winter of 1948-49 was the worst in Nevada in roughly six decades, leaving millions of grazing sheep and cattle stranded in deep snow and cut off from food. Many animals died, and the rest were in danger of starving to death. The U.S. Air Force saved the day with "Operation Haylift," dropping millions of tons of alfalfa near the stranded herds.
That story is told in the movie OPERATION HAYLIFT, a docudrama filmed entirely on location around Ely, Nevada, shortly after the actual events took place. Actor Joe Sawyer, who plays a large supporting role in the film as George Swallow, cowrote the screenplay with Dean Riesner. (Riesner, billed as Dink Dean, also appeared in the film.) Sawyer, who spent most of his career as an actor, also produced; this film was his only writing and producing credit.
Bill Williams and Tom Brown play brothers who own a ranch in Nevada. Williams' character is hurt when his brother decides to leave the ranch in order to volunteer to return to active duty in the Air Force. Nursing a grudge, he's reluctant to accept the help of the Air Force when his herd is in trouble. Williams wakes up and smells the proverbial coffee thanks to his son Roy (a winning portrayal by Tommy Ivo).
I found this low-budget Lippert Pictures film, made with the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force, deeply pleasurable. Over the last few days I've watched some very notable, beautifully made classic films, such as SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). I think I found this film as enjoyable as the much more famous '50s movies I've seen of late.
Leonard Maltin classed the film as "routine," but just as I wrote regarding another "routine" Air Force film, AIR CADET (1951), "There's real value and interest in watching this little piece of Korean War era history from six decades ago." I suspect what was once seen as the ho-hum bottom of a double bill can be more appreciated now, with the perspective of the time that has passed since it was made. In its own way, a relatively unknown little movie like OPERATION HAYLIFT is very significant, preserving a certain time and place in America on film.
The film has very striking black and white photography by Benjamin H. Kline. There are some terrific location shots of the snow-covered mountains and cloud-filled skies. This may have been a low budget film, but I found some of the exterior scenes as starkly beautiful as the snowy shots in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952). The interiors have a sort of gritty newsreel look, the better to match up with the documentary footage from the Air Force incorporated into the film.
The acting won't necessarily win any awards, but the people all look and act very real, and the style of the performances is in keeping with the film's docudrama style. Kudos as well to the very realistic location settings. I suspect the ranch house interior was also filmed on location, as it looked very authentic and "lived in."
Ann Rutherford plays Williams' wife, with Jane Nigh as Brown's fiancee. The movie was directed by William Berke. It runs 73 minutes.
OPERATION HAYLIFT is available in an excellent print as part of the VCI DVD set Darn Good Westerns, Vol. 1. The DVD also includes a few historic black and white photographs documenting the real Operation Haylift.
This DVD is currently available from Netflix.