Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY – Dimitri Tiomkin



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1952 John Wayne partnered with producer Robert Fellows to create Wayne-Fellows Productions. Director William Wellman pitched an aviation suspense drama titled “The High and the Mighty” written by Ernest Gann to Wayne who immediately purchased the film rights and Gann’s services writing the screenplay for $55,000. Wellman was tasked with directing and provided a budget of $1.47 million. A cast was assembled with Spenser Tracy offered the lead role, but he withdrew just before filming unwilling to suffer Wellman’s authoritarianism. As such, Wayne stepped in and took the role of First Officer Dan Roman to save the project. Today his performance is believed by critics to be one of the finest of his career. Joining him were; Claire Trevor as May Holst, Laraine Day as Lydia Rice, Robert Stack as Captain John Sullivan, Jan Sterling as Sally McKee and Sidney Blackmer as Humphrey Agnew.

The story is set aboard a CD-4 turbo-prop airplane scheduled to fly from Honolulu Hawaii to San Francisco. The psychology of the crew and passengers reveals a plethora of hidden fears and problems; the Captain fears failure, and the first officer is haunted by a crash which killed his wife and son. Among the passengers we have a jaded actress, an unhappily married heiress, an aging beauty queen, a terminally ill man and a late arrival whose behavior is disconcerting. Well, the plan takes off and soon experiences sporadic vibrations. The crew cannot locate any problem and the flight pushes on. After the pass the point of no return an engine blows up as Agnew pulls a gun and tries to kill a fellow passenger for having an affair with his wife. He is disarmed as the flight crew determine that with one engine and a fuel leak, they cannot reach the mainland. The psychological drama that unfolds as they try to lighten the plane and deal with the fears of the crew and passengers is riveting. Eventually they do reach San Francisco, landing on fumes. The film was a massive commercial success, earning a $7 million profit. Critical reception was mostly positive and the film earned six Academy Award nomination including; Best Director, two for Best Supporting actress, Best Film Editing and Best Song, winning one award for Best Film Score. The film’s legacy is significant as it is credited with beginning the disaster movie genre.

John Wayne greatly enjoyed Tiomkin’s score for Red River (1948) and hired him to take on this project. Tiomkin understood that this was a tense psychological drama where the fears of both passengers and crew are exacerbated by the looming prospect of the plane ditching into the cold waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. He also understood that he needed a big main theme to capture the film’s emotional core and to propel is narrative. He chose to utilize a composition he had composed in 1930, but never used. He relates that he wanted music, which had a spiritual or religious quality to it, one that he could enhance with wordless women’s choir later in the film to support the dramatic landing. In a DVD documentary of Tiomkin, composer Christopher Young states;

“Up comes the main title and [Tiomkin’s] not tip-toeing around here. Right from the get-go, you know you’re dealing with a composer who’s not afraid to contribute something. He gets right down to business and says it in a very concise, direct manner”.

For his soundscape Tiomkin offers four primary themes and two motifs. The Main Theme opens with a prelude of soaring horns maestoso, which resound forthrightly and usher in one of the finest melodies in Tiomkin’s canon, as well as one of the most grandiose film openings in cinematic history. Its expansive, long-lined, string borne melody offers classic unabashed romanticism, which both inspires and awes. This is music, which transcends its film and gains the composer, immortality. Its melody would be given a song “The Whistling Song” with lyrics provided by Ned Washington soared on the popular charts spending 17 weeks in the Top Ten. The Aerial Theme offers a sumptuous soaring string borne identity, joined by woodwinds tranquille and harp glissandi, which takes flight and supports external visuals of the airplane as it traverses wondrous cloudscapes. Toby’s Theme offers a solo violin delicato, which is used to support the little boy who blissfully sleeps through the entire ordeal. The jubilation Theme offers celebratory joy, which supports the disembarkation of the passengers. We bear witness to a wonderous paean of jubilation offered in a remarkable festive, Neo-Baroque iteration. Lastly, we have two motifs; The Tremor Motif is used to support the plane’s subtle shuttering before the accident. Tiomkin uses a powerful, grim, low register reverberating piano chord draped with harp glissandi to produce the effect, which I believe was well-conceived and very effective. The Distress Motif resounds as a powerful orchestral surge propelled by horns feroce. It replaces the Aerial Theme in supporting exterior visuals of the damaged plane after the #1 engine blows.

