‘No Highway in the Sky’ (1951): Jimmy Stewart as a Conspiracy Theorist

By Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan is a 21-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, interviewer, copywriter, fashion historian, travel writer, and vintage lifestyle enthusiast. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.
March 14, 2023Updated: March 14, 2023


If you are even casually interested in old movies, you doubtless know about James Stewart. Often affectionately called Jimmy, this Golden Era actor was a true American, often depicting inspiringly patriotic characters in Frank Capra movies. However, his filmography includes dozens of movies which are largely forgotten but deserve to be rediscovered.

One such movie is “No Highway in the Sky” from 1951. This is one of the best Jimmy Stewart films I’ve ever seen, yet I’d never even heard of it before I discovered it on Amazon Prime Video. It also stars Marlene Dietrich, reuniting the unlikely but successful pairing of “Destry Rides Again” from 1939, a Universal Pictures Western which reignited the German actress’s waning career. A love triangle is completed by British actress Glynis Johns. The rest of the cast is comprised of British actors, but this is technically an American movie, released by 20th Century Fox.

This is by no means a run-of-the-mill film. I’ve never seen a plot like it. There is romance, but it’s not the central focus. There are family scenes, but they are just a subplot. There are extensive airplane sequences, but no military or warfare is involved. It could be considered a very realistic science fiction film, since it’s a story about a scientific occurrence not based on fact—but which could happen. This story is from Nevil Shute’s 1948 novel “No Highway,” and the sensational cast brings it to vivid life with powerful performances.

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A lobby card for the 1951 film “No Highway.” (MovieStillsDB)

A Fascinating Story

In the film, Dennis Scott (Jack Hawkins) is taking over the leadership of a British aviation field. Major Pearl (Maurice Denham) leads him around the plant. He takes notice of one rather eccentric scientist, Theodore Honey (Stewart). The American-born scientist has a theory most of his colleagues think is crazy but which he firmly believes. He insists the new line of passenger airplanes, the Reindeer, are made of an unstable metal that he believes will break down from flying-induced vibrations. He says that, after 1440 hours in the air, the tail will fall off, causing the airplane to nosedive and crash. The company is letting Honey vibrate a Reindeer’s tail as a test, but the experiment is taking a long time because they only let him run the noisy machinery for eight hours a day.

Scott is intrigued by Honey’s theories, so he drives him home to get to know him better. The reclusive scientist reluctantly invites him in, where Scott meets his charming twelve-year-old daughter, Elspeth (Janette Scott). The more Scott learns about Honey, the more he realizes the man is an eccentric, often absentminded genius, but he certainly isn’t “crackers.” Back at the plant, he tries to find out more about the Reindeer airplanes to see if there’s any evidence to support Honey’s theory. He’s amazed when he learns the test plane crashed in Labrador after 1407 hours in the air, under circumstances which seem too unlikely to have been pilot error. When he learns the plane’s tail was never found, he receives permission to assign Honey to go to Labrador and investigate the wreckage in hopes of finding some conclusive evidence that the Reindeers are defective before more accidents occur.

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Publicity photo of Marlene Dietrich for the film “No Highway in the Sky” (1951). (Public Domain)

Mr. Honey bids farewell to his daughter and boards an airplane bound for North America. Also among the passengers is movie star Monica Teasdale (Dietrich), who was Mrs. Honey’s favorite actress. Not long into the flight, a friendly stewardess, Marjorie Corder (Johns), informs him the airplane is a Reindeer. He is very curious to tour the airplane, although he isn’t concerned about its safety because he knows the airplanes haven’t been flying commercially long enough to be dangerous. However, when he learns that this is the second test plane and it had flown 1422 hours at takeoff, he goes into a panic. Is his theory about the Reindeers true, or is he just a crazy scientist? Can he convince the captain and crew to take him seriously before it’s too late?

