Honey going all Mr. Smith Goes To Washington on the doubting establishment, particularly when he finds himself on a flight of the flawed aircraft model in question after it had surmounted the fatal flight-hours ceiling. With only a movie star playing a movie star (Marlene Dietrich, her slow-burning glamour a laughable mismatch for the aw-shucks All-Americana of Stewart, though they do spark nicely anyway) believing him on board, he’s forced to take drastic measures to prevent what he feels to be an imminent disaster.

I’m not sure James Stewart is necessarily made for roles like this, but he sure liked to play them. It’s a valid enough position for his brand of down-home sensible uprightness, certainly, and his principled opposition to progress without a rigorously careful eye to security is emblematic of the conservative but empathetic America he’s often taken to represent onscreen. No Highway in the Sky may be a British film, but the presence of the clean-cut everyman actor from Indiana, Pennsylvania (he’s so American, his hometown shares a name with another state) aligns it inescapably with Middle America and that region’s skeptical approach to all things new-fangled or unfamiliar. This is the quintessential theme of social progress in America: a motivating urge to extend frontiers while obsessively preserving the established homestead of the status quo from any destabilizing upheaval.

With all that said, I’ve no real idea what Marlene Dietrich is doing in this film, exactly, although with this plot she could only be a movie star playing a movie star and hope for the best. The film itself takes a similar approach, and winds up as a slight amusement; this is no great or memorable work, despite its resonances. A final observation must also be reserved for the sensationalist release poster above, which is great. Prepare yourself, moviegoer, for spectacular, fiery air crashes… but not in this movie, there are no air crashes in this movie. For all that movie marketing has changed deeply, in some ways it remains basically, depressingly the same.

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