Stranger than fiction

Life imitates Hollywood

3 minute read
They said it couldn't be done.
They said it couldn't be done.
One of the recurrent movie genres of the 1930s was the adventure drama in which a disparate group of characters in an exotic setting struggle with interior and exterior forces. Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is a favorite of mine and has been since I first saw it when I was 14. Set in a banana boat port in South America, it focuses on the tiny airport there, from which a ragtag collection of pilots fly the mail across the mountains.

I suppose that I wanted to know whether Jean Arthur or Rita Hayworth would win the heart of Cary Grant, who runs the operation. But what really mesmerized me was a scene involving Thomas Mitchell. In a year in which he played both Scarlett O’Hara’s father and the drunken doctor in Stagecoach, in Only Angels Mitchell was a pilot who was going blind. In the sequence that I still cherish, he was alone in a rickety plane, making his way through a storm over the Andes, when his sight finally failed him and he had to be talked in by Grant on radio from the ground below.

Even at 14, I probably thought the incident preposterous. But some part of me wanted to think of it is as true— or, at least, possible. In any case, the scene stayed with me and could be called up whenever it seemed appropriate. Many years later, flying in a small plane over the mountains in central Madagascar, headed for Tananarive, we hit a storm— and while my fellow eco-tourists showed signs of discomfort, I thought of Thomas Mitchell and felt sure we would make it. But that was a case of rescue by metaphor.

Now, suddenly, fantasy has become fact. The November 8 New York Times reported that Jim O’Neill, flying his Cessna from Scotland to Colchester in southern England, suffered a stroke that partially blinded him. His Mayday call was picked up by the R.A.F., which sent a plane to fly alongside him and guide him to a safe landing by voice command. At a news conference at the base in Linton-on-Ouse, Wing Commander Andy Hynd said that this was the first time the R.A.F. had talked down a pilot who could not see: “We are not used to shepherding blind pilots, which is what makes this amazing.”

The story came at just the right time. We had just gone through a very long presidential campaign in which both candidates and voters were engulfed by punditry and most of us, whether gratified or disappointed by the results, hoped for a few days’ silence in which to contemplate the events. But the professional second-guessers from the right (William Kristol) and the left (Paul Krugman) and all points in between immediately began to analyze the implications. I found it more rewarding to turn to the point at which fiction and non-fiction coalesce and leave any comment to Cary Grant and Wing Commander Hynd and a simple, “Yes we can.”

Gerald Weales is a retired English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime drama critic for Commonweal. He lives in University City.

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