Island In the Sky appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Much of Sky held up well, but some significant concerns reduced the effectiveness of the transfer.
Actually, one issue was the primary culprit: edge enhancement. Loads of prominent, distracting edge enhancement. Haloes appeared during the majority of the movie and they altered the definition of the image. Close-ups still looked reasonably crisp and distinctive, but in anything wider than that, the film took on blurriness due to the looseness of the edges. Some jitteriness also occurred that didn’t appear related to the source material. Instead, the flick had a digital feel that made it a bit rough.
Otherwise, I found a lot to like here. Black levels were very deep and rich, and contrast came across with nice delineation. Source flaws caused some distractions but not as many as I’d expect. I noticed occasional specks and marks, but the flick usually stayed pretty clean. Without all the edge enhancement, this would have been a fine transfer. As it stood, I couldn’t give it a grade above a “C+”.
Primarily due to some problems related to speech, I felt the monaural soundtrack of Island in the Sky also came across as average for its era. Dialogue usually seemed intelligible, though a few lines were recorded too poorly to be easily understood. Other elements were moderately edgy.
The rest of the mix sounded fine. Effects presented decent heft and presented acceptably clean definition. Music was also fairly bright and full, at least for a flick from the early Fifties. Not much about these pieces stood out, but they worked out nicely. Really, the problems with the speech were the main reason I knocked down this mix to a “C”.
We get a good roster of supplements for this set. We start with a three-minute and 58-second introduction from film historian Leonard Maltin. He gives us a short primer on the plot and the film’s origins along with a few notes about cast and crew. It doesn’t seem terribly helpful, but for neophytes, it acts as a decent opening.
We also get an audio commentary with Maltin, director’s son William Wellman Jr., actors Darryl Hickman and James Lydon, and aviation buff Vincent Longo. All but Lydon sit together for a running, screen-specific discussion. Maltin conducts a separate interview with Lydon that gets edited into the main piece.
This track works better than the fluffy discussion of The High and the Mighty, but not by a lot. Many of the same subjects dominate. We get some basic notes about cast and crew along with topics connected to the book, aviation facts and the realism of the situation, locations, and general production concerns. The actors discuss their specific experiences on the film and also give us a basic feel for the director.
The topic of the elder Wellman dominates this piece, as much of it acts as a tribute to his personality. We hear a lot about his style and tone as well as the way he dealt with folks. Don’t expect any dirt, as everyone remains very positive. Those elements offer some nice stories, and as was the case with Mighty, Longo’s reflections on the realism of the aviation bits proves informative. Unfortunately, the tone remains awfully puffy and fawning, and I don’t feel like the track really gives us a good feel for its subjects. It’s a passable commentary that never quite takes flight.
The majority of the video extras come under the banner of The Making of Island In the Sky. This comprises four chapters that run a total of 40 minutes, 36 seconds. The individual chapters include “Dooley’s Down” (8:07), “Ernest K. Gann – Adventurer, Author and Artist” (18:45), “Flight School: The Art of Aerial Cinematography” (5:57), and “The John Wayne Stock Company: Harry Carey Jr.” (7:47). All use the same format as they combine movie clips with archival materials and interviews.
”Down” includes remarks from Wellman Jr., Hickman, director Andrew McLaglen, actor Harry Carey Jr., and director’s son/actor Michael Wellman. It gets into the story’s path to the screen and the involvement of Wayne’s production company, Wayne’s behavior on the set, how author Gann worked on the flick, location and aircraft issues, cinematography, the cast, and the atmosphere on the shoot. “Gann” offers notes from Gann, McLaglen, filmmaker Laszlo Pal, wife Dorothy Gann, pilot/author Michael Drury and pilot Roy Franklin. It relates Gann’s early life and interest in aviation, his adventures in the air and elsewhere, how his experiences affected his writing and his method of composition, his work in films, and various personal remembrances from the participants.
During “School” we hear from modern cinematographer David B. Nowell. He chats about Sky cinematographer William Clothier and the methods he used for the aerial photography. Finally, “Company” presents notes from Carey as he converses with Maltin. He talks about his relationship with Wayne and his work on the Duke’s films as well as his thoughts about Wellman.
“Down” tends to be fairly superficial. It flies past too quickly to offer substance, and it tends to repeat information from the commentary. Though told in a disjointed, non-chronological manner, “Gann” delves into the author’s career and life well.
“Company” probably turns out as the most enjoyable of the pieces. Carey proves frank about his memories; while he doesn’t pour on dirt, he doesn’t whitewash things, so it’s nice to get a semi-blunt appraisal of the good and the bad. “School” offers a decent look at the methods used for the film, though it never quite becomes absorbing. To think of these featurettes as a full examination of the film’s creation would be a mistake, as they lack a lot of details. They offer a reasonable encapsulation of some major factors, however.
A featurette called Flying for Uncle Sam comes next. It runs eight minutes, 44 seconds and presents information about the Air Transport Command depicted in the movie. We learn of the need for civilian pilots to move materials, their equipment and routes, and all the problems that occurred. “Sam” uses lots of newsreel footage to tell its story, and it does so well in this involving piece.
We get the movie’s trailer along with a “Batjac Montage”. The latter offers a compilation of clips from Batjac flicks along with the promise we’ll be able to get them on DVD soon. We also find an Introduction to Gunsmoke TV Promo. This 65-second clip shows Wayne as he tells us about actor James Arness and the then-new series. It acts as a fun piece of history.
A short 46-second newsreel of Premiere Footage comes next. We see various notables at the movie’s opening. The DVD ends with a Photo Gallery. 38 stills offer shots from the set, sketches, promotional images, ads and related merchandise. It’s a nice little collection.
A tight little survival story, Island in the Sky works well more than 50 years after its creation. Lean and spare, it comes without too much score and embellishment, and the movie’s basic nature helps it succeed. The DVD provides fairly average picture and sound for a movie from 1953 along with a spotty but reasonably informative set of extras. Despite some lackluster visuals and audio, the film itself is a winner and the DVD’s good enough for me to recommend it, especially with a really low list price of less than $15.