Stopping off in Barranca en route from Valparaiso to Panama, chorus girl Bonnie Lee falls for American flyer Geoff Carter, who not only has to deal with the death of his best buddy, Joe Souther, but also the arrival at his Andean HQ of old flame Judy MacPherson, who has married disgraced pilot, Bat McPherson.
Expanded from Howard Hawks's story, `Plane from Barranca', this is essentially a glorifed B movie that has somehow acquired a reputation for pulp artistry and technical virtuosity. Having been an aviator and plane designer before turning to movies, Hawks was returning to familiar ground that he had already explored in The Air Circus, The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero. Screenwriter Jules Furthman had also been here before, having set a similar story onboard a Singapore-bound ship in China Seas. But this was the first time that Hawks had worked with Cary Grant on a non-comedy and he succeeded in bringing out a cynical romanticism, laced with bitter self-pity, that the star was never to rediscover elsewhere.
Only Hawks could have made such a thrilling adventure within such claustrophobic confines and he alone could have turned such a collection of clichés and caricatures into a riveting study of physical and psychological courage. The air mail operation provided a typically Hawksian environment, in which real men went about their business with a passion and professionalism that got them through the perils of their reckless missions and the pain of isolation and loss. Emotions are mostly kept under wraps, but Hawks's fascination with macho decency and flawed heroism enabled Grant and his crew to mourn Noah Beery Jr., retain Thomas Mitchell as a team member despite his failing sight, and give Richard Barthelmess's coward a second chance, after he baled from a crash that killed his mechanic. Barthelmess himself was being afforded another opportunity to prove that he still had the dash and charm that had made him a silent idol. But his is the only weak contribution from a sterling ensemble (that made light of the dime dreadful dialogue) and he never again landed a major lead. The film did, however, launch Rita Hayworth's career and also reinforced Jean Arthur's reputation for plucky loyalty. But this was always Hawks's picture, with its celebration of stoic pragmatism and unflinching cameraderie epitomising his cinematic credo. But there's more humanity on display here than anywhere else in his canon.
Playing like a melodrama, the film still shows plenty of humour, sex appeal and brooding machismo with the two leads making an engaging couple. The casting is excellent with a suitably charismatic Grant as the air mail boss and Arthur as the sassy showgirl.