Given that there is no legitimate commercial release of the score, my review will list film scenes with film time indices. We begin with “00:17 Main Title” offers a score highlight and one of the greatest film opening in cinematic history. We open grandly with the resounding horns maestoso of the Main Theme, which support the Warner Brothers Studio logo, and then a display of “Cinemascope”. At 0:29 we display the film title and commence the roll of the opening credits, which unfold against wondrous cloudscapes over which soars an airplane. Tiomkin graces us with his grandiose Main Theme who’s expansive, and sumptuous string borne melody sweeps us off our feet with its unabashed romanticism. At 1:09 we commence a glorious stepped crescendo ascent as though climbing through the firmament to heaven itself. We close with a flourish atop a final glorious reprise of the Main Theme as we gaze at vistas of Waikiki Beach. Bravo! “02:13 Dan’s Arrival” reveals co-pilot Dan Rowan arriving at the plane whistling the Main Theme.

“05:49 Airport Lobby” offers Hawaiian source music, which supports the arrival of an austere, Donald Flaherty, the very happy Mr. and Mrs. Joseph, aging beauty queen Sally McKee, the imperious director Gustav Pardee and his wife, the affable and rich stockholder Ken Childs, the kind Dorothy Chen, Mr. Fields who is dropping off his son Toby, a stuffy Mr. and Mrs. Rice, Mr. Lacota, and jaded actress May Holst. The Captain and Lenny the Navigator check the fuel load as Hobie the Second Officer arrives and joins. “14:46 Goodbye to Toby” reveals Mr. Fields say goodbye to his son Toby who will be making the flight alone to join his mother on the mainland. Tiomkin supports with plaintive strings, which usher in his theme his by solo violin delicato as he pretends shooting Dan with his toy pistol as he looks out his cockpit window. “15:19 Flashback” reveals Dan suffering a flashback triggered by the kid who reminds him of his dead son. Wailing horns grotteshe and strings affanto cry out as he recalls the image of the crashed burning plane that took the lives of his wife and son. He stumbles as the plane burns and find his son’s teddy bear on fire, and then collapses. Tiomkin supports his agony with a ghostly shimmering storm of dissonance, which consumes him.

“16:14 Agnew’s Demand” reveals him demanding to get a late ticket after confirming that a Mr. Childs is a passenger. Hawaiian source music supports the scene. “20:46 The Flight Begins” reveals an uneventful take-off and Tiomkin introduces the soaring wonder of his Aerial Theme borne by sumptuous strings, woodwinds tranquille and harp glissandi, which take flight as we see the plane flying through billowing cloudscapes. The confluence of cinematography and music is exquisite. At 21:17 a diminuendo caries us into the cabin where we see Toby running up and down the aisle with his airplane. The gentile melody belies the menacing stairs of Aguirre towards Childs. Soft strings and woodwinds create an idyllic ambiance as we move into the flight cabin. “23:01 First Tremor” reveals Captain Sullivan out of the cabin when a subtle transitory shuttering of the plane noticed only by Dan and Spaulding the flight attendant strikes. Tiomkin uses a grim, low register reverberating piano chord draped with harp glissandi to produce the effect. The tension is sustained by eerie woodwinds and harp glissandi as Dan looks at Lenny and Hobie who seem oblivious. Another dark chord resounds as Dan looks out the windows at the two right engines. We close with dan nervously whistling the Main Theme. In the passenger cabin Milo tries to comfort his wife Nell who is crying that their honeymoon is over.

“27:00 Painting Natives” Flaherty looks over at the newlyweds kissing and has a flashback to Hawaii where we see him painting a native couple embracing tenderly. Tiomkin supports with gentile woodwinds orientalis and swaying strings, which speak to the idyllic setting. “27:41 Professional Tirade” reveals ambiance shattered by the roaring launch of a naval missile, which elicits the angry Flaherty to slash his painting with red paint, each stroke animated by harsh piano strikes. A change of scene reveals a sign warning of a “Guided Missile Experimental Unit” is supported by dire horn statements, joined by menacing orchestral rumbling. The music syncs with Flaherty’s footfalls as he arrives at a table of scientists and military officers who greet him as professor, and ask that he rejoin the team. Instead, he rails against their efforts to blow up the world. We close darkly as he is ordered to his tent and told they will book him a flight home tomorrow. “30:25 Air Flight” reveals the soaring Aerial Theme supporting an exterior view of the aircraft flying through billowy clouds.

