The film follows a pilot and crew of a World War II-era Douglas C-47 Skytrain (the military version of the DC-3) who try to survive after a forced emergency landing in the uncharted wildlands near the Quebec-Labrador border. The pilot, Dooley (John Wayne), is a former airline pilot, who, like many others, was pressed into duty hauling war supplies across the northern route to England. Icy conditions force the aircraft to land, and with the difficulties of navigating far from settled country, they can provide only an approximate position to rescuers.
After finding a frozen lake for a landing field, Dooley must keep his men alive while waiting for rescue in the extreme winter cold with temperatures plummeting to -70 °F. Meanwhile, at Air Transport Headquarters, Col. Fuller (Walter Abel) gathers fellow airmen (played by Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine and Paul Fix), who are determined to find the downed crew before hunger and the winter do them in. Wellman provides internal narrative for the stoic characters. There is tension and a fear-filled meeting among the search pilots when no one is quite sure about what to do, since a wrong decision could doom the missing crew.
The script was based on a true story about a flight on 3 February 1943, although, unlike the story of the film, the co-pilot did not die. In his autobiography Fate Is the Hunter — on which the movie of the same name is very loosely based — Gann related the true story and his role as one of the search pilots while serving with Air Transport Command at Presque Isle Airfield, Maine. Gann had been scheduled to fly the mission that ran into trouble, but was bumped off the flight by a more senior pilot.
The rights to the story were originally bought in January 1950 by Robert Stillman Productions, and Gann planned to write the screenplay with Seton I. Miller. Frank Rosenberg was scheduled to produce the film, which would star Richard Widmark. When Stillman dropped the film, the rights were picked up in December 1952 by Wayne-Fellows Productions, the partnership of John Wayne and Robert Fellows, as their third of seven eventual productions — including, a year later, another Gann story, The High and the Mighty, in which Wayne also co-starred. The two movies shared many of the same production staff and crew members, including director William Wellman.
Wellman had been a pilot with the Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I, where he earned the nickname "Wild Bill," and with the United States Army Air Service after the war. He was a veteran aviation movie director whose Wings won the first-ever Academy Award (1927–1928). Wellman provided the voice-over narration that begins the film, and his two sons, Tim and Mike, who were eleven and five at the time, played the parts of Andy Devine's sons. It is notable that the women in the film, Ann Doran, Dawn Bender and Phyllis Winger, appear only in brief flashbacks or, in Doran's case, in a telephone conversation. The lack of a romantic interest was noted by critics who considered the film a more authentic and gritty drama compared to the usual Hollywood war movie. Wellman, who generally was not well liked by actors and actresses — a feeling that he reciprocated — was known to prefer to work with men, and many of his films are set in all-male (or nearly all-male) worlds.
The role played by John Wayne in Island in the Sky goes against type, since he does not display the machismo for which he was often criticized. Instead, his portrayal of the downed aircraft's captain had been noted as believable and realistic. A strong ensemble cast of mainly studio B-actors actually contained a number of future stars, including Fess Parker, James Arness, Darryl Hickman and Mike Connors, who all went on to television fame. The film involves many realistic details, such as an ice pick kept conveniently embedded in a barracks wall so pilots can break the ice sheet on their morning wash water. The black-and-white cinematography by Archie Stout (dramatic scenes) and William H. Clothier (flying scenes) has been praised by critics.
Production began in late January 1953 and was completed on 2 March. Filming took place partly at Donner Lake, near Truckee, California in the Sierra Nevada range. The California Department of Forestry cut down trees in that area to make aircraft runways in the four-foot deep snow. Some background shooting also took place in San Francisco. Besides writing the screenplay, Gann, who was a commercial pilot for Transocean Airlines, served as the film's technical director and also piloted a C-47 for the second unit.
The hand-cranked emergency radio transmitter used by crew members to try to contact the rescuers they assume are looking for them was an actual piece of equipment, a BC-778/SCR-578/AN-CRT3 emergency transmitter, affectionately called "Gibson Girl" after the 1890s drawings of Charles Dana Gibson. The narrow-waisted shape of the device allowed the user to hold it between the legs while cranking it — a necessity, because it required 80 rpm to produce enough power to be usable, and was hard to crank.
Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, released the following year, are two of the earliest all-star disaster films, which paved the way for Airport and its sequels over 20 years later, as well as the Airplane! parodies. Both films are also two of the early John Wayne co-productions that starred Wayne. This production practice would not become widespread until the 1980s and 1990s, when stars from Robert Redford to Sandra Bullock took control of productions. Both films were aviation dramas and shared many of the same crew members and production staff.
Along with Wayne, six actors appeared in both films: Regis Toomey, Paul Fix, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Ann Doran, George Chandler and Michael Wellman (the director's son). Ernest K. Gann, the author of the books on which both films were based, also wrote the two screenplays.
Island in the Sky premiered in Los Angeles on 3 September 1953, and went into general release two days later. The premiere apparently featured the use of stereophonic sound, as an intermission had to be inserted because of problems with it.
Both Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty were out of circulation for about 20 years due to legal issues. They were restored, returned to television in July 2005 and released as special edition DVDs that August.