Pilot Officer Peter Penrose (John Mills) is posted in the summer of 1940 as a pilot to (the fictional) No. 720 Squadron, at a new airfield, RAF Station Halfpenny Field. He is a very green "15-hour sprog" Bristol Blenheim pilot and is assigned to B Flight, under Flight Lieutenant David Archdale (Michael Redgrave).
When No. 720 Squadron's commanding officer, Squadron Leader Carter (Trevor Howard, in his second but first credited film role), is shot down, Archdale takes over. While Penrose develops into a first-class pilot, he meets Iris Winterton (Renee Asherson), a young woman living with her domineering aunt at the Golden Lion hotel in the nearby town. Archdale marries Miss Todd (Rosamund John), the popular manageress of the hotel, who is known to everyone as Toddy. The Archdales later have a son, Peter.
The action flashes forward to May 1942. The squadron is now flying Douglas Boston bombers. When Penrose shows signs of strain from extensive combat, Archdale has him posted to controller school, but is himself shot down and killed over France on Penrose's last mission. Penrose had been courting Iris, despite her aunt's disapproval, but Archdale's fate weighs heavily on his mind. Not wanting Iris to suffer if the same happened to him, he stops seeing her.
No. 720 Squadron is sent to the Middle East, but Penrose remains behind as a ground controller for a United States Army Air Forces B-17 Flying Fortress bombardment group, which takes over the airfield. He befriends USAAF Captain Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) and Lieutenant Joe Friselli (Bonar Colleano). On 17 August 1942, the American airmen participate in the first attack by the USAAF on Occupied France, later ruefully acknowledging that they underestimated the difficulties involved. Afterwards, Penrose is posted to flying duties with an RAF Avro Lancaster bomber unit.
In 1944, Penrose, now a squadron leader and pathfinder pilot, makes an emergency landing at Halfpenny Field, where he meets Iris again. Iris had decided to leave her aunt for good and join up. Toddy persuades a still-reluctant Penrose to propose to Iris, saying that she did not regret her own marriage in spite of her husband's death. Hollis, who has formed a platonic relationship with Toddy, is killed while crash-landing a damaged returning bomber rather than bail out and risk it crashing into the village.Michael Redgrave as David Archdale
John Mills as Peter Penrose
Rosamund John as Miss Todd
Douglass Montgomery as Johnny Hollis
Stanley Holloway as Mr Palmer
Renée Asherson as Iris Winterton
Felix Aylmer as Reverend Charles Moss
Basil Radford as "Tiny" Williams
Bonar Colleano Jnr. as Joe Friselli
Joyce Carey as Miss Winterton
Trevor Howard as Squadron Leader Carter
David Tomlinson as "Prune" Parsons
Nicholas Stuart as Colonel Rogers (credited as Tryon Nichol)
Bill Owen as "Nobby" Clarke (credited as Bill Rowbotham)
Grant Miller as Lieutenant Wally Becker
Jean Simmons as a singer
The Way to the Stars was one of Terence Rattigan's early works. During the war, Rattigan had served in the Royal Air Force as a tail gunner, and used his wartime experiences to help inspire his earlier stage play, Flare Path. In 1945, he was released from the service to help rewrite it with Anatole De Grunwald as a film screenplay of The Way to the Stars. Although Michael Redgrave and John Mills were the leads, the film offers very early performances from two actors who would themselves become international film stars in later years: Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard.
The following poetry, supposedly written by Archdale, was penned by John Pudney, as one of two poems written specifically for the film. It is found on a piece of paper and given by Penrose to Toddy after her husband's death. Later, she gives it to Hollis's friend to read after he is killed.
Do not despair ... for Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound. ... as Johnny underground.
Fetch out no shroud ... for Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears ... for him in after years.
Better by far ... for Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head ... and see his children fed.
On initial release, the film was popular in Britain, but performed poorly in the U.S. where it was released post-war as Johnny in the Clouds with a prologue added.
According to Kinematograph Weekly the film performed well at the British box office in 1945.
Later reviews considered the film "... one of the more thoughtful of British war movies ..." and an "excellent drama about a British airfield and the men stationed there, focusing mainly on personal relationships in wartime."