“33:24 Sally McKee’s Story” offers one of the score’s saddest moments as we see Sally bearing her heart to Captain Sullivan. We open tentatively on plaintive strings and woodwinds filled with regret as Sally tells the Captain of her sad life’s tale. The music unfolds as an aching lament as we find she misrepresented herself to a waiting suitor with a photo taken eight years earlier. The transfer of the melody at 34:23 to a solo violin triste supports her tears, and a request that she be allowed to disembark at the crew exit so she can avoid him. We close with aching strings so full of sadness as Sullivan departs saying he will consider her request. “34:53 Flirtation” reveals May starring at, and clearly smitten with Mr. Fields. A solo violin ushers in a delightful romance for strings as he turns and offers her his newspaper. An angry chord resounds at 35:27 as we see Agnew stewing as Ken and May move closer and begin chatting. In “42:00 Second Tremor” a second stronger tremor strikes, with only Dan in the cabin and the Flight Attendant in the back watching two Scotch and water drinks rattling noticing. Tiomkin reuses his Tremor Motif to sow unease. Dan begins a nervous whistle of the Main Theme, and in the back disquieting woodwinds reveal Spaulding’s anxiety. We close on an exterior view of the plane soaring through the clouds, carried by a more bravado rendering of the Aerial Theme.

“48:31 Phil Harris’s Story” offers an adventure of classic silliness. Lydia has decided that her marriage to Howard Rice is over given that he sold his advertising agency for a Canadian mine. She will not give up her socialite lifestyle to live in a log cabin. Across the aisle Ed Joseph over hears and tries to cheer up Howard with some storytelling, seen as a flashback, of their disastrous trip to Hawaii where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Tiomkin supports by playfully interpolating a passage from Gioachino Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville (1816). Comic Mickey-mousing at 50:04 of his tie popping off into his drink, and her falling down the stairs at 50:28 plays to the ridiculous. A sardonic saxophone joins as a doctor explains that she has thrown out her back. At 51:05 comic woodwinds erupt as their respite at the beach is doused by a torrential downpour! The comic absurdity continues as they join another couple for dinner, with each of them being hit on by the other with Rossini propelling their flight! We end with more hilarity as he describes their severe sunburn that got on their final day. I must believe Tiomkin has an amazing sense of humor and greatly enjoyed himself given the creativity, effects, and timing used in supporting this amusing tale. “55:38 Overflight” reveals the plane overflying a merchant ship being tossed in churning seas. The radioman hears their message and watches their flight overhead. A dramatic statement of the Aerial Theme supports the scene.

“55:30 The Letter” reveals Toby asleep supported by the solo violin tenero of his theme. As we shift across the aisle, we hear the thoughts of Dorothy Chen regarding America as she writes a letter. The music shifts to an eastern sensibility carried by flute orientalis and kindred woodwinds in a gentile performance. “57:32 Third Tremor” reveals the stewardess experiencing the most severe of the tremors yet as dishes bounce on her prep table. The Tremor Motif is harsher and more dynamic in this iteration, with a lasting reverberation that is joined by scurrying strings as she walks briskly to the flight cabin. Distressed woodwinds join as she advises the crew who all felt it this time. The Captain orders an inspection of the plane’s tail as the tremor seemed more severe there. Tension joins at 58:21 as the Captain declines to declare an emergency. At 58:34 Dan, carried by purposeful strings, walks to the back of the plane to inspect. Tension Horns sound as he unlocks the tail compartment and goes in to inspect. Stings full of unease join with a mechanistic woodwind motif as we see him examining all the control cables. At 59:33 Dan reassures the stewardess that all seems well, and the tension dissipates, replaced by soothing strings as he asks her to proceed with meal service. In “1:00:43 Point of No Return”, the San Francisco control tower asks for more information on their problem. Sullivan snaps his response off mic to the crew, and then regains composure, advising them that they remain unsure. At that moment Lenny declares that they have just passed the point of no return supported by a dire orchestral surge with growling horns joined with the grim piano reverberation of the Tremor Motif.

An angry Agnew finally confronts Fields and accuses him of having an affair with his wife. He attacks Fields and pulls out a gun when an explosion rocks the plane. In “1:04:39 Plane on Fire!” Sally screams fire after they see an engine on fire. Tiomkin unleashes his Distress Motif, a stepped orchestral torrent swelling with intensity with each statement propelled by forceful horns feroce as the flight crew try to extinguish the fire. At 1:05:06 Sullivan places the plane in a dive to gain speed in hopes of extinguishing the fire, which Tiomkin supports with a tension filled descent motif. They succeed, Sullivan levels the plane and a string borne diminuendo of uncertainty joins as they try to do a damage assessment. At 1:05:52 warm, reassuring strings bring comfort as they reach a ship’s radioman who agrees to relay their status to San Francisco. The music becomes playful with woodwinds animato as the comical heavily Mexican accented radioman relays their status. At 1:06:19 we ascend on a crescendo of urgency as we see the San Francisco flight command center shift into action. Tiomkin propels the scene with bustling woodwinds, surging strings, resounding horns dramatico with dynamic frenetic activity. At 1:06:51 surging strings and French horns resound as a call to Fire and Sea rescue rouses the team from their beds and the alarm claxon sounds. Strings energico fuel a now kinetically charged orchestra as Tiomkin ramps up rescue efforts. Comic Mickey-mousing enters at 1:07:25 as we see a flight rescuer unable to zip up his flight suit. We shift back to the playful woodwind motif as the ship’s radioman advises that the sea is too rough to ditch the plane. A dynamic stepped intensification by blaring horns commences at 1:08:00 as a rescue plane is launched.

“1:08:24 Aftermath” commences atop a diminuendo of uncertainty with subtle currents of tension, which carries us to the passenger cabin where we see the passengers bantering about the circumstances. A solo violin delicato joined with woodwinds gentile support Toby who at last wakes up, only to fall back asleep. At 1:09:39 French horns and confident woodwinds take us back to the Coast Guard Command Center as we see a large wall map with positions marked for planes and ships. At 1:09:54 horns dramatico resound and propel a dynamic action motif as we see planes and ships being launched. “1:10:43 Bad News” opens with a diminuendo from the previous scene as the flight crew assess position and fuel status. To their dismay the discover that they lost the #1 engine fuel tank and lack sufficient fuel to reach land. Sullivan orders Dan to make preparation to lighten the aircraft and advise the passengers. A pulsing motif raises anxiety. As Dan composes himself, Tiomkin supports with calm, reassuring strings with subtle undercurrents of anxiety as he prepares to inform the passengers of their circumstances. Tenderness enters on woodwinds at 1:12:35 as he covers the sleeping Toby with a blanket. At 1:13:49 Dan calmly explains the loss of the #1 engine. He then says he has to tell them the hard part. At 1:13:57 the harsh discord of the Distress Theme blares as he shines a flash light out the window on the damaged part of the wing. He then explains a water landing and how they need to keep calm and follow directions.

“1:18:33 Baggage Overboard!” offers a dynamic score highlight propelled by strings energico and horns dramatico, which resound to support Dan and the passengers preparing to lighten the craft by throwing out baggage and non-essential items. As we see them in a human chain passing the luggage forward from the storage hold, Tiomkin masterfully drives the action with dynamic energy. At 1:20:54 Toby’s tender theme enters as Dan gently lifts him and sets him down away from the door. We build on a tension crescendo, which crests at 1:21:50 as he partially opens the cabin door and they begin throwing out the luggage, again propelled by Tiomkin’s dynamic action writing. We climax with shrill horns at 1:22:56 as the last of the luggage is thrown out and Dan resecures the door. An interlude follows where the passengers return to their seats and try to relax. Mr. Lacota play a harmonica diegetically as the camera pans the cabin revealing each passenger coping with the stress in their own way. “1:25:05 The Captain Struggles” reveals a Distress Motif of dire horns and swirling strings resounding as an exterior shot show the plane being buffeted by the storm. In the cabin an ominous descent motif supports the speed gauge dropping. The Captain orders more RPMs, which increases fuel consumption. He is very tense, yet Tiomkin plays against the tension with a lyrical passage of woodwinds and strings with harp adornment, which reflect Dan’s calm demeanor as he brings the Captain coffee and a reassuring smile.

