During World War II, a Military Air Transport Command DC-3 piloted by a civilian crew is forced down in northern Labrador. The five men, led by Dooley (John Wayne), have barely any food and almost no way to keep warm, and their power supply is fading fast, but they have to find a way of staying alive until search planes find them. At first, even Dooley is overwhelmed by the responsibility for his crew's safety, and he is too lax in handling them -- but after one man dies, frozen to death just steps from help, he takes over and pushes his men and himself to the limits of their endurance; he even seems ready to crack himself at one moment. Meanwhile, the men who fly with Dooley push themselves and their machines past their endurance limits searching the arctic wastes for the downed plane. Island in the Sky -- based on the book by Ernest K. Gann (perhaps the best aviation novel ever written), which was, in turn, based on a true incident that happened during the war -- is one of the most startling movies in Wayne's output. He doesn't even look like the "star" John Wayne, but like a real pilot, and the cast, made up of familiar faces, all look like the real article; indeed, this movie should have been in the running for Academy Awards for costuming and makeup, just for making these familiar performers, such as Lloyd Nolan (in maybe his best performance) and Andy Devine (ditto), look like real pilots and ordinary men, rather than familiar actors. You end up feeling like you're watching a documentary, and the effect is bracing and unsettling, and dramatically unparalleled in Wayne's entire output.
by Bruce Eder synopsis