In tune with its times

Ushering in the era of disaster cinema

Published: May 24 2020, 01:01:am

Thursday, April 2, 1970

AIRPORT. Co-written by Arthur Hailey, based on his 1968 novel. Music by Alfred Newman. Co-written and directed by George Seaton. Running time: 137 minutes. Mature entertainment.
OF ALL THE WONDERS of 20th century technology, none has proved more satisfying to romantics than the airplane. The sight of a modern jetliner climbing steeply into the clouds is enough to turn imaginations outward, and send a sudden thrill through most earthbound bodies.
    That thrill, along with a passion for authentic detail, carried Canadian novelist Arthur Hailey through several weeks of intensive research at the world's busiest air terminal, Chicago's O’Hare International. His brimming notebooks, with a few stock characters added to carry the drama, yielded the best-selling 1968 novel Airport.
    Twelve years earlier [1956], Hailey’s first adventure in the wild blue yonder was the tension-filled teleplay Flight into Danger, produced as an original CBC drama. Not surprisingly, his Airport read as if it would make a good movie.
    The odds in its favour dropped when the project was turned over to Universal Studio’s notorious "synthetic man,” producer Ross Hunter. Almost immediately, Hunter decided to pad out his passenger list with an assortment of star performers.
    None too strong to begin with, Hailey's fibreboard characters buckle completely under the loosely controlled weight of the big names. The only meat they add to the parched bones of director George Seaton’s script is ham.
    And yet, with all its flaws, the movie Airport still manages to be exciting entertainment, drawing strength from an audience’s inherent fascination with its romantic old aircraft.
    It tells the highly contrived story of Lincoln International Airport on that nightmarish night when just about everything that could possibly go wrong does. The man on the firing line is general manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) whose troubles begin when a Trans Global Airlines Boeing 707 skids into a snowbank.
    Not only is the $8-million plane stuck, but it’s blocking the main runway. Bakersfeld calls for his cigar-chomping ace troubleshooter, ground-crew chief Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), to dig it out.
    In front of the airport,  meanwhile,  a local residents' organization is demonstrating against the noise pollution his big jets have brought to their neighbourhood. With the arrival of Bakersfeld’s brother-in-law, philandering flight captain Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), the plot really begins to thicken.
    Earlier in the day, Demerest had led a pilot’s group protesting Lincoln's allegedly inadequate snow removal facilities. Now, told that he will have to take off from a shorter runway, he informs Bakersfeld that he won’t be able to effect noise-abatement procedures over the already angry local community.
    The real headaches are still to come, though.
    Before the night is out, the pilot will discover that Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset), his mistress and a stewardess on his flight, is pregnant. Not only is his 707 carrying professional stowaway Ada Quonsett (engagingly played by Helen Hayes), but seated next to her is heavily insured mad bomber D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin).
    On the ground, Bakersfeld finds that Tanya Livingston (Jean Seaberg), his mistress and an airline publicist, is transferring to San Francisco. His wife Sarah (Barbara Hale), meanwhile, wants a divorce, and his employers are planning to review his job.
     If the acting is substandard, it is probably because the subplots are hopeless. Seaton has unrealistically asked Lancaster to wrap his teeth around lines like: “For your information, clearing those runways is the equivalent of  clearing 700 miles of two-lane highway.”

     Martin, looking more like a movie-house doorman than a pilot, delivers every line as if it were a lyric. His flight announcements sound as if they're about to mumble off into a song.
    All of their efforts are prologue. Airport doesn’t really get off the ground until it gets into the air. Once there, the film’s real hero, the four-engined Boeing 707, reaches out to hold  the crowd. The big bird, with nearly a hundred people aboard, is  crippled.
    It has to come down. It needs the runway on which, far below, her sister ship is hopelessly stuck and blocking the way.
    Suddenly the  theatre audience can feel the tension that the underpaid air controllers live with day in and day out, the raw struggle against stratospheric disaster.
    The high drama between control tower and cockpit is almost enough to make us forget the low comedy in the passenger cabin, and the broad performances from the stars. It is just enough to make Airport memorable entertainment.

The above is a restored version of a Vancouver Express review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1970. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In retrospect, I was unfairly dismissive of Airport producer Ross Hunter’s achievement. It was 1970. Richard Nixon was in the White House and the U.S. was in the the 15th year of the bitterly divisive Vietnam War. On May 4, National Guardsmen shot four student protestors on the Kent State University campus, and days later 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington D.C. against the invasion of Cambodia. It also was the year that saw the Boeing 747 jumbo jet enter commercial service, the first flight of the supersonic Concorde SST airliner and, on a more sombre note, the dramatic failure of the Apollo 13 moon mission.
    Hunter, most famous for producing light entertainments such as Pillow Talk (1959) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), was the man who caught the mood of the moment. Recognizing the presence of a cohort of mature Hollywood actors available for work, he put together an all-star package based on Arthur Hailey’s aviation thriller. In the process, he kick-started what has become known as the golden age of the disaster film. The fact that Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and earned over $100 million at the box office, inspired other filmmakers to follow its formula.
     Most prominent among them was Irwin Allen, who produced the era’s next blockbuster, director Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure. The biggest year for disaster cinema, 1974, saw the release of Allen’s The Towering Inferno, producer-director Mark Robson’s Earthquake, director Richard Lester's Juggernaut, and director Jack Smight’s Airport 1975. Among the other disaster titles in the Reeling Back archive are director Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg (1975), James Goldstone’s Rollercoaster (1977), and David Greene’s Gray Lady Down (1978). Finally, when it came time to take the mickey out of the disaster genre, it was the team-directed 1989 feature Airplane, a spoof of the original Airport, that did the job.

Boarding pass: The three features in the Airport franchise now contained in the Reeling Back archive are 1970’s Airport, directed by George Seaton, Airport 1975 (1974; Jack Smight) and Airport ’77 (1977; Jerry Jameson).