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Main » 2020 » December » 10 » Movie Marathon Part 18: Airports, Airplanes, and Misogyny
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Movie Marathon Part 18: Airports, Airplanes, and Misogyny

Flying is a miserable way to travel. Airports are stale, functional places, where the only way of killing time is to stand and queue, sit on uncomfortable metal chairs, or pray to the gate update boards that your flight isn't delayed. Then its on to the departure lounge where you have to sit with all those pushy morons who think the quicker they get on the plane, the better seat they'll get and the sooner they'll get to their destination.

The flight itself features temperatures too hot on the tarmac and too cold in the air, hours of someone's kid crying or kicking the back of your chair, the guys who think the flight is an extension of their airport Wetherspoons bender and who pester the stewards for more free booze, cramped seating, the person next to you too fat for their own chair spilling sweaty flesh on to you, a tiny toilet you have to share with 120 other patrons, and the ignoramus who puts their chair back without checking first, usually when you have a tray of hot food or drink on your pull-down tray. And all of this suffering can go on for hours, with no respite. It feels like a mild form of torture. 

Once you arrive, there's the always rude customs staff to do battle with, the hours spent waiting for your luggage (if indeed it actually made it on to the plane), and the inevitable jet-lag. A week or so later you have to repeat the whole process, only with the added aggravation of excess baggage charges, despite the fact your suitcase now has less in it than when you flew out. 

First world problems of course, but I'd sooner work and save a bit harder and travel by boat or car; much more dignified and classy. 

Hollywood hasn't helped the situation. Every time a passenger air-liner features in a movie something is going wrong on board, whether its a hijacking or bits of it falling off. Movies are usually people's only experience of flying before they get on a plane, so most people can be forgiven for being a bit nervous when they buckle up on the real thing for the first time. It didn't use to be this way. Commercial air travel was a glamorous pursuit reserved for the well-to-do during the fifties and much of the sixties. But as the seventies approached, travel by plane got cheaper and us everyday folk had the chance to jet about to.

No sooner had airports started to welcome commoners, a movie arrived which gave the idea that getting around the globe via the air could be risky business, Airport (1970). Viewers didn't seem to mind though and the film took an air-hanger load of cash at the box office. More than that it birthed a new film genre that would become synonymous with the decade, the disaster movie. Looking to revisit a time when the afros were large, the corduroy was lush, and the carpets were made of the sickliest shade of orange shag imaginable, FilmsFilmsFilms took on all four of the Airport movies in one eight hour sitting; enough time to get all the way to the Big Apple.

Airport wasn't actually the first air disaster movie, and Arthur Hailey's novel of the same name from which the film was made no doubt took some cues from the likes of The High and Mighty (1954) and Jet Storm (1959). Hailey himself had already co-wrote the script for Zero Hour! (1957), the film which Airplane! (1980) later took as its template. The reason Airport managed to take over $100million in profit off of a $10million budget though was its star laden cast. Director George Seaton was a veteran filmmaker by the late sixties and as such he was able to wrangle an impressive line-up for his film, including Dean Martin, Helen Hayes, Burt Lancaster, George Kennedy, and Jacqueline Bisset.

It was a good job he did to, as its the star power which keeps all 2 hours and 16 minutes of Airport just about chugging along. Considering its the film which birthed the golden age of the disaster movie, there's very little actual disaster until late in the film. Despite the overly dramatic music over the opening scene, the plot is more melodrama than catastrophe as we follow a series of inter-twinning subplots involving a plane stuck on a snowy runway, a stowaway granny, and the various relationships and affairs of the airport workers. There's even a dose of comedy thanks to the aforementioned old lady freeloader played by Hayes.

Its run-of-the-mill stuff but thanks to the starry cast it remains entertaining particularly when Lancaster, Martin, and Kennedy are chewing the garish scenery. Seaton employs some fun split screen techniques to keep things fresh, and the snow effects are particularly good; so good in fact it appears most of the film was shot somewhere that had actual snow on the ground and in the air. 

