Disaster Films: Airport


Well, 2017 is almost over. For the last month of the year I thought I’d write about disaster films. I’m not sure why, but I always end up watching at least one on New Year’s Eve. It dates back to one year a dear friend and I decided to have pizza and watch The Poseidon Adventure to ring in the new year. I’ll write about that one later. The disaster film is a genre where you usually find great special effects, thin plot lines, and a roll call of A-list celebrities. To kick things off, I figured I’d start with the film that started it all: Airport.

The plot of Airport revolves around the personnel and passengers at one airport over the span of twelve hours.

Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the hard-charging manager of Lincoln International Airport, trying to keep his airport open despite a raging Midwestern snowstorm and an angry wife. Meanwhile, his antagonistic brother-in-law, Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), may have his plans for a placid layover in Italy disturbed by unexpected news from Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset), and by the plans of D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), the loose cannon on board.–IMDB

Airport was based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Arthur Hailey. While there’s a lot going on, the screenplay never feels overwhelmed by all the stories it has to tell. No wonder screenwriter George Seaton received an Oscar nomination. The film was actually nominated for a handful of Oscars an won one: Helen Hayes for best supporting actress. Unlike many of the films that it inspired, Airport even garnered a nomination for Best Picture.

I want to mention one reason that Airport has a special place in my heart. It was filmed mostly at an airport that I pass through frequently. As IMDB notes,

The field and terminal scenes were filmed entirely at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport due to the abundance of snowfall during the winter months there, although at first the film’s producers were forced to use bleached sawdust as a supplement, to make up for the lack of falling snow, until a snowstorm hit the Twin Cities area during the production of the film.–IMDB

A great deal of my travel memories involve the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Well, at least at the beginning. Nothing says fun quite like a plane delay because they have to de-ice the wings. Getting there is half the fun, or so they say. But I digress.

Airport, as I alluded to earlier, features a roll call of big name stars of the time. Among them are: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin (in his final film role), and ubiquitous character actor George Kennedy. Also in the cast is Dana Wynter, an actress I think gets overlooked far too often. I don’t want to put together a laundry list of all the story lines that unfold in the film’s nearly 2 1/2 hour running time. But everyone gets a fair amount of screen time. But the one who will steal your heart is Helen Hayes as an airplane stow away. She deserved her Oscar.

The film works not only because of its talented cast and the fascinating real-life drama of the various characters, but because the source of the other drama comes from real things that cause problems at airports. There are airplane fuel problems, frozen runways, equipment malfunctions, etc. It feels like it could all happen in real-life. You’re with the characters in their situations every step of the way.

Airport no doubt feels silly to modern audiences. Part of this is likely because the film and its sequels were brilliantly lampooned in Airplane!. But the original material is worth seeing for its A-list cast, well-written screenplay, and for the great shots of Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. And if you watch it, you’ll get even more of the jokes in Airplane!.


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