Saturday, August 1, 2015

"They don't call 'em emergencies anymore, they call 'em Patronis"

   Although 1969's AIRPORT wasn't the first film built around the concept of high drama aboard an airplane packed with major stars, the film did cast the die for the biggest genre of the 70's: the disaster movie. Like the book by Arthur Hailey which inspired it, the film was a runaway smash success. It's easy to see why the concept would have such traction, as few things level the playing field quite like being in a plane that may crash at any second. It's the great equalizer, and one's social position prior to boarding that plane doesn't mean a thing in the face of mechanical failure.

   AIRPORT spurred a wave of epics detailing just about every emergency situation screenwriters could imagine. Producer Irwin Allen really solidified things with 1972's THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, about a capsized ocean liner. After that, the figurative (and in some cases literal) floodgates opened and the screen was soon showing major Hollywood stars reacting to fires, earthquakes, floods, plagues, and just about everything you could imagine. From an out of control fire in a skyscraper to an army of poisonous ants taking over a resort lodge, the genre delivered high drama and big thrills that kept the public coming back for more. 

   Given the massive success of AIRPORT, it's not surprising that there was an entire subset of airplane movies. The big fish in this pond were sequel films, which would surface every few years for the rest of the decade. Other than George Kennedy as airplane expert and mechanic Joe Patroni, however, the films had little that connected them apart from slick production values and a roster of Hollywood's biggest stars.

   It was AIRPORT that revived Dean Martin's career, in fact. Despite several successful films under his belt (including the wonderful Matt Helm movies), he still wasn't taken all that seriously by the critics. They still saw him as either Jerry's former partner, or Frank's pal. With AIRPORT, however, he firmly established himself as an accomplished actor and a major star.

   Among it's myriad subplots, AIRPORT was the story of a desperate man who sets off a bomb aboard a commercial flight. It's easily the most thrilling and tension-sustaining entry in the series.

   Since AIRPORT kicked off the whole disaster movie craze, it was only right that it partake in that craze. AIRPORT 1975 detailed a mid-air collision which leaves a 747 without a flight crew. Stewardess Karen Black must take the controls under the radio instructions of boyfriend pilot Charlton Heston. Even amid the numerous knock-offs and disaster epics, AIRPORT 1975 looms large. It's a fair statement to say it represented the very zenith of the disaster cycle.

   An interesting bit of casting is that of the two pilots who end up crashing into each other. Piloting the liner is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. The small plane is manned by Dana Andrews. The two actors had been in reverse positions a decade earlier in THE CROWDED SKY

   With two highly successful entries in place, Universal tried a third entry a couple years later. Along comes AIRPORT '77, in which a hijack goes wrong and a 747 ends up on the ocean floor with time (and oxygen) running out fast!

   So far, Universal had produced three winning films which still stand as some of the best in the disaster genre (second only to the major entries from Irwin Allen, really). A fourth film seemed a great idea, and it was a great idea. It's the execution that counts, though, and THE CONCORDE... AIRPORT '79 crashed on take-off. Why? Because the film is terrible.

   Actually, the film has some good points, and the last half hour is classic AIRPORT stuff, but the bad far outweighs the good in this instance. Plot-wise, the film is far more in line with a sub-par 80's intrigue thriller. Robert Wagner plays an arms manufacturer who turns out to also be a war profiteer, having made a number of illegal arms deals. When his girlfriend, a lady reporter, decides to expose him, he tries to down her plane before she gets the chance to talk. A serviceable premise? Indeed. But this is the kind of movie where the evil industrialist/arms dealer keeps records of his illegal transactions on his company's letterhead!!! Following that, hardly anything can recover the film.

   Another massive problem is the handling of Patroni. He's a completely different character here, in terms of attitude and behavior. I suppose much of that could be attributed to the recent death of Mrs. Patroni, an important character from both AIRPORT and AIRPORT 1975. What lunatic thought it a good idea to bump her off?

   The film has structural problems as well. It seems to take forever to get moving. And while the cast indeed contains many star names, the starpower in question is quite a severe drop-off from what the previous three films offered. For what it's worth, though, the film probably features Avery Schreiber in the best role of his career.

   THE CONCORDE... AIRPORT '79 killed a once strong franchise. Hopes of it's success were high, though. There was even a film sold under the so-similar-it-seems-to-be-tempting-a-lawsuit title of THE CONCORDE AFFAIR '79. The official film's release, meanwhile, was held back a year in in some countries. It remained largely unseen on television in the following decades as well, at least when compared to the action seen by it's elder siblings.

   The final moments of the 70's and dawn of the 80's saw a slew of releases in the disaster genre. Films like METEOR, VIRUS, CITY ON FIRE, and Allen's final genre entry WHEN TIME RAN OUT (his oft-delayed adaptation of the book "The Day The World Ended" given a fairly ironic title, all things considered) seemed to indicate the genre would continue into the 80's. This, despite ever-climbing costs associated with the genre being in opposition to the general dwindle of cashflow through the major studios at this time. (In fact, the bulk of disaster films being seen at this time were coming in from overseas.)

   Any plans to revitalize the series with a fifth film were scuttled when the 80's proved to be the era of the spoof. The decade kicked off with the release of AIRPLANE! and the death blow was struck for the air disaster genre... at least for a while.

   Still, the original three movies continued to grow in popularity from the times of their original releases. The original AIRPORT is still considered one of the finest of disaster epics.

