Recently, I’ve had occasion to go back and revisit the Airport franchise. The 70s disaster movie arguably came into being with the first film (though the first pure disaster film of that era is more properly The Poseidon Adventure). If the peak of that cycle of cinematic carnage was Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno, and its spectacularly lovable nadir is Allen’s The Swarm, the Airport movies fell somewhere between the two. The best are the first (Airport itself) and third (Airport ’77). The other two – Airport 1975 and The Concorde: Airport ’79 – approach The Swarm‘s level of cosmic ineptitude.
Today, let’s get back to the roots with Airport. As mentioned above, it is not, strictly speaking, a disaster movie in the same sense that the rest of the franchise entries are. Sure, there’s a bomber aboard the plane piloted by Dean Martin, but the threat doesn’t surface until relatively late in the film, and is but one of many intertwining storylines. The sequels would move the catastrophe very much to the centre of the action.
But what Airport does bring to the table, among other joys, is its use and abuse of a Big Name Cast, one of the vital elements of the 70s disaster movie. So here we have Burt Lancaster running the troubled airport of the title. His marriage to Dana Wynter is on the rocks, so will he give in to his feelings for fellow executive Jean Seberg. Meanwhile, brother-in-law and inveterate ladies’ man Dean Martin has knocked up flight attendant Jaqueline Bisset, and maybe he has really found someone he loves after all. It’s on his plane that a despondent Van Heflin boards, determined to blow himself up so that long-suffering wife Maureen Stapleton can collect his life insurance. Things don’t go quite as planned, but the bomb does go off, and the plane must return to the airport. The only little hitch is the ongoing snowstorm, which has led another plane to get stuck, blocking the only suitable runway. The only man competent enough to get a plane out of the snow, it seems, is George Kennedy, who would here seal his fate by playing Joe Patroni, a role he would be doomed to play for the rest of the franchise, when all the other cast members would get to walk away after only putting in their time once.
Okay, got all that? The ridiculous soap operatics, of course, are another element the other films would adopt. The difference here is that whereas the sequels and the likes of Towering Inferno would slave the melodrama to the spectacle, here the disaster, while shaping the climax of the film, is not really part of the audience’s consciousness for the first half. Instead, we can devote all our attention to the various love triangles, or the dubious pleasure of dealing with Helen Hayes as a cute-as-a-button senior citizen stowaway. On the one hand, none of these tales are particularly original or well scripted, and one might be forgiven for wishing for an extra explosion or two. On the other hand, there’s enough camp appeal built into these performances now that they have a very nicely pungent aroma of humour in and of themselves. To Airport‘s credit, furthermore, the characters remain clearly defined and (by the movie’s terms) consistently motivated from start to finish, something that could not be said for the first sequel.
Seen with the benefit of hindsight, then, and knowing exactly what it would spawn, Airport remains a fun way to lose a couple of hours, even if a large part of its interest now lies in tracking the elements that would subsequently be refined into the disaster movie proper, which would prove to be a form as popular as it was short-lived.