Island in the Sky
Directed by William Wellman
Adventure / Drama
John Wayne as Captain Dooley
Lloyd Nolan as Captain Stutz
James Arness as Mac McMullan, pilot
Andy Devine as Willie Moon, pilot
Harry Carey Jr. as Ralph Hunt, Moon's co-pilot
Walter Abel as Colonel Fuller
Paul Fix as Wally Miller
Louis Jean Heydt as Fitch, pilot
Fess Parker as Fitch's co-pilot (uncredited)
Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer as Stutz's co-pilot
Darryl Hickman as Swanson, McMullen's radioman
Mike Connors (as Touch Connors) as Gainer
William Wellman as voiceover narration (uncredited)
During World War II, the U.S. recruited airline pilots to fly military supply missions to England flying close to the arctic circle. This is the tale of one such plane and its crew, after crash landing such a flight at the border between Quebec and Labrador in Northern Canada. Capt. Dooley is forced to land on a frozen lake after his plane ices up. Thus begins the story of the crew’s battle against the elements for survival, and the men who search tirelessly to save them. After taking stock of their supplies, Dooley determines that they have about 30 gallons of fuel and six days of rations to last until they are saved. Enduring nighttime temperatures of seventy below zero and daytime highs of forty below zero, Dooley fights to keep up the morale of his men, while trying to send radio messages to search parties. Meanwhile, Army Col. Fuller puts out a call for all pilots to report and start a search and rescue mission. Among the pilots that are involved with the search is Dooley’s friend Moon. After their generator runs out of fuel to send messages, the ship’s crew continues to try to broadcast distress signals using an old hand cranked radio, which provides a much weaker signal. In the night, Dooley discovers that his co-pilot Lovatt has gone off alone to hunt game for food. Lovatt hallucinates in the cold, wandering circles in the snow believing he is on a merry-go-round with his girlfriend, while Dooley and the crew search for him in vein in the snowy winter night. The next day they find his body a short distance from the plane. After burying Lovett, the crew spot search and rescue planes fly overhead, but they are unseen by the rescuers above. Moon is broadcasting a message in Morse code and suggests to the lost party to build a large fire to help the rescue teams see their location. The men struggle to do so and try to radio an acknowledgement to Moon’s plane, but the message doesn’t get through. Knowing that an approaching storm and low pressure front will soon make it impossible to continue rescue flights, and spell the death of Dooley’s crew, Moon mounts an last ditch effort to fly another search and rescue operation. In the air they receive a Morse code transmission from Dooley’s crew asking him to return to the same place. Moon and the other pilots retrace their previous flights while Dooley and his crew fire pistols and flare guns to attract their attention. Will Moon and his fellow pilots find the down crew and save them from the frozen wilderness?
Notes: William Wellman, who also narrated the film, was an aviation buff who flew in World War I and later trained pilots how to fly combat missions. Another aviation movie, the silent picture "Wings" in 1927, gave Wellman the clout to make bigger movies after winning two academy awards in 1929.
The plot is based on a true story written by Ernest Gann in his book “Fate is the Hunter”. Gann also went on to write and assist in the production of "The High and Mighty", also directed by William A. Wellman and starring John Wayne.