Written by Arthur Hailey and George Seaton
Directed by George Seaton
What happens when you cross an airport in the midst of a snowstorm with an overworked airport manager, an arrogant grounds keeper, pilots who seem to boff everything in sight while their wives just sit back and accept it, neighbors who want one runway shut down permanently, stewardesses who look like sex-kittens, a dejected passenger with a bomb, and an old lady who makes it a habit of stowing away aboard flights?
It’s hard to believe now, when looking at this movie on DVD, that this could ever be a blockbuster. That’s not to say the film is bad – it’s actually better than most disaster flicks I’ve watched – but it still leaves much to be desired.
It’s a snowy night in Lincoln. Mel Bakesfield (Burt Lancaster), the airport manager, is trying to keep the airport open when a landing jet misjudges the taxiway and gets stuck in the snow at one side. This closes one of the runways. The runway left open is the one the neighbors complain about, and their voices start rising.
Captain Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin) arrives for a flight to Rome. He bids his wife goodbye in front of Bakersfield. A conversation between Bakersfield and Mrs. Demarest (Barbara Hale) lets us know that they are brother and sister, and that both of them know Vernon has been cheating on his wife – frequently. She just mousily accepts it and states that he always comes back to her.
Meanwhile, Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes) is taken off of a flight she had stowed away on and brought to Bakersfield’s assistant, Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg). She intends to put her on a flight right back to where she came from. The airlines don’t prosecute little old ladies who just wish to see their grandchildren because it’s bad publicity, you see.
Mr. Guerrero (Van Heflin) is a man who has lost everything. He has blown job after job. His wife works in a diner to pay the rent, but they can’t afford to raise their children who are now living with an aunt. To give a final bit of support to his family, he takes out a hefty flight-insurance policy and boards the flight to Rome with a bomb in his briefcase.
Meanwhile, Captain Demarest is informed by the latest stewardess he’s bedded, Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bissett), that she’s pregnant. They have a discussion of the options available to her, but nothing for sure is resolved before the flight takes off.
While trying to keep the airport open, Bakersfield receives a call from his wife (Dana Wynter). She’s angry that he has missed a charity reception she had scheduled for that night. This sets the two of them up for divorce, as well as leading into a romantic relationship between Bakersfield and Livingston.
WHAT I LIKED
One thing that’s hard to do in disaster flicks is make us care about the people involved. Quite often you have a menagerie of people put together in a crisis situation and the first half or so of the movie is devoted to trying to make the viewer care about what happens to them. Unlike many later disaster flicks, Airport sets this up very well. The viewer is given just enough information about the main characters on board the plane that we care about what is happening to them, even if we think they are jerks (more on that later). Credit here goes to Arthur Hailey for the book upon which this is based, and director George Seaton for his adaptation of the novel.
The scenes at the airport were very well done. Seeing the plane stuck at the end of the runway and the trouble the grounds crew is have extricating it from it’s predicament is done very well. George Kennedy is perfect at the arrogant airport grounds captain, determined to do it his way, even if it means breaking every rule in the book.
In fact, the acting in general is pretty good in this film. Helen Hayes won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the stowaway Ada Quonsett. This part is a good bit of comic relief in an otherwise serious film. It’s nice to see that it doesn’t take itself too seriously at times.
I could identify with the issue of a runway bordering a residential neighborhood. We live in the take-off pattern for Kennedy Airport and I grew up in the landing pattern. The noise level at times can drive you nuts, and despite Bakersfield’s rantings and ravings, I did honestly feel sorry for the neighbors who just want to spend a peaceful evening at home and get a good night’s sleep. I was also sympathetic to Bakersfield, because he has the responsibility of making sure that all the people in the air land safely, whether that disturbs the neighbors or not.
I also felt a good case was made for keeping a women’s right to choose, although not overtly. When Captain Demarest is talking about his girlfriend being pregnant, his first instinct is an abortion (illegal at the time in this country) and he offers to make sure she’s taken care of in Sweden instead of some illicit back-street hideaway. Would the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade really stop abortions? No. These statements alone from the time before it was legal show how easy it was for them to contemplate that decision.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
Where to begin? If this is the morals of this time, it’s a miracle this country survived. The next time I hear someone talking about how screwed up we are morally now, I’m going to suggest they watch this film.
It seems that all of the men (with the notable exception of Captain Anson Harris – portrayed by Barry Nelson) are cheating on their wives. If the wives know about it, they seem to just accept it with a shrug. I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure wouldn’t just accept it. The men seem to have no guilt about doing it either – it really amazed me.
These are not free-love hippies we’re talking about. These are middle-aged professional men and women who just seem to accept this as a regular part of their lives. It really baffled me watching this, that the people who probably looked down their noses at the hippie movement were off carrying on illicit affairs themselves with no guilt.
Seeing a man take a bomb aboard a plane and the effects it has makes for great suspense. However, in these days after shoe-bomber Richard Reid, it feels just a little bit too real. I felt like what happened to the plane as a result of Guerrero’s bomb was somewhat accurate to what would have happened had Reid succeeded (possibly worse since I don’t know the difference in plastique explosives versus dynamite, and the location where each one was seated at the time). I also felt that Guerrero was so worried about taking care of his own family, yet he never once showed any remorse for thinking about killing that whole plane-load of people; he never once contemplated backing out of his plan.
At 137 minutes, the film is quite long. The DVD is also not in widescreen, something you may notice a few times when conversations take place with people who are on the edge of the viewing screen. However, it didn’t lose my attention. While not something I would think would have made it as a blockbuster in this day and age, I think it was fine for it’s time and also to see on television or rent. I definitely could not see spending modern-day movie prices to see it.
Written by Arthur Hailey and George Seaton