Boffinatics

Not every film begins and ends with a godawful racket; but Highway in the Sky, from 1951, is unique in that. You wouldn’t expect, in such a seemingly mild, made-in-England movie (everyone’s so awfully polite), to have this alpha-omega din framing its story, which delves into abstruse matters concerning stress factors, BTI units, nuclear fission, and “crystalline affinities.” All revolving around its narrative premise: will or will not the tail of a particular make of airplane, called the Reindeer (Santa’s sleigh comes unbidden to mind), fall off in mid-flight? This may be the first and only movie to deal with the deep subject of metal fatigue. The issue does matter—especially if you happen to be seated on that plane equipped with that possibly fatigued tail—though it may not be the hook you’d use when trying to pitch this movie to a beady-eyed studio head whose only notion of tail is what wags at the box office.

But at least No Highway In the Sky angles its plot in terms of a mystery, which makes for surer box-office appeal. And its mystery is not just about an exhausted tail. The real mystery hovers round that lone, long, ‘boffin’ fellow (British slang for an absent-minded scientist), name of Theodore Honey, a moniker seemingly out of a Harlequin Romance written by P.G. Wodehouse in parodic mood, who’s first seen at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, hunched over a table and eating his lunch as if protecting it from predators. Honey’s working in an enormous aircraft-testing room where a seriously loud noise is happening—a tail of a plane is being “vibrated” to test its metallic strength. When two colleagues stop by to check on what he’s doing, Honey responds with widened eyes and bunched-up mouth, as if his face was being simultaneously squeezed and stretched. He resembles a startled prune.

It’s a nice touch: a look at the essence of boffincy, here caught in medias res—interrupted and annoyed. Which happens to be Honey’s frequent state of mind. Especially when dealing with nosy parkers whose obtuse questions he can’t answer. But then, Honey can barely articulate a sentence. His mind floats in a conceptual realm, made up of such intangibles as prime numbers and abstract integers, and no one understands what he’s talking about. But you grasp his gist, which is: this plane’s metal can’t take stress, and its tail, after so many hours, will fall off like a seed dropped from a bird’s beak. And that means nonconceptual disaster, in a big way.

Hence our mysteries: Will Honey’s theory ever be understood? Will Honey himself?

James Stewart plays Honey, which might seem, at first, like monumental miscasting: an all-American actor playing a quintessential English eccentric, complete with furled umbrella (Robert Donat was first slated for the role). But Stewart (who’s referred to as a “Yank”) goes beyond nationalities, burrowing into his character like that dropped seed fallen into fertile ground. He seems to have sprouted right into Honey’s being, into body, voice, eyes, even brain. Veering along the roadway, torso bent with invisible weights, Honey walks like a wingless bird, his legs nerveless appendages that tread ground as if unsure of their purpose. His limbs don’t properly connect: knees don’t link to thighs, feet don’t flow from calves. And the eyes don’t focus. They drift across an inner landscape, composed of theorems, equations, and formulae, which build and cross and merge into beautifully complete, complex structures that Honey can see but can’t explain. His mind, like a poet’s, bodies forth the forms of things unknown—except Honey can’t give them a body. Once loosed from his cranium, his ideas tend to shatter and drop, rather like that fatigued tail. It makes conversation with ordinary mortals somewhat difficult.

One ordinary mortal, Jack Hawkins, Honey’s new Establishment boss, at least tries. He offers Honey a lift home, which Honey first refuses, then reluctantly accepts. His shell now cracked, Honey feels obliged to invite his boss into his house, which turns out to be the wrong one (he’s only lived in the neighborhood 11 years, so it’s a natural mistake…). Nor once in the right home (so piled with books there’s no place to sit) is he safe. Offering the boss a drink, he pours from a bottle of proffered sherry, but nothing comes out. By now you sense that Honey is quietly regretting his friendly impulse. When his 12-year-old daughter Elspeth enters, Honey can barely acknowledge her, though the girl clearly adores her father and feels responsible for him; she’s the adult here. And Honey treats her like one. For evening amusement, Elspeth explains, they solve problems in pyramidology, which is figuring out how the circle is squared inside the Great Pyramid, or play mathematical games, such as finding objects in units of five. Or something. The boss doesn’t get it and neither did I; although Elspeth assures us it’s “great fun.” At such moments, life with a boffin can seem rather dubious.

But although Honey can’t explain, or prove, his metal-fatigue hypothesis, he believes in it, he’s as convinced of its truth as is a saint in the promise of heaven. Heaven, however, is not the province of Royal Establishment brass; and though Joan of Arc persuading the Dauphin to fight the English could not have been more determined in her arguments, the higher-ups (in terms of people, not planes) are not convinced by Honey that, yes, that tail IS gonna fall. Though that may be because of what concerns Honey. He’s not thinking about planes with passengers; he’s thinking about principles. The consequences of metal fatigue to humanity—especially the portion of humanity stuck in an airplane spiraling to earth—does not stir his imagination. Honey has no time or thought for mundane hominids trapped in a tailless spin. It’s the mathematics that matter. As with a saint, his mind is fixed on the higher things; and the earth—and what might hit it—is as distant to his thinking as a plane at high altitude.

As you can imagine, Honey as a character is a real honey to act, but Stewart, God bless him, doesn’t indulge himself. The temptation with an eccentric is to play up the quirks and oddities and parade them into town as if the character were a Mardi Gras float, the actor astride tossing bon-bons to the gaping crowd. But Stewart doesn’t get all parade-happy and show off. He instead lays out the man’s strangeness, his neglect of himself and his child (they both seemed dressed in Salvation Army hand-me-downs), his inability to function outside his head. And he makes Honey not straight-off likable. He can’t quite look people in the eye, and he lacks, as he badgers anyone in listening range, what might be called a diplomatic touch. The higher-ups don’t know what to do with Honey, so they put him on an airplane to go investigate an air crash on the other side of the globe, hoping a long trip will shut him up.

