The granddaddy of all disaster movies—THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY—holds a special place in the history of film music and the Academy Awards. Based on Ernest K. Gann’s novel, the film follows passengers aboard an airplane in distress from Hawaii to San Francisco. The film is basically a multi-character soap opera in the sky, with John Wayne at the helm. Considering some of the disaster films since, as well as some real-life disasters, the film is pretty tame by today’s standards. But it’s still a lot of fun, thanks in no small part to Dimitri Tiomkin‘s rousing, Oscar-winning score accompanying the plane into the wild blue yonder.
As Christopher Palmer wrote in his biography of Tiomkin, the films opens “like a curtain being majestically swept back.” Composer Christopher Young states in a documentary about Tiomkin on the DVD release of the film, “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.”
Tiomkin said he was looking for something in the main theme that had a spiritual or religious quality to it, amplified by the addition of a wordless female chorus later in the film. The theme was based on a piece he had written in the 1930s but never used. Both of the theme’s instrumental recordings that were released as singles–one by Les Baxter and another by Leroy Holmes–became hits, and the theme spent 17 weeks in the Top Ten.
The theme became the subject of a court case accusing Tiomkin of plagiarism. He won the case chiefly by virtue of the testimony of Dr. Sigmund Spaeth, the self-styled “Tune Detective”. Spaeth argued that there was nothing new under the sun when it came to component units of a melodic line. Spaeth was renowned for his exposition of the origins of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” as a combination of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” The Bohemian Girl, and Handel’s Messiah. He applied the same treatment to Tiomkin’s theme, revealing its roots in the works of the great classical composers.
There was also a vocal version, with lyrics by Ned Washington, which was submitted for a Best Song nomination. But since it was never sung in the film, it was deemed ineligible. Once the Academy made its ruling, the studio cut the song back into the picture and released that version in Los Angeles for one week in December 1954 to qualify it for its nomination.
The theme and song were so popular that director William Wellman and Tiomkin overdubbed John Wayne’s whistling in the film with the tune. The studio capitalized on this in Oscar consideration ads with the phrase “the tune that got America whistling again.”
But there is more to the score than just the main theme. A memorable melody for the strings accompanies the shots of the plane in flight. A gentle melody on solo violin represents the innocence of the boy who sleeps through all the terror onboard. Typical of his music, a lot of Tiomkin’s action cues meander along without any clear destination. But here his brash style helps push our passengers and crew melodramatically on to safety.
One particular over-the-top scene is Mr. Joseph’s (Phil Harris) description of his disastrous Hawaii trip. In this cue, Tiomkin mickey-mouses the action and employs famous classical music quotes (mainly Rossini’s The Barber of Seville) for comic effect. This could have come across as a cheap shot but the flashback is so ridiculous that the music actually helps underscore the absurdity of the events happening onscreen.
The film goes out with a bang during the choral finale, as the plane finally touches the runway safely, and the quasi-Baroque style “Jubilo” as the passengers disembark.
The film is legendary in film music circles and in Academy Award history for Tiomkin’s historic acceptance speech:
Ladies and gentlemen, because I am working in this town for twenty-five years, I like to make some kind of appreciation to very important factor which makes me successful and adds to quality of this town. I like to thank Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner… Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov…
Fellow nominee Franz Waxman (for THE SILVER CHALICE) was so appalled that he criticized Tiomkin following the speech. Tiomkin listened patiently and said, “I don’t know why you’re so annoyed, Franz. I don’t hear any influences of these great composers in your music.” What could Waxman say? He just walked away.
My personal choice for the Oscar that year would have been Leonard Bernstein’s biting and beautiful score for ON THE WATERFRONT. Actually I would have preferred Larry Adler’s charming harmonica/piano score for GENEVIEVE or Waxman’s work as well. Still, nothing was going to beat that hit tune. Tiomkin is a polarizing composer, and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY illustrates his compositional pros and cons with memorable, sweeping bombast.
By the way, Bob Hope’s prediction did not come true. Tiomkin stepped up to the Oscar podium one more time, picking up his fourth Academy Award in 1958 for his score to THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.