   Pre-AIRPORT years had their own AIRPORT-like movies. For example, the 1954 smash THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY is basically AIRPORT -50's STYLE!

   THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY was one of the biggest films of the 50's, telling the story of a flight from Hawaii to California that experiences engine trouble. Even today it sends chills up and down the spine.

   The film was such a success that it completely overshadowed John Wayne's already-in-release ISLAND IN THE SKY, which may be the single best movie I've ever seen. Never sold to television, the film remained a strong memory in the minds of American movie fans until it was finally issued on DVD, when it again became a hit.

   Although a B picture compared to it's airborne brethren, 1957's ZERO HOUR! is easily one of the best air disaster movies ever made. This film was also based on a book by Arthur Hailey. In it, a traumatized former pilot must take the controls of his commercial flight when food poisoning hits the flight crew. Dana Andrews had a real knack for playing traumatized heroes who had to overcome in order to save other people. See also his part in the classic JD flick HOT RODS TO HELL.


   For all of it's power, though, ZERO HOUR! has become the genre's black sheep due to the more famous movie AIRPLANE!, which is built around ZERO HOUR!'s plot and dialog. Although a TV staple before the 80's, it's been sadly obscured in AIRPLANE!'s wake. Fortunately, the film is becoming more visible, although the film still draws unfair comparisons from the comedy version.

   Dana Andrews again found himself behind the stick of a troubled aircraft in THE CROWDED SKY. This time around, an Air Force fighter jet collides with a commercial liner, fortunately pretty close to the landing strip. This one isn't bad, although the majority of it is pure soap opera stuff. The real disaster material is held back until the final reel. What's there, though, is pretty impressive. This was 1960, meaning the decade opened and closed with all-star air disaster movies. It was the latter film, though, that created a whole wave of such adventures.


   The first major film to copy AIRPORT was 1972's SKYJACKED. In this one, the crew of a commercial flight must react to the threat of a potential bomber on board. Interestingly, the pilot is Charlton Heston, who would be cast in AIRPORT 1975 only three years later. This one is a worthy addition to the genre, and can easily be considered to be an unofficial AIRPORT movie.

   The 70's were the Golden Age of TV movies, and popularly TV movies try to offer up something akin to the fare being shown on the big screen. There may've been more disaster movies made for television than for theaters! Needless to say, several of these were air disaster vehicles. As much as I love these kinds of movies, I haven't seen all of them so I'll have to focus on the handful that I have seen.

   1975 gave us MURDER ON FLIGHT 502, which combined the elements of the AIRPORT cycle with those of the classic who-done-it. There's a killer aboard a 747, and ground control and the flight crew attempt to uncover him. Stars an impressive array of actors, but is noted mostly for the presence of Farrah Fawcett Majors.

   CRASH is probably the most horrific of the airplane movies, since most of them deal with an averted disaster. CRASH on the other hand details an actual crash of a commercial flight which went down in the Everglades. William Shatner and Eddie Albert star, neither of them strangers to the genre.


   In 1977 came DEATH FLIGHT, which was everything THE CONCORDE... AIRPORT '79 should've been. 

   The film deals with the maiden commercial flight of America's first SST (a fictional plane, as opposed to a real one like seen in most such films, the craft looks much like the Concorde but has the roomy interior of a 747). Industrial sabotage causes the plane to go haywire during the flight, and the trouble is compounded when a deadly germ is accidentally released. Just a superb entry in the genre. My highest recommendations.

   It seems the film was released theatrically in Europe. At least that's the only way I can figure Misty Rowe's nude scene in what is obviously a telefilm!

   THE CONCORDE AFFAIR '79 dealt with industrial espionage. The comically villainous CEO of a traditional aircraft corporation has a terrorist network sabotaging the Concordes in an effort to prevent the new technology from putting him out of business. Fortunately, a reporter is on hand to rescue a stewardess from thugs planning to kill her after she survives one of the crashes. Despite the cynical (and quite goofy) nature of the basic setup, this one is actually pretty good.

   With the early 80's and the release of AIRPLANE!, and AIRPLANE 2: THE SEQUEL, the genre sat dormant for a while. The 1990's finally saw a couple of airplane movies, though...

   TURBULENCE I saw theatrically, but I was too young to really remember much of it. From what I recall, there was a killer on a commercial flight. I think. All I remember for sure is that something happened to the flight crew and once again a stewardess had to land a 747. (If so many of these films feature 747's, it's only because the 747 was the workhorse of the skies for several decades.)

   The closest thing there's been to a fifth AIRPORT movie was AIR FORCE ONE, which details the hijack of the President's plane by terrorists. 

   Other films in the modern age which come close -some closer than others- to the same themes might include CON AIR, FLIGHTPLAN, and RED EYE (the latter two more Hitchcock style suspensers that involve commercial flights).

   Joshua Kennedy (of ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE fame) paid tribute to the genre in 2014 with the YouTube-only release AIRLINE '79. Filmed within the halls of New York's Pace Univeristy, it's a loving valentine to films like SKYJACKED and AIRPORT 1975. Check it out.

   It's a genre that will never die. I hope to make one of these pictures myself someday...

   In the end, the big question is this: Who, aside from George Kennedy, was in more airplane movies, Robert Stack, George Maharis, or Dana Andrews?

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