John Wayne's screen presence has become synonymous with uncut heroism and monolithic virtue, but how others saw him didn't always jibe with how he saw himself, or at least how he chose to present himself in the films he starred in for Batjac, the production company he founded in 1952. Released to DVD after years of legal wrangling that forced them to sit out the VHS era entirely, two of these films find Wayne playing modest, unremarkable guys who stumble into heroism when they'd much rather everyone pay them no mind.
Both are adapted by pilot-turned-novelist Ernest K. Gann from his novels and directed by William A. Wellman in full workman mode. Neither is transcendently great, but both hold up well as solid entertainment with some remarkable elements. The somewhat misnamed 1953 film Island In The Sky opens high above the earth, but then follows pilot Wayne and his crew as they crash-land in one of the most godforsaken corners of Canada and await rescue. Wayne presides over his frightened men with quiet dignity, his war experience having taught him what to expect in such situations, and allowing him to prepare for the worst. It's a neat portrait of heroism with the grand gestures shaved off, and an oasis of substance in the fairly pat melodrama surrounding it.
Wayne repeated the trick in 1954's The High And The Mighty, which was a big hit in its day, but has mostly been forgotten during its time in the vault. Chances are viewers will feel like they've seen it anyway. The template for '70s disaster films like Airport, it puts a cross-section of '50s Americana on a troubled flight from Hawaii and lets everyone dig into their subplots as they contemplate their mortality. It's sluggishly paced, and no one seems to have figured out that plane interiors don't make the best use of the then-new Cinemascope frame. But it's aged like fine cheese, with the go-for-broke performance of Claire Trevor, the high-'50s character types, and the strange world of '50s commercial flights (which here look as boozy and smoky as a dive bar) keeping it lively. Wayne, of course, anchors the film, slipping in from the sidelines to overcome his haunted past and save the day before slipping away again. Wayne's image was larger than life, but passing himself off as an everyman was one of his best tricks.