AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
Strikes Back /
The Reel World /
It's A Disaster! /
Etc., Etc., Etc. /
Dialogue / Links
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 (1951)|
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, which were designed by Barnes Wallis,
later the man behind the “bouncing bombs”, a story told in
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
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, whose 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), 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
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.”
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
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
plane, however, lands safely in
Theodore Honey returns to
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 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....
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