“1:26:13 Calming the Passengers” offers a beautiful score highlight with one of the score’s finest passages. It reveals Gustave Pardee comforting and reassuring the passengers, which Tiomkin supports with a tender rendering of the Main Theme, which flows into a delightful woodwind pastorale. At 1:27:27 we flow into a beautiful romance for strings with an exquisite solo violin passage as a surprised Mrs. Pardee has seen a side of her husband that she has missed for a very long time; his tenderness and empathy. We close with a return to the Main Theme that blossoms 1:29:45, transformed into a Love Theme as Lilian confesses her undying love for him as he lovingly grasps her hand. “1:34:20 Rescue Planes” reveals the rescue plane flying to intercept flight 420. A statement by horns militare brimming with Americana support an exterior visual, followed by a diminuendo as the copilot states that they are goners if 420 ditches in these turbulent seas. “1:34:43 Sleeping Boy” reveals the Stewardess gently fashioning a life vest to little Toby who sleeps through it. Tiomkin supports with a tender rendering of his theme. “1:35:28 Spaulding’s Distress” reveals her breaking down and beginning to cry in the back out of sight of the passengers. An aching, aggrieved rendering of the of the Main Theme speaks to her tears. When the watch given her by Mr. Briscoe rings, she regains composure, only to lose it again as she thinks of him dying soon.

“1:35:54 Radioman” reveals the Coast Guard thanking the radioman for his assistance and signing off. Woodwinds gentile support the scene with subtle Mexican flavors. As he moves outside to the deck and looks heavenward, wordless angelic women’s choir impart a religioso ambiance as we move to an exterior visual of Flight 420. “1:37:41 We’re Going To Make It!” reveals contact with the rescue plane, which is only 20 minutes out. Celebratory horns resound as Lenny cries out “We’re going to make it! We close with horns dramatico as the Captain of the recue plane promises to find them, storm be damned. “1:38:10 The Bucks” opens with wordless angelic women’s choir, which ushers in the Main Theme rendered romantically as they cuddle, passionately embrace and kiss, as they confess their love for each other. “1:39:30 Lydia’s Confession” reveals her affected by the loving affection of the Bucks. When Howard says that he would dread losing her and is prepared to give up his dreams for her, she is moved and bares her heart to him. Revealing her love for him and willingness to go with him to Canada to realize his dream. Tiomkin offers a romance for strings full of aching tenderness as we see the two regain the love, they had lost for each other.

“1:41:48 Coast Guard Command” reveals Tim Garfield of TOPAC Airlines public relations getting the latest update. A bridge of woodwinds gentile supports the scene and flow into the dramatic Distress Motif as we see an exterior shot of the rescue plane, that is still unable to make radar contact with Flight 420. Confident woodwinds support interior shots of the crew doing their duties. We close on the Distress Motif as we shift to Dan piloting the plane while the Captain rests. We shift back and forth from the dramatic Distress Motif to tense woodwinds as the rescue plane’s Captain is perplexed that they cannot locate Flight 420. Soon they finally locate the plane just eight miles away and at a lower altitude. Lenny then admits to Captain Sullivan that he made a rookie calculation error and that they do not have the fuel to reach land.

“1:45:34 Sally McKee’s Confession” reveals her reading a letter from her fiancé who can hardly wait to see her, and take her up to his cabin home in the mountains. The Main Theme emotes romantically with angelic wordless women’s choir, clearly from his perspective as she looks in the mirror, which reveals an aging beauty queen, not the beauty seen in the photo she sent him. Music departs as she relates to Mr. Flaherty that she is giving up the façade as we see her remove her makeup, indulging in self-pity as she admits her best years are behind her and who would marry a woman with a face like this? Music reenters at 1:50:23 with a plaintive saxophone supporting her pathetic resignation. Yet when he relates that he finds her a very courageous lady, the music brightens as she resolves to meet her man and not run. We flow into a gentle rendering of the Main Theme at 1:51:32 as Mr. Lacota returns the gun to Mr. Agnew and tells him he has much to think about in these final hours as he prays his rosary. We see that his words resonate with Agnew and Tiomkin supports the moment with religioso auras imparted by a gentle Main Theme adorned with wordless angelic women’s choir.

