AIR MAIL (John Ford, 1932)

Written by Frank Wead and directed both beautifully and efficiently by John Ford, Air Mail revolves around the dangers to air-mail pilots flying out from a tiny snow-blown airport around Christmastime and the clash of personalities between straight-laced Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy), who runs the airport, and pilot Duke Talbot (Pat O’Brien), who is a braggart and is morally loose. Mike’s doctor has warned him not to fly due to his failing eyesight, but traditionally Mike takes up a flight after one of his pilots crashes. Mike thus takes to the snow-dizzy air after Dizzy Wilkins crashes and dies. Having run off with Dizzy’s sexy widow, Duke is unavailable for the job, and another alternative turns out to be someone hiding behind a false identity: a notorious pilot who bailed out of a plane that was about to crash, leaving all the passengers to their mortal fate. This man begs for the chance to redeem himself, but this isn’t Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939), where such a pilot seizes the opportunity to reclaim his soul. Mike risks his own safety rather than participate in any scheme driven by someone’s personal agenda. When a crash deposits him on an “inaccessible” mountain-top, Mike rejects efforts to rescue him, which he feels will inevitably cost his rescuer’s life, and courageously accepts his fate. However, when he learns of the predicament, Duke takes off to rescue Mike nonetheless—not because he likes, much less loves, Mike, which he doesn’t, but simply because he believes he is capable of landing a plane and rescuing Mike, and therefore there is no reason not to. To do this, he cleanly breaks away from the Wilkins widow as we ponder the virtue in his detachment versus the something-else in Mike’s tiresome, stubborn “nobility.” But for an improbable happy ending, Duke would have heroically saved Mike’s life at the cost of his own.
     One of the casualties of Mike’s mail flight is his commitment to play Santa Claus for children on Christmas Eve. When the snow settles, responsible Mike is less than responsible—and, please note, doesn’t get the mail through.

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