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
Based on No Highway
1948 novel 
by Nevil Shute
Starring James Stewart
Marlene Dietrich
Glynis Johns
Jack Hawkins
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited by Manuel del Campo
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Release dates
  • 28 June 1951 (1951-06-28) (UK)
  • 21 September 1951 (1951-09-21) (U.S.)
Running time
98 min.
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office $1,150,000 (US rentals)[1][2]

No Highway in the Sky (aka No Highway) is a 1951 British black-and-white disaster film from 20th Century Fox, produced by Louis D. Lighton, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, and Jack Hawkins. The film is based on the novel No Highway by Nevil Shute and was one of the first films that depicted a potential aviation disaster involving metal fatigue.

Although the film follows Shute's original 1948 novel closely, No Highway in the Sky notably omits references to the supernatural contained in the original novel, including the use of automatic writing to resolve a key element in the original novel's story.


Theodore Honey (James Stewart), an eccentric "boffin" with the Royal Aircraft Establishment, is working on solving a difficult aviation crash problem. A widower with a 12 year old daughter, Elspeth (Janette Scott), Honey is sent from Farnborough to investigate the crash of a Rutland Reindeer airliner in Labrador, Canada. He theorizes the accident happened because of the tailplane's structural failure, caused by sudden metal fatigue after 1440 flight hours. To test the theory in his laboratory, a rear airframe is being vibrated at a very high rate in daily eight-hour cycles.

It is not until Honey finds himself on board a Reindeer airliner that he realizes he is flying on an early production aircraft that is close to the number of hours his theory projects for the metal fatique failure. Despite the fact that his theory is not yet proven, he decides to warn the passengers and crew, including Hollywood actress Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich). After the Reindeer safely lands at Gander Airport in Newfoundland, an inspection clears the aircraft to continue on its route. Honey then takes drastic action to stop the flight by activating the Reindeer's port undercarriage lever, dropping the airliner on its belly, damaging it. Shocked by the act, some of his colleagues demand that he be declared insane to discredit his unproved theory and save the reputation of British passenger aviation now awash in a sea of bad press.

Teasdale and Reindeer flight attendant Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns) both take a liking to Honey and Elspeth, who they discover is lonely and isolated from her schoolmates. Teasdale speaks to Honey's superiors on his behalf, claiming she believes in him. Corder, meanwhile, has stayed on with Honey and his daughter as a nurse. Having now observed Honey's many qualities beyond his minor eccentricities, and after becoming very close to Elspeth, she decides to make the arrangement permanent by marrying the scientist.

During a hearing in which his sanity is questioned, Honey angrily protests, refusing to be railroaded. He resigns and walks out, threatening to collapse other Rutland Reindeers until all the aircraft are grounded. He then goes back to his laboratory to prove his metal fatigue theory is sound, but the time he predicted for the structural failure soon passes without anything happening. The Reindeer airliner he disabled at Gander, however, is repaired, and shortly after it completes a test flight, the tail falls off while taxiing. Shortly thereafter, the same thing happens to the tail frame in the laboratory, and Honey discovers that he failed to include temperature as a variable factor in his fatigue calculations.



The fictional Rutland Reindeer airliner in No Highway in the Sky was depicted by using a full-size, non-flying mock-up and a scale model used in studio mattes.

The first writer who worked on the script was R.C. Sheriff. The novel was then assigned to producer Buddy Lighton 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 re-write some scenes based at the Farnborough Aircraft Establishment.[3]

The working title was No Highway was also the British release title. As noted in contemporary sources, filming took place 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.[4]

The November 1950 Hollywood Reporter news items noted while the film was in production, Stewart underwent an emergency appendectomy in London.[4]


Reviews of No Highway in the Sky were decidedly mixed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times had a favorable review, noting the film's "... sly construction of an unusual plot and wry suspense."[5] In a later appraisal, reviewer Dennis Schwartz opined: "American military war hero pilot James Stewart plays the eccentric Yank scientist working for a British airline, and gives one of his better and more pleasing performances as someone kindhearted but a bit daffy. ... The one-dimensional characters add no emotional depth, especially when the awkward romance is tossed onto the airplane drama; but Stewart plays a likable character that translates into a rather genial pic with much appeal."[6]

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 cause of both accidents, albeit in the fuselage and not the tail.[7]

Adaptations in other media[edit]

On 21 April 1952, before a live studio audience, Stewart and Dietrich, along with a full cast, reprised their roles in an adaptation of No Highway in the Sky on the CBS Lux Radio Theatre.[8][Note 1]

The central element of No Highway in the Sky (a concerned airline passenger having unique knowledge of an imminent danger, taking drastic action to eliminate it and then being regarded as crazy) is comparable to that of The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", starring William Shatner. An additional scene similarity in the 1983 Twilight Zone anthology feature film is that of the character of John Lithgow, like that of James Stewart, is portrayed as an engineering expert.[9]



  1. ^ The radio broadcast featured Evelynne Eaton in a co-starring role.[4]


  1. ^ Solomon 1989, p. 224.
  2. ^ "The Top Box Office Hits of 1951." Variety, 2 January 1952.
  3. ^ Millard, Oscar. "Movies: What's in a name? Ask the writers." Los Angeles Times, 28 August 1983, p. s18.
  4. ^ a b c "Notes: No Highway in the Sky." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: 17 October 2014.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. "No Highway in the Sky." Ozus' World Movie Reviews, 14 August 2011. Retrieved: 17 October 2014.
  7. ^ Davies and Birtles 1999, p. 30.
  8. ^ Steffen, James. "Articles: No Highway in the Sky." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: 17 October 2014.
  9. ^ Bloch 1983, pp. 388–389.


  • Bloch, Robert. Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography. New York: Tor Books, 1983. ISBN 978-0-312-85373-0.
  • Davies, R.E.G. and Philip J. Birtles. Comet: The World's First Jet Airliner. McLean, Virginia: Paladwr Press, 1999. ISBN 1-888962-14-3.
  • Jones Ken D., Arthur F. McClure and Alfred E. Twomey. The Films of James Stewart. New York: Castle Books, 1970.
  • 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.
  • Shute, Nevil. Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1954. ISBN 1-84232-291-5.

External links[edit]