“1:53:07 We Need Eleven Minutes” opens with dire statements of the Distress Motif as we see an exterior shot of Flight 420 now joined with the Coast Guard rescue plane. Playful woodwinds support Sullivan relieving Dan and taking back command of the plane. He orders Hobie to prepare the passengers for a sea landing. Music exits as Dan speaks to Lenny who says they are short just eleven minutes. Dan then probes Hobie if he would mind if he tries to convince Sullivan to not ditch, and he says no. Music reenters at 1:56:04 on plaintive woodwinds that become grim as Dan suggests that sometimes people lose their way, only to be reminded by Hobie that his luck ran out in South America and that he is not the Captain. An aching cello triste enters at 1:56:50 joined by kindred strings to offer a very moving soliloquy as Dan pulls a photo of his wife and son out of his briefcase, wraps it in plastic and dons his life vest.

Dan takes the copilot chair and encourages Sullivan to make a go for landing by throttling down to save fuel. When Dan throttles down at “1:53:07 Cut Back on Fuel” the plane begins to shutter, becoming more unstable at the slower speed. Sullivan fears a stall and tries to throttle up only to be stopped by Dan who barks to fly the plane. Powerful declarations of the Distress Motif keep resounding as the plane violently shutters and we see fear in Sullivan’s eyes. Strings triste support an interlude of Tim Garfield of TOPAC Airlines public relations going over the crew and passenger list should he have to deliver bad news to their families. We close on a fleeting statement of the Main Theme. At 2:00:40 a dire Distress Motif returns us to an exterior visual of Flight 420. At 2:00:47 strings tranquile support interior shots of May and Flaherty who is suffering a panic attack. He asks her to keep talking and as she rattles on, the music becomes plaintive as her fears surface and she ends up crying on his shoulder. We shift at 2:03:00 to Hobie preparing Miss Spaulding for a hard ditch supported by a lyrical string line with subtle romantic auras as he is attracted to her. In the cockpit Sullivan panics and says he has to ditch now over the objections of Lenny and Dan. He pushes the plane into a dive only to be slapped twice by Dan and told to get a hold of himself. Dan takes control of the plan and Sullivan realizes his error, thanks Dan, and they prepare to land at San Francisco airport, still eight minutes short by Lenny’s calculations.

“2:11:37 Final Approach” reveals a tender Toby’s Theme supporting the Stewardess inflating his life vest manually so as to not wake him. Tension strings enter as Hobie advises her that they are attempting to reach San Francisco. At 2:12:14 horns feroce surge as we see sparks shooting out of one of the engines. Distressed strings churn as Dan attempts to adjust the engine. Tension mounts as their elevation drops below 300 feet, eliciting warning calls from the rescue plane. They continue to drop to 150 feet with Tiomkin ratcheting up the tension as we see a guard standing watch by the Golden Gate bridge. At 2:13:33 the Distress Motif resounds as we see the plane flying dangerous low. At 2:13:45 we switch to the passenger cabin carried by a hopeful rendering of the Main Theme as the camera pans one by one to each of the passengers who are facing their possible deaths. The music brightens at 2:14:57 as Lenny declares 350 feet skipper, and that they must have passed the hills! A hopeful Main Theme enters as the mood of the cockpit crew improves. At 2:15:45 the control tower turns up the lights full blast supported by sparkling strings of anticipation, which take flight. At 2:15:53 an aggressive orchestral surge led by horns dramatico support the deployment of airport fire engines. A diminuendo takes us into the cockpit as Sullivan and Dan prepare to land. Tense action returns as we see the fire trucks assuming their positions. At 2:17:21 the Distress Motif roars back with a vengeance as they have to shut down a failing engine. A diminuendo follows as the approach with the two remaining engines. Amidst the tension the solo violin of Toby’s Theme reveals him still sound asleep at 2:18:00. Strings of hope begin a hopeful ascent as the see the airport, now a mile away.

“2:18:46 Safe Landing” reveals a score highlight of jubilation. Sullivan orders full flaps as the reach the initial lights of the airport, which ushers in an ebullient choral supported grandiose rendering of the Main Theme. Its glorious stepped ascent commences as the runway beckons. As they land, the music dissipates as we hear the brakes resound and bring the airplane to a stop.

