RogerBW's Blog

Airport 04 October 2021

1970 air disaster film, dir. George Seaton, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin: IMDb / allmovie. Everything's happening at Chicago Airport tonight…

More than a decade after Zero Hour!, we're back with Arthur Hailey; his novelisation of that script had sold well, and he'd written several other books, most recently Hotel (1965) and Airport (1968) – each of which built soap-operatic plots onto its detailed and glamorous setting.

But that's a thing that hasn't aged well about the film, or I suspect the book: in the 1960s and early 1970s intercontinental air travel was still tinged with glamour and was something that most of the audience probably hadn't experienced, but to a modern viewer that reason to watch has simply evaporated, blown away in the jetwash of the 747, just like a newsreel about the exotic South of France. So the emotional effect of that infodump on how you sneak onto planes (Back in the Day, before the airlines realised they could use security as an excuse for invasive revenue protection), because flying is such an exciting thing to do, is largely lost on me.

And frankly I feel the same way about Dean Martin: he was a guy who had fans, once, but here he looks like an ageing has-been, and acts like one too, at least until his Great Redemption. (So maybe that's the point…) Still, he was born during WWI, Jacqueline Bisset was born during WWII, and even with my Seventies Lens on they look as if they would never have anything to talk about, any cultural touchstones in common.

Everyone seems very quick to say "oh no, this plane is stuck, we can't possibly just try the engines again"; it takes hours to shift those few shovelsful of snow from in front of the wheels and get things into place. I think this is an error of filming more than an error of plot, really; it's a plausible situation as described, just not as portrayed. But that's OK, time for another split-screen phone call! (See also the 1968 Thomas Crown Affair, very proud of having this ability.)

What's mostly going on here is a balance between the exciting and glamorous life of the airport, and the personal drama of the people going through it. That first part is cause now for bitter laughter, but the film still gets an energy from it that manages to stop the personal stories from dragging.

The essence of insurance fraud, of course, is information asymmetry. If you know that your chances of dying in an air disaster are very high (because you have a bomb in your briefcase) and the insurer thinks they're low, then… but of course there's no comment on what seems to me a very predatory business model, selling travel insurance to people already in the airport and without the chance to shop round, which was quite common at the time.

This is the first of the air disaster films I've seen in this run that has a jet aircraft in it: a Boeing 707, the first widespread jetliner, twelve years after its introduction at this point but still a solid workhorse. (It could have been the Comet, had it not been for the decision that a window with corners would allow the passengers a better view…) Note that we have an aisle wide enough for people to get past the trolley!

I don't expect, in trash like this, to see "Costumes by Edith Head". Though her uniforms for the cabin crew appear to be patterned after the airline's seat backs…

There are two things that I really appreciate about this film, once all the melodrama's done. One, it has the guts mostly to put the cameras only where cameras could actually be put: there are very few outside shots of the stricken plane in flight, because nobody would see it. Two, there are clearly going to be two divorces coming out of all this personal drama, and (a) that's still a bit edgy in 1970, but (b) Hailey has the guts not to reverse all that and get the established couples back together for a conventionally happy ending.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
The Thomas Crown Affair (I)
Zero Hour!


  1. Posted by John P at 11:17pm on 04 October 2021

    Disaister movies always make me think of the old Spitting Image scene. There's a plane with a variety of characters aboard when one of them suddenly goes, "Hang on! Has anyone noticed that we've got all the people we need for a disaster movie? The crooked politician, the feuding exes, the scared salesman, the sick child!". Everyone starts to panic until someone realises "It's OK! We haven't got a nun with a drink problem or a priest with a guilty secret!". They all relax and then the Pope appears with the line "Hey man, gimme a tequila! I just shot my wife!".

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:29am on 05 October 2021

    Indeed – the soap-opera elements become the cliché and then (in Airplane!, which is the reason I started this run) the parody. Though even the Airport series hunted around looking for new things to do…

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