One thing that hasn't aged so well though is the misogyny laden dialogue. The air industry at the time was very much split between the sexes, with men the only ones perceived as being able to run and fly planes, and women there just to look good in a short skirt and serve drinks. No one seems to challenge this status quo in Airport; quite the contrary, the script makes it clear that everyone appears happy in their roles, and drops all kinds of toe-curling clangers throughout, 'I suppose I'm like a lot of men, a bigamist, married to both a woman and a job'.

In amongst all the randy men and giggling girls, Jean Seberg more than holds her own as Head of Customer Relations, and she offers the best performance in the whole film, or at least the most natural. She was sadly not honoured when the film somehow found itself flying high during the awards season. Bizarrely, the movie won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, but it was given to two different women, the Oscar to Helen Hayes and the Globe to Maureen Stapleton.

Stapleton plays the wife of Van Heflin's Guerrero, the man who finally adds a bit of spice to proceedings. His down-on-his-luck husband takes out a large life insurance policy just before take-off, then plans to blow himself up on Dean Martin's plane. Its a long time coming though and 93 minutes have passed before Kennedy explains what damage Guerrero's briefcase bomb will do to the Boeing 707 if it goes off. The plot does take the brave step of actually exploding the bomb, albeit with Van Helfin on his own in the toilet. It makes for a tense last half an hour as Kennedy and Lancaster have to drag the stranded plane off of the only snowy runway that Martin and co-pilot Barry Nelson (hotel manager Mr Ullman from The Shining (1980)) can land their knackered jet on.

The surprise success of Airport had studios scrambling to snap up any disaster based script or novel in a bid to earn their own awards and box office moolah. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) scored big on both fronts next, before Airport got its own sequel, Airport 1975 (1974). By now though it had challengers and Jack Smight's movie couldn't quite handle going up against genre heavyweights The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974). It only managed half of the box office of its predecessor, $50million, and lucked out come awards time.

1975 thankfully cut its runtime down to a more manageable 106 minutes and as a result there aren't quite as many subplots. The cast was still ram packed with big names though, with Charlton Heston, Linda Blair, Dana Andrews, and Sid Caesar all hamming it up. George Kennedy's Joe Patroni was the standout character from the first film and thankfully returns. Most intriguing of all is Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson playing herself in her final movie role. As an aging actress returning home on the doomed plane she wrote all of her own lines; as an epitaph to a career which started in 1914, it was an odd script choice. 

Much of the entertainment in part two comes from spotting the scenes which Airplane! later lampooned, most notably the guitar strumming, singing nun who tries to cheer up a sick Linda Blair early on in the flight; its impossible to take the scene seriously now. The misogyny between the flight crew and anything in a skirt remains, and much of the drama in the film is sold through the lazy choice of focusing on actor's faces as they trade exposition or undertake tricky airplane tinkering. Its balanced by the real flight footage used which still looks good, and there's something worryingly real about the central premise of a light aircraft smashing in to the cockpit of a Boeing 747 in foggy weather and taking out the flight crew. 

The only real jeopardy in the film though is the task of getting a new pilot in to the hole in the side of the damaged plane. Its clear from the off that the unknown actor in the shoes of the Air Force officer who takes the first crack at it is going to die, just so that Heston can have second dibs. That the officer is only foiled by his harness release hook getting caught on a rogue shard of metal seems unfair, even more so given how many goes Karen Black got at trying to pull the officer in to the cockpit. Once Heston is on board all drama dissipates; the last minute the-brakes-don't-work trick tries but fails to up the tension. But at least we get to see Kennedy furrow his brow and deliver wonky dialogue in that wonderfully loveable way he did; its little wonder he became the face of the franchise.

Director Jerry Jameson had to come up with something different for part three; the hole in the side of the plane plot had been done to death by the late seventies. His solution was a mash-up of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, with Airport '77 (1977) seeing a botched hijack robbery on an millionaire's converted 747 landing the plane in the ocean in the Bermuda Triangle. The plane sinks to the sea floor and the small group of party goers and crew have to figure out how to get out and to the surface.

Considering the trapped under water angle had been done so brilliantly in Poseidon with a much bigger vessel to create tense set-pieces, its a credit that 1977 remains the best movie in the series. Another great cast helps with Jack Lemmon, Christopher Lee, Darren McGavin, Lee Grant, and Brenda Vaccaro all on fine form. The tradition of having Hollywood 'royalty' continued with the remarkable presence of both Olivia de Havilland and James Stewart adding additional star power, though Stewart spends most of his screen time looking a bit bewildered. De Havilland must have enjoyed her disaster stint as after Airport '77 she signed on for the killer bee movie The Swarm (1978).