“2:19:56 Return to the Ground” offers a wondrous score highlight, which abounds with celebratory joy! It reveals each of the passengers and couples disembarking down the gangway supported by a wonderous paean of joy offered in a remarkable festive, Neo-Baroque iteration. At 2:21:21 Tobey’s Theme carries him into the loving arms of his grateful mother. At 2:21:51 regal pomp and pageantry support the quick exit of Mr. Agnew who rushes off to call his wife. The jubilation soars again as May’s exit follows and she hams it up as she descends to the adoring crowd of reporters. At 2:22:32 festive strings of happiness carry Jose Locota to the loving arms of his waiting family. A diminuendo supports the Pardee’s discussing their plans on the tarmac followed by another iteration of the Jubilation Theme as the Josephs descend. At 2:23:48 sumptuous strings carry Mr. Flaherty’s quick unobtrusive exit with his briefcase. At 2:24:09 warm strings, full of affection support Miss Spaulding and Miss Chen escorting Mr. Briscoe where they commit to the promised steak dinner. We close with Garfield and the command crew examining the blown engine. He informs them that they will be debriefed in the morning and they all depart except for Dan. Garfield informs him in private that they made it with just thirty gallons of fuel and that he’ll see him in the morning. As Dan departs, he whistles the Main Theme, which brings the film to its conclusion.

It is quite vexing that after 67 years this remarkable Academy Award Winning score has no bona fide commercial release. I call upon the major industry labels to rectify this and grant fans of the art form one of the remaining cherished Holy Grails. With this seminal effort Tiomkin became the father of the disaster movie genre, a genre that has grown and thrives to this day. The crippled airplane serves as a backdrop to what is in reality an intimate exploration into the lives of both the crew and passengers. Tiomkin masterfully handled the themes and motifs of the airplane with his soaring Aerial Theme filling us with exhilaration, while the Tremor and Distress Motifs sowed anxiety, tension and suspense. However, it is in telling the human story of the passengers and crew that the score shines, and ultimately endears each and every one of them to us.

The iconic Main Theme has passed unto legend, earning its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great cinematic music. In a masterstroke of conception, Tiomkin with this grandiose, expansive, long-lined, string borne melody offered classic unabashed romanticism, which sweeps us off our feet. It offers one of the finest themes to ever open a film, with a melody that echoes in your mind long after seeing the film; always a testament to greatness. Its transformation into a Love Theme as couples affirm their love, or reconcile, brought heart to the characters, and empathy to the audience. Its final grand and dramatic statement as the airplane descends to land offers a sublime confluence and perfect cinematic moment, which elicits a quiver and a tear. The decision to support the closing disembarkation scene with a wonderous paean of celebratory joy offered in a remarkable festive, Neo-Baroque iteration was brilliantly conceived and executed, masterfully bringing the necessary closure to this incredible tale. Folks, this score is a masterpiece of conception and execution, and one of the finest in Tiomkin’s canon, and a precious gem of the Golden Age. For now, you must be content to experience the score while watching the film, and I encourage you to do so. May I live to see the day that this score becomes commercially available.

Editor’s note: While the score for The High and the Mighty has not been released in its entirety, the theme does appear on several re-recordings and compilations. Notably, a six-minute suite conducted by Richard Kaufman opens the 2005 Varese Sarabande album ‘The High and the Mighty: A Century of Flight’, while a re-recording of the Prelude conducted by Paul Bateman features on the 1994 Silva Screen album ‘True Grit: Music from the Classic Films of John Wayne’. Finally, the cues “Prelude and Take-Off” and “Safe Landing” were released as part of the 12-CD limited edition box set ‘Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Collection’ released by Film Score Monthly in 2006. Additional selections are included on other albums, but these are rare and hard to track down.

For those of you unfamiliar I have embedded a YouTube link to a 15-minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-y4m89Z5n4

Track Listing:


Music composed and conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin. Orchestrations by Manuel Emanuel, Paul Marquardt, Charles Maxwell, George Parrish, David Tamkin and Herbert Taylor. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Dimitri Tiomkin.

  1. teacher8007
    June 8, 2021 at 8:23 pm

    There has been a bootleg release of the entire score floating around for some time, and I am personaly grateful that a copy found its way to my collection 10 years ago, give or take. See details of the release here: https://www.filmmusicsite.com/en/soundtracks.cgi?id=24080

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