The Sky Pilot (1921)

Feature Article Film Review


Release Date: 17 April, 1921

Studio: Associated First National Pictures

Director: King Vidor

Producer: Catherine Curtis Corporation

Starring: John Bowers (Arthur Wellington Moore, the Sky Pilot), Colleen Moore (Gwen), David Butler (Bill Hendricks), Harry Todd (The Old Timer), James Corrigan (Honorable Ashley), Donald MacDonald (The Duke), Kathleen Kirkham (Lady Charlotte)

Scenario: John McDermott

Photography: L. William O'Connell, Gus Peterson


The film opens with views of snow-clad mountains, a river valley, and a glacier. A title identifies the setting as Canada. It is fall. The small settlement of Swan Creek is shown; the social center of this village is a saloon called The Stopping Place. The saloon is filled with riders drinking and gambling. A stranger, dressed in city clothes, enters and asks for water. Bill Hendricks, the foreman of the Ashley Ranch, introduces himself and falls over backwards upon learning that the stranger is a parson, or sky pilot, who wants to start a church. On the following Sunday, the church service is held in the largest space in town, the saloon. Townspeople enter. Hendricks and his riders assume exaggeratedly pious demeanors as they enter. The sky pilot asks for a hymn and leads a prayer. Hendricks laughs loudly and then refuses the pilot's request to leave. Soon the Sky Pilot and the foreman are brawling. The foreman is knocked out, and the cowboys run the Sky Pilot out of town.

The Sky Pilot walks on alone and sits by a river. He is crushed and defeated; all his hopes and dreams are ended. Meanwhile, the foreman has recovered and ridden to find him. The men sit by the river and shake hands. The foreman proposes that the parson get a job as a cowboy. He can work with the men. If he can gain their respect, they will listen to his religious teachings. The sky pilot looks astonished at this suggestion. However, he and Bill ride double to the Ashley ranch where Bill introduces the pilot to the owners, Honorable and Lady Charlotte Ashley. The pilot proves that he is willing to take risks and learn how to be a cowboy. He rides a bucking horse and stays on for a lot of jumps before being thrown off. Bill carries him to the bunk house, and he is accepted into the group.

The scene shifts to the cabin of the Old Timer. The Old Timer curses God because of the early death of his beloved wife. He lives apart from the other members of the ranching community. A title states that the only thing he loves is his daughter, Gwen. Gwen, wearing a shirt and pants, is shown standing in a small wagon and driving at a gallop. She falls out, gets up, and runs after the horses. Gwen is obviously unladylike and boisterous. Back at the cabin of the Old Timer, Duke, a self-styled English gentleman, proposes the theft of Ashley cattle. The cattle will be moved to a hiding place through a tunnel on the Old Timer's ranch.

Bill and the Pilot have become friends. The Pilot is learning about ranch work, he is good company in the bunkhouse, and he is gaining the respect of the riders. He proves his bravery by walking up to a drunken cowboy who is shooting wildly. This cowboy seeing devils is trying to shoot them. The pilot quiets him and takes away his gun.

The Pilot and Bill ride out to fix fences. The Pilot goes to investigate an unusual noise. As the Pilot rides on a narrow bridge over a ravine, Duke and his men shoot at him. The pilot and his horse fall off the bridge. Gwen, riding nearby, sees the pilot in the water, throws him a rope, and pulls him out. They ride double to her cabin where she warms him up. Bill, the Old Timer, and Duke ride up separately. When the Old Timer learns that the pilot is a preacher, he orders him out. Gwen also reacts angrily and tells the pilot and Bill to leave. After they have left, Gwen sits on her bed and cries.

The Ashley riders are rounding up the cattle. At his cabin the Old Timer and Duke are discussing their plan to rustle the cattle and run them through the tunnel. Gwen overhears them and objects strongly. She strikes Duke, and her father locks her in her room. Their Indian retainer releases Gwen, and she rides to stop her father and to warn Bill and the pilot. At the roundup, the shooting of the rustlers causes a stampede. Gwen rides into the path of the stampeding cattle. As she tries to avoid the stampede, she falls off her horse. The pilot gallops to her, jumps off his horse, and keeps the cattle from running over her.

Gwen is carried home and examined by the doctor. Her legs are paralyzed. Gwen cries and pulls her hair in despair. The Pilot comforts her. He says that God loves her, and that the injury may be a means of bringing her to Him. These words are soothing, and she wants to believe.

On Christmas day, Gwen has a tree in her room. Her father enters dressed as Santa Claus. Her gift is a large doll. Bill and the riders have been preparing a Christmas surprise for the Pilot; they have built a church. When Bill and the pilot ride to visit Gwen, they are held up by the disguised riders. The Pilot is blindfolded and led to the church. The Ashley boys present the church and a bible as gifts to their pal, the sky pilot. The sky pilot is touched. Gwen's father, who has been praying for his injured daughter, rides off to see the church. The Indian retainer puts Gwen in a sled, and they start toward the church. Before holding services, the pilot is riding over to visit Gwen. Duke and his gang, also going to the church, see the Pilot and shoot his horse. The pilot and the horse fall down a steep slope. The pilot is unconscious and injured. As Gwen and the Indian are passing, the Pilot revives and calls for help.