The touches of humour are more subtle this time around (the large 'Keep Dry' painted across the boxes being stowed in the plane in the opening scene a cheeky nod to the coming disaster) and the effects are quite impressive, considering the film's age. The finale is a real nail-biter, though the choice to raise the entire plane with large airbags seems overly elaborate when there are so many Navy divers on hand who could have surely broken in to the plane and ferried everyone to the surface. The film also feels like its missing a final scene, as we leave the deck of the Navy rescue ship not quite sure who made it out of the plane and who drowned in the escape.

Having started the day at 9.30 with peanut butter on toast and Airport, proceedings grew dark fairly quickly after 15.00 thanks to the short December day. The first film provided some snow to compliment the twinkling Christmas tree lights and fortunately the day finished the same way with The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979) offering a bit more wintery weather. There was quite a bit of movie to get through before that though, and much of it wasn't good.

Concorde was a box office failure, only making $13million of its $14million budget back, and its easy to see why. Audiences had grown bored of the disaster genre, with films like Two Minute Warning (1976), Rollercoaster (1977), Avalanche (1978), Gray Lady Down (1978), Hurricane (1979), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), and Meteor (1979) all failing to win critical plaudits or punter's money. Concorde was never going to turn the tide. The film is too long, shoving its running time back up to the two hour mark, the special effects are cheap looking, and the story beggars belief.

After rumbling Robert Wagner's plans to sell arms to the wrong side, Wagner tries to kill nosey reporter Susan Blakely by firing one of his new heat-seeking missiles at the Concorde she's travelling on. He also ropes in some fighter jets to try and blow it out of the sky. After the Concorde somehow turns in to a massive fighter jet and out flies them all, it undertakes an emergency landing in France. Despite this incredible incident the plane is allowed to travel again on its merry way, with the same crew and passengers, the next day. This time the bad guys have planted a bomb in the hold (and no one thought to check, given how 'wanted' the plane is?) which blows are hole in its belly, leaving the stricken Concorde to try for a snowy landing in the Alps.

The sad thing is, the final half hour is gripping stuff, with realistic action and some great footage of the sadly lost Concorde flying over mountainous vistas. The preceding ninety minutes sway between dull and laughable though. The film also has the look of a made-for-TV movie, rather than the big-budget seventies sheen the three previous films had. There are also few big name stars to elevate the slower moments, and the dodgy arms dealing plot feels under cooked. And why does no one investigate such an unlikely attack on a fully loaded passenger air-liner? And who thought they could stop a speeding Concorde with some ribbon strewn across the runway?

Thank goodness then for George Kennedy who gets the most screen time he's had yet, though its not quite explained how his character has gone from plane engineer to pilot with many years flying experience. Even so, he has great chemistry with his French co-pilot Alan Delon, and the always watchable David Warner in the cockpit completes the flight crew trio. They do just enough in the last half an hour to make the awful first three-quarters worth the effort, but only just.

A year after Concorde the franchise was taken out behind the hanger and shot by the masterpiece of comedy that was Airplane!. It would be impossible to make a serious film about a passenger plane in trouble again without stirring up side-splitting memories of Zucker Abrahams and Zucker's brilliant movie. There's also likely to be little appetite for it, given the real life tragedies that have occurred since the hey-day of disaster cinema, whether its the explosion of Air France flight 4590 in 2000 that ended up decommissioning Concorde for good, or the horror of 9/11.  

Still, the old movies remain, resplendent in all their over-acting and seventies fashions. If, like me, you grew up watching these films on rainy Sunday afternoons there's no doubt a lot of nostalgia that will put you back to them, and the Airport movies stand as the only actual franchise that grew out of the decades obsession with disaster. If you've never seen them before, treat yourself to a bit of filmmaking from a time when acting heavyweights weren't afraid to engage in hokum and spectacle for the sake of a good pay-cheque. For melodrama and nail-biting action you could do a lot worse. Just don't expect them to sell you on the 'joys' of air travel.  


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