Valuing Other People

When the story begins, Theodore Honey is an impersonal scientist. His daughter is the only person in the world about whom he cares. When his wife was alive, they went to movies and enjoyed other recreational activities. However, since he was widowed, he’s thrown himself completely into intellectual pursuits. He’s been very scientific in every aspect of his daughter’s upbringing and education, making complex studies and theories into daily games. He spends his whole life in his laboratory at work or surrounded by mountains of books at home, so he doesn’t interact with other people very often.

When Dennis Scott is discussing the theory about the Reindeers with Honey, he questions whether he doesn’t feel urgency to prove it. After all, as long as those airplanes are in service, people’s lives could be at risk if they should reach the point of danger before he’s proven they should be grounded. Honey methodically responds, “I’m a scientist, and science is very exacting. It requires the utmost concentration. I can’t be concerned about people! If a doctor is trying to find a cure for a disease, what would happen if he got upset about all the people who got sick and died? He’d never get any work done at all! People must be someone else’s concern. I can’t let it be mine.” While Mr. Honey has a valid point, from a scientific point of view, Mr. Scott sees he is lacking humanity and fellowship with other people, which makes his life and Elspeth’s less rich.

Taking the trip to Labrador forces Mr. Honey to leave the comfort of his study and face people. At first, he is somewhat shy and awkward as he responds to Marjorie’s attempts to put him at ease. He isn’t rude, but he isn’t very comfortable talking to the pretty young lady. However, his whole attitude changes when he discovers he is on a Reindeer, which has already flown more hours than the plane that crashed in Labrador. Suddenly, his theory leaves the textbooks and becomes a terrifying reality. As he considers the possibility of imminent death, he begins to think of his fellow passengers as human beings instead of faceless individuals. In total contrast to his earlier statement to Dennis Scott, he finds himself caring deeply about the idea of harm coming to Miss Teasdale and Miss Corder. He’s more concerned about their surviving than living himself. As he contemplates dying, he realizes that, since he’s cut himself off from the world, he hasn’t really been living.

Epoch Times Photo
An undated studio publicity photo of James Stewart. (Public Domain)

Fighting for What You Believe

Theodore Honey is basically viewed by his colleagues as a conspiracy theorist. Due to his years with the company, they humor him by letting him experiment on the tail of a Reindeer airplane. However, it’s obvious that his superiors place absolutely no stock in his theory. They think his assertion is an absurd notion because it hasn’t been proven yet. Even though one of the airplanes has already crashed, under rather mysterious circumstances, within a few miles of his estimation, they still don’t take him seriously. They prefer to insist it was a coincidence and blame pilot error rather than investigate the possibility they have been flying unsafe airplanes. For the sake of finances and public relations, it’s easiest to write Honey off as “crackers.” Scott is the one person who is truly concerned about discovering the truth. He has an imagination, vision, and curiosity. Perhaps it’s because he himself was an excellent pilot before taking this prestigious desk job. He’s not afraid to take a risk and perhaps look ridiculous by putting stock in a possible madman.

It’s not easy to be a conspiracy theorist. Mr. Honey isn’t too bothered that people think he’s a little crazy. He is calmly certain his test will eventually prove his theory to be true, and he isn’t concerned about how long it takes. However, when he finds himself on an airplane which he believes could crash at any minute, he is instantly transformed from a theorist into an activist. He is no longer speculating from the safety of his laboratory but facing death if he can’t convince the authorities he’s right. His frustration is excruciating and so relatable to anyone who believes an unpopular truth. When we first meet this character, he seems like the last person in the world to take risks or act on impulse. However, beneath his mild exterior, he is a man of great convictions and strong character who will take desperate measures when faced with desperate circumstances!

This movie shows the importance of fighting for what you believe. What can you do when you know people are in danger, but no one will believe you? Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands, even if it means breaking rules, risking your job, and being branded a lunatic! As Mr. Honey demonstrates, no matter how impossible the odds seem, the battle has only been lost when we stop fighting for the truth.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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