They were too optimistic…

Turns out the plane Honey’s on is a Reindeer brand, the one with that suspiciously tiring tail. And Honey panics. He harasses pilots and flight crew, insisting they must land before the tail tears off like worn silk and the craft plunges into the sea. Spurring Honey’s concern is his encounter with two fellow passengers: a sympathetic young stewardess (Glynis Johns, as warm and fragrant as fresh bread from the oven), and a glamorous movie actress (Marlene Dietrich, with cheekbones to die for). It’s to the latter that Honey explains, to her charmed incomprehension, his metal-fatigue theory, adding that when the plane hits the drink, the safest spot to be is the men’s room (a rigid wall, you see). But when the plane finally does taxi in for an emergency landing, with all systems intact, the actress, as well as the captain, is no longer impressed. Indeed, Honey is even banned from continuing the flight with the other Reindeer passengers—a condition he finds so alarming, he decides to ground the damn plane himself.  Literally so, by pulling a landing-gear lever. Which causes the plane to collapse on the runway like a pole-axed ox.

That does impress…

The film was adapted from the novel No Highway by Nevil Shute (himself an aeronautical engineer), which I haven’t read, but which the film seems to follow closely (leaving out, wisely, I think, a supernatural subplot). The novel focuses on the instinctual brilliance of the boffin, but within the film I sensed another, instinctual appeal, one concerning the very nature of the vehicle we’re watching. Note how it’s the actress who sparks a response from our boffin hero. It’s not because she’s beautiful and desirable (though, as embodied by Dietrich, she certainly is). It’s because of what she, as an actress, means to him. It seems the last night Honey’s wife was alive, before she was killed in the London blitz, she and Honey saw, and enjoyed (the wife especially), one of the actress’s films. The memory of those flickering shadows, and what they meant to his wife, has burned itself into Honey’s consciousness, sustaining him through what one imagines to be long, lonely years. “You made that last night very happy for her,” he says, with an unaffected sincerity that can only come from the deepest, most compelling level of one’s being.

It’s the film’s oddest, yet most touching moment. The actress, who’s smart, sophisticated, and used to gushing fans, is astonished by this confession, and profoundly moved: “This is not exactly the best compliment I’ve ever had, but maybe it’s the nicest.” Without having ever known this man, or his wife, she realizes she’s bound up in his life, in his love and memories, beyond her mere physical being. It’s a subtle, and potent meta-comment on the power of movies, and of movie stars. They’re entwined in our lives in ways we may not fathom; they’re embedded in our identities, our feelings, perhaps our very breathing; they’re part of us. Honey’s imparting to the actress his metal-fatigue theory is done not out of boffincy but from sheer gratitude; he feels he owes it to her. You grasp here the root of Honey’s weirdness, his isolation, his very boffinhood. It’s his defense from grief. He’s been clammed up, for years, so as not to feel; his gaze wanders so he won’t have to see the world, its people, its life. But his meeting with the glamorous diva breaks though to a layer of feeling from which he’s been sealed off. Suddenly he cares, not just about his theory but about the passengers on this flight. He has to save them; he has to keep that plane on the ground. Perhaps it’s a way of saving his wife—even if only in his mind.

I’m all with Honey about movies and their stars. They root themselves in our minds and memories, as if planted there before we’re even aware they exist. Such as the actors in this film, who are so lovely, so warm, familiar, and comforting, they seem like old, dear friends. You’re certain you’ve met them somewhere—or wish you had. There’s Jack Hawkins as the boss, as solid as that Reindeer tail is not; Ronald Squire, snappily funny as a bigger boss dealing with both falling tails and flying rumors; Niall MacGinnis, thoughtful and calm as the internally fearful pilot; Kenneth More as the co-pilot, likable as always—what a delightful actor, exuding such humor and manly cheer, you want to make a pet of him; and Janette Scott, sweet yet sad as the forlorn daughter. Not to mention Dietrich, of course, a goddess come down to earth; and the wonderful Johns, so delectable, so charming and cuddly and sexy, we should all take up the study of metal fatigue, just to win the heart of one such as she.

It’s Stewart’s film, though; you marvel how he inhabits his character without ego or grandstanding, yet is still recognizably Stewart. In a scene with his sobbing daughter he gets at something lacking in Honey, his inability to handle this torrent of feeling. He hovers a trembling hand across her shoulder, afraid of touching her. Strong emotion throws this fellow; he’s fine with noise and clatter and rended metal, but he can’t find a theory to wrap around a weeping child. The fellow’s a walking wound and he doesn’t even know it. It’s a Honey with the stings still throbbing within.

The film takes us right to the end before solving the mystery—does the Reindeer metal tire and tear under stress or not? It’s what we’ve been waiting for; all that passion and purpose and sheer outright bonkiness on the part of Honey has been towards that one goal. I won’t say more, but I will say that the movie ends with a satisfyingly loud crash. There’s something awfully pleasing to our psyches about big, messy bangs, and No Highway in the Sky doesn’t stint on the pleasure.

Just one of those instinctual needs that movies are meant to serve.

No Highway in the Sky will be shown on TCM on Wednesday, 11/15/17, at 4am. Head for the men’s room and set your DVRs.

Advertisements
Previous Post
Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. What a remarkably well written and insightful review. My compliments.

    Reply
  2. This is an excellent film, that would have been better without Jimmy Stewart (the same applies to: ‘Rope’; ‘Rear Window’; ‘Vertigo’; ‘The Shopworn Angel’; ‘Anatomy Of A Murder; Next Time We Love’). It is difficult to understand what made him a star.

    Reply

Got a comment? Let us know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: