High Flying Spy (Dir: Vincent McEveety, 1972).
Originally broadcast in three parts on NBC's weekly The Wonderful World of Disney TV series. High Flying Spy is a Civil War adventure based upon Robert Edmond Alter's historical novel High Spy.
Rival hot air balloonists Thaddeus Lowe (Stuart Whitman) and John Jay Forrest (Darren McGavin) are drawn into the Civil War as Union spies as part of President Lincoln's newly formed Areonautic Corps. Joining them is spirited Davey Stevens (Vincent Van Patten), a juvenile telegraph operator who has lied about his age in order to serve his county. Captured by the Confederate army the three must use their wiles to escape the enemy.
The practice of editing multiple TV episodes into a single feature film was a longstanding practice at the Disney Studios, beginning with the cultural phenomenon Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (Norman Foster, 1955). Usually, the movies were distributed as support features in international markets. Not so with High Flying Spy which was stitched together for home video release at some point in the 1980s.
Directed by Disney stalwart Vincent McEveety, the movie is not exactly action packed, although is engaging enough in its storytelling not to outstay its 2 hours+ runtime. Younger viewers may squirm a little at the length and in three segments, as originally broadcast, may be preferable viewing for some. Although divided into three parts of roughly 45 minutes a piece, High Flying Spy never feels cobbled together, and if you watch with no prior knowledge of this you may not notice. Neither does the feature particularly belie its TV origins; it is a handsome outdoors adventure largely shot on Disney's Golden Oak movie ranch. Some obvious use of back projection if forgivable in the pre-ditgal age and doesn't otherwise detract from a quality production.
A prestigious cast also helps lift the movie above standard TV fare. Both Stuart Whitman and Darren McGavin impress in their roles, McGavin, in particular, bringing an avuncular roguishness to his role as a bluff balloonist who ultimately proves himself heroic. Vincent Van Patten (son of Disney regular Dick Van Patten) contributes a pleasing, natural performance as the obligatory blonde haired youngster.
Sadly, if you wish to watch High Flying Spy, it is one of many titles kept under lock and key in the Disney vault. The Disney+ streaming service would be an ideal platform to release the hundreds of hours of quality live action product from the 1950s through 1980s that the company seems loath to release. Us Disney geeks of a certain age would love the chance to revisit their childhoods just as much as 90s and 00s kids. Yet, almost three years after the platform launch, 70s and 80s Disney fans remain not especially well catered for in terms of older content.
As such, High Flying Spy is a difficult to view in any format today. However, it is well worth watching if you can find a copy. Entertaining viewing, regardless of age, this is the kind of family friendly movie upon which the Walt Disney Studios were founded and which the current regime have seemingly abandoned.