No Highway in the Sky

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No Highway in the Sky
No Highway in the Sky.jpg
Directed by Henry Koster
Written by Alec Coppel
Oscar Millard
R. C. Sherriff
Based on No Highway
1948 novel
by Nevil Shute
Produced by Louis D. Lighton
Starring James Stewart
Marlene Dietrich
Glynis Johns
Jack Hawkins
Janette Scott
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited by Manuel del Campo
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Distributed byTwentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Release date
  • 28 June 1951 (1951-06-28)(UK)
  • 21 September 1951 (1951-09-21)(US)
Running time
98 min.
CountriesUnited Kingdom
United States
Box office$1,150,000 (US rentals) [1] [2]

No Highway in the Sky (also known as No Highway) is a 1951 British black-and-white aviation film from 20th Century Fox, produced by Louis D. Lighton, directed by Henry Koster, that stars James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Niall MacGinnis, Janette Scott and Jack Hawkins. The screenplay was written by Oscar Millard, with additional material provided by Alec Coppel.


The film is based on the 1948 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 the plot of Shute's novel in general, 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. Also, the role of Scott, the recently appointed administrator who narrates the novel, is curtailed in the film version, which means that the featured scientist, Mr Honey, comes across as more eccentric than in the novel, changing the relationship between them.

The film also introduces the term Boffin for the under-appreciated and seemingly self-centred and eccentric scientist, as distinct from earlier usage to describe a scientist who is making vital (and appreciated) contributions.


Theodore Honey, an eccentric scientist with the Royal Aircraft Establishment, is working on solving a difficult aviation crash problem. A widower with a 12-year-old daughter, Elspeth, 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 metal fatigue after 1440 flight hours. To test the theory in his laboratory, a fatigue test is performed on the fin and tailplane (empennage) by using a very high vibration rate dynamic shaker in daily eight-hour test cycles to cause it to fail. Although Honey is a knowledgeable and experienced scientist, there is a great deal of suspicion by management about his theory concerning stressed structures, and especially about his elaborate testing method (now routinely referred to as destructive testing).

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 very close to the number of hours his theory projects for the tail's metal fatigue failure. Despite the fact that his theory is not yet proven, he decides to warn the aircrew and Hollywood actress Monica Teasdale, a fellow passenger aboard the flight.

After the Reindeer safely lands at Gander Airport in Newfoundland, an inspection clears the aircraft to continue on its route. Honey takes drastic action to stop the flight by activating the Reindeer's undercarriage lever, dropping the airliner on its belly and seriously damaging it. Shocked by the act, some of his colleagues demand that he be declared insane to discredit his unproved theory, and to save the reputation of British passenger aviation now awash in a sea of bad press.

Teasdale and airline stewardess Marjorie Corder 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. When he returns to his laboratory to prove that his metal fatigue theory is sound, the time he predicted for the structural failure soon passes without anything happening. Meanwhile the Reindeer airliner he disabled at Gander is repaired, and soon after it completes a test flight, the tail falls off while taxiing, proving his theory. Shortly thereafter, the same thing happens to the tail assembly in the laboratory, and Honey realizes that he had failed to include operating 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 studio scale model for use in special effects mattes. Screen shot No Highway.png
The fictional Rutland Reindeer airliner in No Highway in the Sky was depicted by using a full-size, non-flying mock-up and a studio scale model for use in special effects mattes.

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

The actor Robert Donat was originally cast in the lead role, but when the deal fell through, James Stewart was cast. [4] This would be the second pairing of Stewart with Marlene Dietrich, the first being 1939's Destry Rides Again .

No Highway in the Sky, the film's working title, became the theatrical release title for English-speaking countries apart from the UK, where it retained the novel title No Highway. As noted in contemporary sources, filming took place in 1950 at Denham Studios, with location shooting at the Blackbushe Airport in Hampshire, England, although the scene with a Gloster E.1/44 prototype was possibly staged at Boscombe Down. [5]

A November 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Stewart underwent an emergency appendectomy in London while the film was in production. [5]

Director Koster called it "one of my finest pictures. I thought it was a marvelous story and I had a marvelous script by very fine writers". [6]


The film was popular at the British box office. [7]

Reviews of No Highway in the Sky were decidedly mixed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times had a favourable review, noting the film's "... sly construction of an unusual plot and wry suspense". [8] 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 [Stewart's character was not actually working for an airline but rather the government RAE Farnborough.], and it 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". [9]

Three years after the film, and six years after the publication of 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 main fuselage and not the tail section. [10]

Adaptations in other media

On 28 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 . [11] [Note 1]

No Highway, a BBC radio adaptation dramatised by Mike Walker with Paul Ritter as Honey, William Beck as Scott, and Fenella Woolgar as Teasdale was directed by Toby Swift for BBC Radio 4's Classic Serial in August 2010.[ citation needed ]

An earlier BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial, dramatised by Brian Gear in three episodes, and broadcast weekly from 11 May 1986, starred John Clegg as Theodore Honey, Norman Bowler as Scott, and Margaret Robertson as Monica Teasdale.[ citation needed ]

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 being regarded as crazy) is comparable to that of The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", starring William Shatner. A similar additional scene in the 1983 Twilight Zone anthology feature film is that of the character played by John Lithgow, who like that of James Stewart, is portrayed as an engineering expert. [12]

See also

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  1. The radio broadcast featured Evelynne Eaton in the role of Miss Corder, the air steward, played in the film by Glynis Johns. [5]


  1. Solomon 1989, p. 224
  2. "The Top Box Office Hits of 1951." Variety, 2 January 1952.
  3. Millard, Oscar (28 August 1983). "Movies: What's in a name? Ask the writers". Los Angeles Times. p. s18.
  4. Brady, Thomas F. (4 July 1950). "Play by Hellman Purchased by Fox: 'Montserrat,' Seen Hers in Fall, Bought From Anatole Litvak, Who Will Produce, Direct Get Feminine Leads". The New York Times. p. 11.
  5. 1 2 3 "Notes: No Highway in the Sky." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: 17 October 2014.
  6. Davis, Ronald L. (2005). Just making movies. University Press of Mississippi. p. 13.
  7. Thumim, Janet. "The popular cash and culture in the postwar British cinema industry". Screen. Vol. 32 no. 3. p. 258.
  8. Crowther, Bosley (22 September 1951). "No Highway in the Sky (1951), With James Stewart and Marlene District, Opens at Roxy". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 January 2011.
  9. Schwartz, Dennis (14 August 2011). "No Highway in the Sky". Ozus' World Movie Reviews. Retrieved 17 October 2014.
  10. Davies & Birtles 1999 , p. 30
  11. "TONIGHT'S FEATURES". The Pittsburgh Press. 28 April 1952. p. 21. Retrieved 27 November 2020.
  12. Bloch 1983 , pp. 388–389


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