January 02, 2008

AIRPORT (1969) the mother of all disaster movies

AIRPORT
(1970, USA)

The story so far… ex-RAF pilot Arthur Hailey becomes an author and scripts a hit film in 1957 about a mid-air crisis where the pilots of a passenger plane all get food-poisoning - Zero Hour. When his (very thick) hit novel Hotel turns into a huge smash hit movie in 1967, he re-uses the formula of multiple storylines and a huge cast of characters (long before Stephen King) for another very thick book, an airplane disaster novel. A sort of airbourne Hotel.

The movie of Airport spawned not only three sequels, but set the pattern for the disaster movie cycle of the seventies. Big casts, big names, big disasters, big posters full of big stars...
Unwittingly, the other legacy of Zero Hour, Airport and Airport ’75 was to provide the raw material for the Airplane movies. So it’s now difficult to watch them and take them totally seriously – they often work dramatically, but are constantly sabotaged by occasional stupid characters, dialogue or an excess of melodrama. Rewatching the Airport movies, I was just as impressed by the technical achievements of the films, with actual passenger jets being used for stuntwork.

In Airport, a Boeing 707 drives off the runway into the mud during a snowstorm. It doesn’t look faked at all – they do it for real! The only discernible model shots are the exterior shots of planes in flight, with dry ice unsuccessfully doubling for clouds – making it a perfect double for the opening shot of Airplane!
The script of the first Airport is actually carefully constructed, interweaving multiple storylines that makes all later disaster movie scripts look very lazy. Also, a minimum of peril goes a long way, with very little disaster, but a suspenseful threat of danger tackled not sensationally, but practically. This mostly works thanks to an impressive cast.

Burt Lancaster holds the film together, slowly revealing his affection for assistant Jean Seberg (star of the original Breathless). The charming Jaqueline Bisset has an early starring role, opposite Dean Martin who appears to be reading his lines from offscreen. The fact that most of his TV shows centred around his love of cocktails, must have made his casting as a co-pilot raise a few eyebrows – indeed he’s the least convincing in the cast, despite his star power.


Maureen Stapleton, as the bomber’s wife, acts most of the cast off the screen, but it was Helen Hayes comedy turn as a sweet little old serial stowaway that won an Oscar.

George Kennedy (right) assured his place in later disaster movies, most notably Earthquake, and all the Airport sequels, with his no-nonsense portrayal of teeth-gnashing aviation engineer Joe Patroni.

Apart from a couple of really stupid “there’s a bomb on board!” lines, the technical accuracy of the dialogue really holds up – what may have been too much jargon at the time, is now a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes operations of an international airport, back when tickets were expensive and flying was a treat rather than a chore. I felt that audiences in 1969 were being reassured about flying for the first time and being told what it would involve.

The 2.35 widescreen frame is constantly filled with flashy split-screen effects, used for phone calls and three-way radio hook-ups. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it effectively tells the story.

The action focusses on the airport rather than the airplane, because clearing the blocked runway may be the only way to save a passenger flight with a mad bomber on board. The airport manager and his team are made up of characters that you’d certainly wish were on duty if you were ever in the same situation on a plane. Making tough cigar-chomping decisions quickly and acting on them promptly. Cutting through red tape, rules and regulations to get the job done.

I must mention the opening title music by Alfred Newman – possibly the most exciting start to any movie, despite nothing actually going on!


Airport should definitely be seen widescreen, and is available in a single-disc edition, or as part of the entire franchise collection of four films.



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