No Highway in the Sky

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No Highway in the Sky
No Highway in the Sky.jpg
Directed by Henry Koster
Produced by Louis D. Lighton
Written by Alec Coppel
Oscar Millard
R. C. Sherriff
Starring James Stewart
Marlene Dietrich
Glynis Johns
Jack Hawkins
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited by Manuel del Campo
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates United Kingdom 28 June 1951
United States 21 September 1951
Running time 98 min.
Country UK
Language English
Box office $1,150,000 (US rentals)[1][2]

No Highway in the Sky is a 1951 British disaster film (aka: No Highway) directed by Henry Koster and starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. The film is based on the novel No Highway by Nevil Shute, and was one of the first films that involved a potential aircraft crash.


Although the film follows Shute's original novel closely, the film notably omits references to the supernatural that had been contained in the original novel, including the use of automatic writing to resolve a key element in the original novel's story.


The film follows Theodore Honey (James Stewart), a highly eccentric "boffin" with the Royal Aircraft Establishment. A widower with a precocious young daughter, Elspeth (Janette Scott), Honey is sent from Farnborough to investigate the crash of a "Reindeer" airliner in Labrador, which he theorizes occurred because of a structural failure in the tail caused by sudden metal fatigue. To test his theory in his laboratory, an airframe is continuously shaken in eight-hour daily cycles.

It isn't until Honey is aboard a Reindeer that he realizes he himself is flying on one such aircraft and that it may be close to the number of hours his theory projects for the fatal failure. Despite the fact that his theory is not yet proven, Honey decides to warn the passengers and crew, including actress Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich). After the Reindeer lands at Gander Airport an inspection clears it to continue on. He takes drastic action to stop the flight by raising the undercarriage while the aircraft is still on the ground, lowering the aircraft to its belly and damaging it. Shocked by the act, some people demand that he be declared insane to discredit his theory.

Teasdale and flight attendant Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns) both take a liking for Honey and Elspeth, who is lonely and isolated from her schoolmates. Teasdale speaks on his behalf to his superiors, while Corder, seeing that he is decent but disorganized, decides to marry him.

During a hearing in which his sanity is questioned, Honey resigns but continues trying to prove that his mathematics are sound. In the laboratory, the time he predicted for failure passes without failure. The Reindeer he disabled is repaired, but after landing from a test flight the tail falls off. Shortly afterward, the same thing happens to the test frame in the lab, and Honey discovers that he failed to include temperature as a factor in his calculations.



The first writer who worked on the script was R.C. Sheriff. The novel was then assigned to Buddy Lighton was producer who hired Oscar Millard to do the screenplay. Millard says he spent six months writing the script without ever looking at a Sheriff draft. In London, the producer Buddy Lighton hired Alec Coppel to adjust some scenes to the location at Farnborough Aircraft Establishment.[3]

The working title was No Highway which was also the British release title. As noted in contemporary sources, the picture was filmed in 1950 at Denham Studios with location shooting at Blackbushe Airport, Hampshire, England, although a scene with a Gloster E.1/44 prototype was possibly staged at Boscombe Down.

The November 1950 Hollywood Reporter news items noted while the film was in production, Stewart underwent an emergency appendectomy in London.


Bosley Crowther of the New York Times voiced a favorable review, noting the film's "...sly construction of an unusual plot and wry suspense."[4]

Life imitating the movies[edit]

Three years after the film and six years after Nevil Shute's original novel (No Highway) there were two fatal crashes of the world's first jet passenger airliner, the de Havilland Comet. Investigation found that metal fatigue was the most likely cause of both accidents, albeit in the fuselage and not the tail.

Adaptations in other media[edit]

Stewart and Dietrich, along with a full cast, reprised their roles on the CBS Lux Radio Theatre's adaptation of the film on 21 April 1952, before a live studio audience.

Its theme, of a concerned airline passenger having unique knowledge of an imminent danger; taking drastic action to eliminate it; then being regarded as insane, is comparable to that of The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet". An additional similarity to the 1983 Twilight Zone movie is that the character of John Lithgow, like that of James Stewart, is portrayed as an engineering expert.


  1. ^ Solomon 1989, p. 224.
  2. ^ "The Top Box Office Hits of 1951." Variety, January 2, 1952.
  3. ^ MOVIES: WHAT'S IN A NAME? ASK THE WRITERS Millard, Oscar. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 28 Aug 1983: s18.
  4. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "No Highway in the Sky (1951), With James Stewart and Marlene District, Opens at Roxy." The New York Times, 22 September 1951. Retrieved: 3 January 2011.
  • Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure and Alfred E. Twomey. The Films of James Stewart. New York: Castle Books, 1970.
  • Shute, Nevil. Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1954. ISBN 1-84232-291-5.
  • Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.

External links[edit]