Director: Henry Koster
Starring: James Stewart, Glynis Johns, Marlene Dietrich, Jack Hawkins, Janette Scott, Ronald Squire, Maurice Denham, Niall MacGinnis, Kenneth More, David Hutcheson
Screenplay: R.C. Sheriff, Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel, based upon the novel by Nevil Shute
No Highway In The Sky represents one of the more unfortunate examples of life imitating art. Nevil Shute published his novel, No Highway, in 1948, after more than twenty years of juggling his writing with a career in engineering; a career that began with the de Haviland Aircraft Co. Ltd, where he was employed as a calculator, and also learned to fly. During the 1920s, Shute was involved in the construction of rigid airships designed by Barnes Wallis, later the man behind the “bouncing bombs”, a story told in The Dam Busters. During the 1930s, Shute founded his own aeroplane construction company, while during the war years he joined the navy and was involved in weapons design, before his literary reputation got him reassigned as a war correspondent.
In the post-war era, Shute retired from his daytime profession and devoted himself to his writing, with many of his stories drawing upon his years in aeronautics, a subject that still a passion. The novel No Highway focused upon the still theoretical idea of metal fatigue. It told the story of a scientist who, convinced of the theory’s validity, fights to ground a new fleet of jet planes in which he perceives a fatal design flaw. No Highway was a critical and a commercial success, and soon optioned for the movies. The film version of the tale, No Highway In The Sky, was produced in Britain and released during June of 1951. During the same period, the de Haviland Company, the same at which Shute had first been employed, designed and put into service the de Haviland Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner. First tested in 1949, the Comet began commercial service in April of 1951, only to suffer the first in a series of fatal crashes during May of 1953.
The positive side-effect of this tragic situation was the rapid development of such skills as underwater search and recovery, and forensic reconstruction, both of which were employed in an attempt to determine the cause of the crashes. However, desperate to protect themselves and their company, the de Haviland directors did not wait for the scientific investigation to conclude, but made a public announcement to the effect that their planes had been modified so as to, “Cover every possibility that imagination has suggested as a likely cause of the disaster.”
As it happened, their imagination fell somewhat short of the truth. The Comets resumed service, only for another unexplained crash to see the fleet grounded once again. This time the investigation was allowed to proceed to its correct conclusion, and did so with the discovery that metal fatigue was indeed responsible; not quite as Nevil Shute has envisaged, via a flaw in the tailplane, or horizontal stabiliser, but due to the design and insertion of the square-shaped windows, where the insertion of rivets made micro-cracks in the fuselage which, in conjunction with the windows’ sharp corners, created a crack zone that, after sufficient stress, would give way and initiate explosive decompression. It is for this reason that all planes today have round or oblong windows.
Although it does somewhat shift the focus of the novel, which, as was commonly the case in Nevil Shute’s novels, has its story told by an observer of the action rather than a participant in it, No Highway In The Sky opens with that observer, Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins, who would have his own aeronautical problems six years later in Decision Against Time), taking up his new position as Head of Metallurgy at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. While being given a tour of the facility, Scott is puzzled by what he sees in one of the research hangers: the tail-piece of the RAE’s new jet aircraft, the Reindeer, being subjected by extreme vibration stress under the supervision of a solitary, rather unkempt individual who, in response to Scott’s inquiries as to what he expects to learn from this arrangement, replies brusquely that he expects the plane’s tail to fall off, before scuttling away to hide in his office.
It is rather hard to know how to react to the depiction of scientists in No Highway In The Sky; whether to be flattered by the film’s insistence that all scientists are geniuses, or insulted by its concomitant insistence that they are, equally, all psychotic. (All geniuses are, we learn, not just scientists; Tschaikovsky and Molière both take a slap in passing.) Evidently the possibility that a scientist might just be an ordinary person doing an ordinary job while living an ordinary life never disturbed the thinking of anyone connected with this story. The screenplay offers up a litany of criticisms, all of them delivered with the most breathtaking matter-of-factness.
While showing Scott around, his guide, Major Pearl (Maurice Denham), refers to the RAE’s research scientists as, “The kind who eat their porridge with a slide-rule.” The Director of the RAE concurs. “A boffin has to be a bit barmy to be a boffin,” comments Sir John (Ronald Squire), adding, “The line between genius and just plain crackers is so thin, you never know what side they’re on – nor when they’ve crossed it.” We hear tales of one particular scientist who started out, “Taking a bath in a public fountain”, then progressed to, “Pinching girls in the park” – after which, we gather, he was “pinched” himself.
Of the individual in charge of the metal fatigue tests, Major Pearl observes, “All boffins are a bit crackers, but I suppose he’s the worst”, and indeed, subsequent events reveal him to be abrupt, awkward, completely socially dysfunctional, and so absent-minded as to be unable to find the way to his own house – after living in it for eleven years. All this being the case, we are not particularly surprised to find that Mr Theodore Honey, the scientist in question, is being played by Jimmy Stewart, here at his absolute Jimmy Stewart-est.
Probably as a result of this piece of casting, the Theodore Honey of the novel was significantly toned down for the film version, being shorn of his more extreme traits (including a belief in the occult, which plays a part in the story’s climax) and unlikeable aspects (in the novel, Honey’s neglect of his motherless daughter leads to the child becoming seriously ill). No Highway In The Sky’s Theodore Honey is far more cuddly, although no attempt was made to disguise the behavioural quirks that influence his co-workers’ opinion of his mental state. After a close-up look at Honey stumbling helplessly around his disastrously ill-run house, Dennis Scott is sorely tempted to dismiss the scientist’s belief in metal fatigue as nothing more than a crackpot notion – except that its mathematical basis seems a little too sound for comfort.
Scott then encounters an old friend, a test pilot, who rages against “pilot error” being blamed for everything that goes wrong in aeronautics, including the recent crash of a Reindeer. “Harry wouldn’t have done that!” he exclaims angrily of the supposed circumstances of that crash.
Increasingly uneasy, Scott looks into the investigation himself, learning that the tailplane wasn’t recovered – and that the crash occurred within hours of Honey’s theoretical failure point. Scott takes his concerns to Sir John, who is uncomfortably caught between the possible danger to the lives of flight crews and passengers alike, and the disastrous financial consequences to his company should he order the Reindeers grounded. Sir John decides to reopen the investigation of the Reindeer crash in Labrador, and to initiate another search for the tailplane, choosing Theodore Honey for the job partly because he’s the best man for it, and partly because, well, it serves him right.
And Theodore Honey being Theodore Honey, his flight to Canada is well under way before he notices that the plane he is on is also a Reindeer…
Part of No Highway In The Sky’s drama is Theodore Honey’s own journey from sheltered intellectual to passionate humanitarian; a journey that, it must be said, doesn’t entirely fit with the character as conceived by the screenwriters, who seems more likely simply not to have thought about the human lives at stake, rather than have thought of them and dismissed them. “Science is in no hurry, Mr Scott; I’m working on a principle,” he replies to Scott’s demand to know why he hasn’t pushed his theories more forcefully upon management, adding irritably, “I’m a scientist – and science is very exacting. It requires the utmost concentration. I can’t be concerned with people.”
But once upon the Reindeer, Theodore Honey learns that he has been mistaken in himself. Two lives, at least, come to concern him very much, those of film star Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich), one of whose films he and his wife saw together the night before Mrs Honey’s death in the Blitz, and of flight attendant Marjorie Cordner (Glynis Johns), whose kindness and patience he is touched by. To both of these women he confides his theory, pointing out what he believes to be the safest spot in the plane, in the event of misadventure. (Had this film been made in Hollywood at the same time, I rather doubt the men’s toilets would have been given such a prominent role!) Prior to this, Honey is given a tour of the cockpit, where he learns to his horror that, after the one that crashed in Labrador, this is the Reindeer with the most flying hours – and that they are rapidly approaching failure point.
Confronting the pilot, Samuelson (Niall MacGinnis), Theodore Honey battles to make himself understood, insisting that the plane undergo an emergency landing at once. This scene is one of the film’s best, dramatic and funny all at once, as Samuelson tries to make head or tail of Honey’s frantic and incoherent story while, behind him, the eyes of the listening flight crew grow wider and wider and wider…
It is, we feel, less Honey’s explanation that finally sways Samuelson than that he is, clearly, terrified. Samuelson compromises, radioing back to London for orders, and then adopting an air of unconcern that sits very ill beneath the cold sweat on his brow.
The plane, however, lands safely in Gander, to Honey’s bewilderment – almost to his disappointment. He maintains his belief in his theory nevertheless. An inspection reveals no fault (“But it wouldn’t!” Honey cries in the wilderness), and Samuelson insists on going on – although not with Theodore Honey on board. By now, however, “people” have become very much more to the scientist than just annoying details obscuring a theorem; that he himself will be left behind and therefore be out of danger means nothing to Honey, who is moved to make one last desperate effort to protect the lives of those about to re-board the Reindeer. Forcing his way back into the cockpit, Honey yanks on the lever controlling the landing-gear, and sends the body of the airliner crashing to the tarmac.
Theodore Honey returns to England – in an RAF fighter, after the commercial airlines all refuse to touch him – to find himself the centre of a media firestorm. As for his employers, they are caught in a painful bind, still willing to back Honey, if only they could find something, anything, to support his theory; but that missing tailplane still hasn’t been found, although Sir John dispatches yet another team to Labrador in search of it; while in the laboratory, Honey’s own experimental tailplane remains stubbornly intact, well past the projected failure point.
An inquiry begins, which rapidly turns into something else: a competency hearing; because if there is one thing that everyone recognises, from the representatives of British Aviation, through Sir John and Dennis Scott, to Monica Teasdale and Marjorie Cordner, both passionate in their belief in Theodore Honey – although the man rather than the mathematician – it is how tempting it is, how simple, how comforting it would be, just to lock Honey up and throw away the key. He is, after all, a scientist – and therefore by definition of unsound mind…
Apart from its cinematic virtues, which are plentiful, No Highway In The Sky is a look back at time long gone; the dawn of commercial aviation, before flying became a form of mass transit; when passengers were few, and planes spacious; when they had a lounge and a kitchen; when meals and drinks were free as a matter of course, and served using real crockery and glassware. The film itself is a fine piece of work (as well as the product of another era long gone), using its central dilemmas, the larger problem of potential air disasters and the personal battle of Theodore Honey, to build a dramatic and suspenseful work; although typically, with a leavening of humour that supports rather than undercuts the drama. And if most of that humour is at the expense of the scientific profession, well, that’s just the price that some of us have to pay for our entertainment.
While this film is naturally dominated by James Stewart’s central performance, he is very well supported by those around him. Marlene Dietrich, although obviously cast for name appeal and American sales, really makes something of what could have been a lazy cheque-book role as Monica Teasdale. She is well-matched by Glynis Johns as Marjorie, who has every protective, indeed, maternal instinct in her body brought out by Thoeodore Honey and his helplessness. The two women, although ranged on the same side, find themselves in the middle of—well, you can’t really call it a catfight; or if it is a catfight, it is the most polite, the most ladylike, the most mutually sympathetic one imaginable.
Like so many British films of this era, No Highway In The Sky is a showcase for a splendid collection of character actors, including, apart from those already mentioned, Kenneth More as the Reindeer’s co-pilot, Wilfrid Hyde-White as a crash investigator, Elizabeth Allan as Mrs Scott (almost twenty years after she and Jack Hawkins co-starred in The Lodger), and as Honey’s daughter, Elspeth, a twelve year old Janette Scott.
The film’s treatment of Elspeth is, shall we say, rather divisive. Character after character reacts to her purely intellectual upbringing with horror; Monica and Marjorie jointly prescribe a course of party dresses, makeup, and “telling her she’s pretty” (and how nice to be in filmdom, where that always is the case); but personally, I’ve never been able to look at Elspeth’s home life, running tame in a household with books on all subjects stacked to the ceiling, conducting behavioural experiments on her pet goldfish, and passing her evenings playing bizarre homemade games based upon arcane knowledge, without experiencing a pang of severe envy. At her age, that’s exactly what I would have liked best…and to see it presented as, effectively, a form of child abuse is more than a little hurtful.
Jimmy in his lab.