Airport is a disaster movie where I kept waiting for the disaster to happen. Was it going to be Burt Lancaster’s airport manager Bakersfeld stroking out from fighting with his boss and his shrewish wife? Was it going to be George Kennedy’s airport maintenance chief Joe Patroni having a heart attack due to shoveling too much snow? Or would Dean Martin’s smarmy playboy pilot have a fainting spell right there in the middle of the airplane once his stewardess mistress (Jacqueline Bissett) announces she’s pregnant?
Sure, Van Heflin plays Guerrero, the most sweaty, suspicious bomber in cinema history, but once he quite literally destroys the bathroom aboard the plane due to something other than the airline food, the drama shifts to the less-than-exciting routine of shots of the pilots, control tower and airport manager shouting out positions and estimated time of arrivals.
It’s true that on the descent, the folks aboard the airplane had to contend with whether the back part of the plane would break off (represented by a growing crack in the ceiling) and whether Patroni could get a stuck airplane off the runway before Bakersfeld turned the snow plows loose on the plane instead to clear the runway. But is there really any suspense in whether a plane is going to be damaged being pushed out of the way by snow plows so that another plane full of passengers doesn’t crash?
Worse for a movie of Airport‘s length (137 minutes) is that until they realize a bomb is on board the plane, there’s 90 minutes where the biggest crisis is whether Bakersfeld is going to be able to keep the airport open despite a large snowstorm. The film never made clear why it was so important to keep it open, especially since Bakersfeld himself complained that the airport was outdated and needed an expansion. In fact, it only had two runways, one of which was blocked by the stuck plane. I spent the first part of the movie wondering why the crazed Bakersfeld wasn’t relieved of his duties for endangering the lives of everyone in the ground and in the air by not shutting down and diverting air traffic somewhere else!
This first hour and a half then is spent introducing you to characters and situations who would matter little to the drama of trying to land the plane. There’s the animosity between brothers-in law Bakersfeld and Martin’s pilot Demerest. After trading insults at the beginning of the film, nothing else is made of this conflict, nor is it brought to any conclusion.
Worse, much screen time is devoted to Helen Hayes’ little old lady stowaway character who served as comic relief until late in the film when Captain Demerest laughingly uses her in a scheme to try and snatch the bomb from Guerrero. (Hayes won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, beating out Maureen Stapleton who played the mad bomber’s wife. Stapleton’s big moment was also one of the film’s worst when she runs through the airport after the plane lands and hysterically tells everyone how sorry she is for what her husband did.)
Airport is often derided as hilarious camp (even Burt Lancaster felt the film was junk, though it made him and Martin millions on smart profit participation deals), but while it does have its moments that you wish would have been edited out (Demerest and his mistress discussing the possibility of having an abortion within ever using the word abortion, Bakersfeld screaming about public funding for airports being cut, and Demerest’s co-pilot telling him that his wife’s unplanned pregnancies were the best), nothing particularly stood out as exceptionally over the top like you might encounter in one of those Lana Turner or Joan Crawford melodramas of the 1950s and 1960s.
To be sure, the film has dated badly particularly with how it handles airport security. In the film there simply isn’t any security other than a suspicious customs inspector whose concerns about Guerrero are brushed aside with the admonition that the inspectors in Rome can handle it when the plane lands. It isn’t the film’s fault that current events have sadly made such a situation quaint, but watching the bomber simply get his bomb on the plane by putting it in his carry on luggage and clutching it is surely the film’s biggest eye rolling moment.
The movie is also hampered by characters who don’t show any growth and that you don’t really root for. The arrogant Bakersfeld only finally puts his personal life in front of the job after his wife leaves him and one of his daughters runs away when he invites himself to his sexy co-worker’s apartment. Demerest accompanies his mistress to the hospital as his saintly wife stares in disbelief. The stowaway complains that stowing away was more fun than finally being given a real ticket. At least Patroni got the box of cigars he was promised for getting the stuck plane off the runway.
Airport was a huge success for Universal, spawning not only three sequels but the entire 1970s disaster genre that saw the likes of The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake quickly follow its template of big name actors, actresses and numerous guest stars beset by personal problems on their way to a common disaster. It set the bar so low (it’s actually more of “near disaster” movie than a disaster movie) though with its rinky dink bomb, single fatality and one serious injury, modern audiences used to disaster movies on a grand scale (Independence Day, 2012, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow, every single SyFy Channel movie) will wonder what all the fuss is about.
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