Airport (1970)

Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin star in this impressively well written film, the first all-star disaster movie. Universal R2 boxset DVD.

The Film

Lincoln International Airport near Chicago and snow is falling heavily. A Trans-Global Airlines flight gets stuck in the snow while taxiing and blocks the airport's main runway leaving only the smaller second runway open. Airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) faces a problem - this runway flies over some local residental areas and the residents are not happy when it suddenly doubles in usage - and by staying at the airport all night to fix the problem he enrages his wife and endangers their already shaky marriage. Meanwhile his brother-in-law Capt. Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) is preparing to fly the The Golden Argosy, TGA's over-night flight to Rome but shortly before take-off his "favourite air stewardess" Gwen Meighen informs him that she is pregnant with his child. Also on the flight is the elderly Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes) who happens to be a frequent stow-away and D. O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), a heavily depressed construction worker, planning to blow himself and the plane up with a suitcase bomb so that his wife will receive payout from the life insurance he has just taken out...

Based on Arthur Hailey's very popular book Airport (1968), which he wrote after the sucess of his ealier script for the Canadian television film Flight into Danger (1956), Airport (1970) was the forerunner to the all star disaster movies of the 1970s, although in contast to their often generic, paper thin characters, it boasts a very strong script. The film all revolves around the Golden Argosy flight, but it does not actually take off until well over an hour into the film (this is a strong contrast to Airport's three sequels, all of which see take-off within 20 minutes) and instead we get extensive detail both on the running of the airport and on the film's main characters. Despite fears, these sequences never drag on, or come off as gratuitous, but instead help to create some well rounded characters that we actually care about and understand. Similarly, plenty of minor characters pop up throughout to help flesh out the story and their dialogue is always well written. Of particular interest is the character of D. O. Guerrero - he is genuinely acting in, what he believes to be, a completely selfless manner and is in such a desperate situation that he does not even consider the negative consequences of his actions - a much more rounded character than in many similar films (interestingly this entire sub-plot is based on a real life incident, the destruction of Continental Airlines Flight 11 in 1962, by a man with similar motives). The Ada Quonsett character is obviously intended as a light comic relief, but fortunately is very well written into the plot and certainly a contrast to the rather forced comic relief that has destroyed many a fine film.

In keeping with Hailey's novel (which the script remains relatively faithful to throughout, with some minor changes due to time constraints) the film provides a lot of detail on the day-to-day operation of a major international airport; from the conflicts between pilots and ground operators, to the problems of local residents and the effects of snow - of couse this very modern film at the time, is very dated now (note the massive buzzing pagers and handset telephones in the call centres) but it still stands as an interesting time capsule of a by-gone era. The sequences on board the plane, including the crew's dialogue and actions, are very well researched and realistic and helps to give a strong backing to the film, avoiding it becoming a work of fantasy like many disaster movies. Helping this is the relatively understated level of the 'disaster' - many later films, notably Airport 1975 (1974), would pile problem on problem to keep up the suspense, instead Airport keeps the tension high by slowly building up for over half the run time and relying on the effective characters to keep the viewers interested in whether or not they would survive. The ending is also worthy of note, suitably wrapping up all the important plot strands but without dragging on too long.

Director George Seaton does good work behind the camera - a lot of use is made of split-screen shots, which although generally derided these days, work very well here and a lengthy PoV shot from the stewardess' perspective is impressive. The real airport locations (with extensive and very realistic looking fake snow) and the sets are all very well used and there is a large cast of extras to add some more realism. There are very few mid-air shots during the flight, but those that are shot use some good looking models, while the ground shots were filmed with a real Boeing 707. Nine time Oscar winner Alfred Newman provides his final score here and shows that he has lost none of his touch - the solid and exciting orchestral score helps to add tension to the dramatic scenes and gives the film one of the best openings in cinema.

Burt Lancaster leads the all star cast, alongside Dean Martin, and both give stand-out performances - highly convincing in their roles. 1930s film star Helen Hayes returns to the big screen after 14 years in a superb and Oscar winning performance as Ada Quonsett, showing off some perfect comic timing but aided by a strong script that could have seen her character become just annoying. Old Western star Van Helfin is a standout as D. O. Guerrero and he really helps to give the character sympathetic depth, despite his actions in the film. The very attractive Jacqueline Bisset and Jean Seberg give strong performances, as do the rest of the cast, while a young looking George Kennedy as Joe Patroni would go on to appear in all three of the sequels.

Although its reputation has become rather tarnished by the comparatively sloppy sequels, Airport (1970) remains a surprisingly strong and effective film thanks to an impeccably researched and written script that has enough characterisation to fill a mini-series. Eschewing over-the-top action scenes, the film remains realistic throughout and thus boasts a lot more tension than many of the later disaster movies. With its accurate depiction of airport proceedures in the 1970s, Airport is highly recommended to plane/aviation fans and as a forerunner to the big disaster movies of the 1970s it should prove of interest to fans of these too. Generally recommended for anyone who wants some good, cleverly written entertainment and doesn't need mile-a-minute action scenes.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Burt Lancaster - One of Hollywood's biggest stars, well known for his lead roles in Westerns and war films.
Dean Martin - Star of Ocean's Eleven (1960), also well known as a singer and member of the Rat Pack.
Directed by anyone interesting? George Seaton - best known for the classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street (1947) he also helmed the wartime thriller 36 Hours (1965) and post-war drama The Big Lift (1950)
Any gore or violence ? None.
Any sex or nudity? None
Who is it for? One for all fans of airplane and disaster movies, and generally recommended to all.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour
The print is strong with good colours and only mild grain.
Audio English 5.1 and DTS remixes. Sound fine.
(The film originally had a 6 track soundtrack, unclear if the 5.1 is based on this, or a modern remix.)
Subtitles English HOH.
Extras The disc includes:
  • The dramatic original theatrical trailer. Relatively low condition.
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Availability Only available in the Airport Terminal Pack boxset.
Other regions? There is a near-identical US boxset release. A single disc version is also available in the UK, with mono sound - possibly a different print.
Cuts? The film is believed to be uncut. The print used is English language.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 30th January 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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