High Flight takes its name after a poem written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator who flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) who lost his life in 1941 over RAF Cranwell where the film is set. Excuse the cynicism but there is something apt about that, for this film appealed more to American audiences than it did British who largely dismissed this film.
The story revolves around a new cadet to RAF Cranwell named Tony Winchester (played by Kenneth Haigh). Winchester is forever making a nuisance of himself as he believes his own skills as a pilot means he is exempt from the same rules as everyone else. Normally this would get him thrown out of the RAF but his senior instructor has history with Winchester’s father who was killed during the war and so a lot of his antics end up getting tolerated. In the end a team is put together to display the Hawker Hunter at the Farnborough air show and Winchester must learn to put his ego aside and work with the others in his unit.
This film, like a lot of contemporary American movies, prefers to look glitzy than realistic with all the flight scenes while playing on the myths of military life. It has all the excitement young boys dreaming of flying in the RAF would have in the 50s but this results in a movie that feels detached from reality. Winchester would be thrown out of the service in his first scene when he lands his personal plane at Cranwell without permission and almost colliding with a De Havilland Vampire but is kept on!
The flying sequences are brilliantly filmed however. There is logic in the progression from Provost basic trainers up to Vampires and then on to Hawker Hunters. There is also a fascinating scene where the cadets are flying in a Vickers Varsity navigation trainer but the rest of the movie is then just high-jinks and light heartedness all of which contrast to what is supposed to be a serious undertone regarding the instructor and Winchester’s father.
Give it a try. There is some enjoyment to be had out of it but fans of The Dambusters may be a bit disappointed.