Airport – 1970

Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bissit

The music (by Alfred Newman) that pummels its way through Airport's sound track feels like music suitable for a large-scale, grandiose war film. The aural environment of that other genre isn't too far from what Airport [1] is, though, because we see conflicts with humans vs the elements (in this case a lethal snow storm), humans vs machinery and equipment (a stuck Boeing 707), humans up against an unknown passenger carrying a bomb, and the emotional turmoil between the characters in the cast, and there's a lot of that.

The large ensemble of main characters gives us a panoply of marriages breaking up; management in-fighting (Burt Lancaster as airport manager Mel Bakersfield up against just about everybody above him in rank); a stewardess having an affair with a married pilot (Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset); an habitual airplane stowaway who runs rings around the airlines trying to stop her (Helen Hayes earning her second Oscar in the role of Ada Quonsett) [2]; Van Heflin as a despairing and desperate middle-aged man who fixes upon the idea of blowing up an airplane (with himself on it) after taking out a large flight insurance policy to finally show his soon to be widowed-wife that he can finally provide for her after a lifetime of job failures.

The movie is seeded with enough back stories to fuel an opera (or at least a soap opera) but there's also a soft technical exploration of how thousands of airplanes are able to criss-cross the skies of the world without crashing into each other, and how the workers inside an airport are able to manage the transportation of tens-of-thousands of people and their luggage on tight schedules without it all descending into chaos with every glitch.

Director George Seaton has a smooth visual narration style that lets us absorb what's happening at the airport while our ears are hearing the dialogue of the characters telling each other their private woes. Intertwined with the romances and angry disagreements of human beings under pressure, a dose of bad weather hits the fictitious "Lincoln Airport" and begins stranding planes on the runways. Since that is the very place that absolutely must stay clear to allow other airliners waiting to land to do so, Lancaster calls in George Kennedy (as Patroni), a genius mechanic who can figure out how to make impossible things happen.

Meanwhile, a local neighborhood group is demanding flight patterns get changed so that the big jets stop landing and launching near the tops of their houses, the stowaway gets caught but escapes, and Bakersfield (Lancaster) is fighting an off-and-on battle over the phone with his demanding wife (Dana Wynter) while trying to get the stranded 707 off the runway, and is in the progress of noticing his long-suffering assistant Jean Seberg more and more (and more).

With things getting out of hand at the airport and in the sky, pilot Dean Martin (as Capt. Vernon Demerest) learns the stewardess he's having the affair with is pregnant (and to keep things that much closer to our core character, Dean Martin's pilot is also Lancaster's brother-in-law, and they do not get along). While the pilot and the stewardess try to figure out what to do next, the pilot's wife (Barbara Hale) is rushing through the snow to see him at the airport.

Director Seaton also wrote the script (from the novel by Arthur Hailey) that the film uses to get all of these characters from one end of the story to the other end, and his ability to juggle all of this and keep it simple and plain for the audience is one of the highlights of the movie (or detrimental. Critic Gene Siskel said the movie "tells you everything twice").

The tragic saga of the bomber is played as pathos, and the dilemma of all these husbands who can't get along with their wives (except for Patroni. Apparently he's a genius in this area, too) is an element that dates the film to its time period and makes it sort've campy in retrospect for some audiences who've probably seen the jokes derived from this series (best example being the comedy Airplane! from 1980 by Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker).

As problems around Lincoln Airport begin to narrow and get solved (including Lancaster realizing his prickly wife isn't worth the struggle, and George Kennedy risking everything on using a solution everyone else says won't work) all of these previous troubles are eclipsed by the realization an unknown passenger on board a just departed 707 is carrying a bomb, which is where the talents of the stowaway, who snuck onboard this plane too, suddenly come into play.

Airport was a huge hit [3] when it came out [4] in 1970, and spawned a host of sequels and many imitators, and the template of mixing disaster with a menu of back stories shows up in the burgeoning genre thereafter, whether it's Jaws or the last film in the series, Airport '79 The Concorde.


1. Airport is called by some the beginning of the "disaster film" genre, though it already existed if films like Deluge (1933), San Francisco (1936), and Hurricane (1937) count.

2. Helen Hayes' first Oscar was for the 1932 A Farewell to Arms

3. Burt Lancaster made millions off of profit sharing on the movie. On the other hand, his aesthetic judgement was that it was "a piece of junk."

4. With a reported production budget of $10 million, it went on to earn $128+ million, which adjusted for inflation would be well over one billion dollars in earnings in 2021. An average movie ticket in 1970 cost $1.50. When broadcast on TV in November 1973, it garnered the largest audience in TV history until Gone with the Wind beat it in 1976 [for more info about all of this, see the Wikipedia page here.).

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Original Page November 10, 2021