At the church, the congregation is waiting for the pilot. Bill leads them in a hymn and a prayer. A teenager laughs at Bill's attempts to lead a church service. Bill throws him out. Bill pulls out his gun and declares that he will preach the sermon. He is an emphatic preacher. Outside, an associate of Duke sets the church on fire. The congregation flees. Bill and the boys capture the arsonist who says that Duke sent him to burn the church. Bill and the boys ride to Swan Creek where they burn down the saloon. The pilot and Gwen reach the burning church, the pilot runs inside to retrieve the cowboy's gift, his bible. As he comes out, he is overcome by the smoke and collapses in the doorway. Gwen crawls to him and tries to pull him away. Her desperation stimulates movement in her legs. She gradually rises to her feet and drags him away from the fire. Her father, Bill, and the cowboys arrive. Everybody is grateful that Gwen can stand and walk.

A title card states that time has passed, and the pilot has been working hard. The scene and a title show that spring has arrived. The last scene shows the Sky Pilot marrying Gwen. He is completely integrated into the community.


The Sky Pilot is based on a 1921 novel of the same name by Canadian author Ralph Connor (1860-1937). Within the trappings of a conventional western, The Sky Pilot is a moralistic story of faith, commitment, and acceptance. All the major characters undergo turnarounds. At first the Sky Pilot is an outsider who is expelled by the cowboys. Ultimately, his determination, bravery, and kindness earn him their affection and respect, and they accept him into their community. Initially, Bill and the cowboys are irreligious, but they are voluntary members of the church by the end of the story. Gwen and her father also progress from antagonism and disbelief to acceptance of the pilot and his religion.

King Vidor's desire to present moralistic stories is expressed in this film. It is a fulfillment of his 1920 pledge in Variety to make pictures which carry a message to humanity. The message here is that faith and goodwill bring happiness and acceptance. The western setting allows this message to be delivered in association with impressive scenery and western-style action.

The standard western elements are present: a small town with a large saloon, the cattle ranch, gun-carrying cowboys, bronc riding, a fistfight, and cattle rustling. These elements establish the character of the community which the Sky Pilot is joining. Action sequences occur fairly frequently, are relatively short, and keep the story lively. Most of the exterior scenes were filmed in the Sierra Nevada, near Truckee, CA, but other locations were also used. The scenic ravine into which the pilot and his horse plunge is Beale's Cut (north of Los Angeles, near Newhall, CA). In 1921, Beale's Cut was already a familiar filming location having been used in several films, including John Ford's Straight Shooting (1917). The horse and man figures are obviously dummies. Near the conclusion of the film, a real stunt man (presumably) and horse plunge down a snowy slope. The man rolls down hill, but the horse takes a spectacular fall. It slides uncontrollably head-over-heels with legs thrashing.

Vidor obtains good performances from his actors. John Bowers is a sincere and earnest hero. His acting is restrained and stresses the goodness of the character. His look of astonishment at the idea of becoming a cowboy is quite amusing. David Butler has a showier part with a broader range of expression. The various emotional states of Bill are believably presented and within the nature of the character. For most of the story, the emotions and behavior of Colleen Moore's character are those of a child/teenager. Her character is the least developed and serves mostly to carry along the story. The overemphasis of the tomboy accentuates Gwen's helplessness once she is paralyzed. Her seemingly miraculous cure emphasizes the religious aspects. Her marriage to the Sky Pilot rounds out the plot. The part does not require much more than liveliness and cuteness, and Colleen Moore supplies those easily.

The film was produced by the Catherine Curtis Corporation, headed by the pioneering female producer. She produced few completed films, of which The Sky Pilot is the most notable. She was able to supply Vidor with greater financial resources than he usually had at that time. Her company subsequently attempted to produce a version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Legal difficulties concerning ownership of the dinosaur miniatures ended the production.


New York Times: April 18, 1921.

The uncredited reviewer calls the film a corking melodrama with some obtrusive faults (which he does not detail) and an overdone ending. He highlights Vidor's pictorial and atmospheric talents, but points out that "Mr. Vidor takes special pride in his moral earnestness. The moral earnestness is on view and may have to be ignored in order to enjoy the melodrama. The best acting is that of David Butler. John Bowers is satisfactory most of the time. Colleen Moore does well except for the Broadway trappings of conspicuous makeup and a cabaret smile."

Variety: The Sky Pilot, April 18, 1921.

"The story contains little new or exceptional, but the direction, photography and detail are more than satisfactory. The story runs consistently with plenty of action interspersed with comedy and leads to a satisfactory conclusion. However, the uplift lesson --- that sufficient faith will nearly cure all physical ills -- is rather far-fetched." The reviewer commends the entire cast. In conclusion, he states that the feature won't create any sensation, but should please in the best cinemas.