Disaster classic: In praise of Airport (1970)

What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? enquired the title of a now-forgotten 1968 George Peppard/Mary Tyler Moore vehicle; and even if one suspects that its oblivion may be merited, we could certainly ask a similar question about the next movie from writer-director George Seaton, the much-maligned Airport (1970).

While it does suffer, and badly, from a central dramatic sagginess — nobody really believes the plane is going to crash, not with a manful Dean Martin in the cockpit and Helen Hayes twinkling in the tourist cabin — there is much to warm to in Airport, and not only in the ironic sense with which we profess love for the clothes and the hairstyles while never wanting to actually wear them.

Airport is a throwback to a more optimistic age, or rather a survival at a time when cynicism had yet to permeate the movies (manifesting itself, inter alia, in that ironic affection for all things pastelly, plasticky and stewardessy).

Of course, the full-blown Nixon-and-Vietnam-infused disenchantment that would soon make itself felt in American cinema never did dominate as much as critical retrospect might suggest; right through the 1970s and beyond, for every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Apocalypse Now there would be a Love Story, Fiddler on the Roof or Heaven Can Wait.

Still: Airport, for all its geeky fascination with the minutiae of then-modern aviation and Seaton’s almost comical delight in split-screen techniques, often seems to belong to a much, much earlier era; Vincent Canby (in The New York Times) perceptively traced its lineage back to Grand Hotel (1932), observing that Airport was “the sort of movie most people mean when they say Hollywood doesn’t make movies the way it used to…because it evokes our nostalgic feelings, not only for the innocence of old movies but also for the innocent old times in which we saw them”.

Indeed, this old-fashionedness was widely recognised by critics at the time, albeit seen as a near-fatal shortcoming rather than a strength. Roger Ebert said that “Airport has an interior clock that came to a stop — I’d estimate — about 1939”; Pauline Kael, who really hated it, called it “bland entertainment of the old school”.

That’s not surprising. Seaton’s own pedigree went back to Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and The Song of Bernadette (1943), while producer Ross Hunter’s credits included such slightly-less-antique, yet far from boat-rocking, movies as Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Why, then, does Airport still work as a film, despite its major dramatic drawback, its preoccupation with now thoroughly obsolete technical detail (as one would expect from anything based on an Arthur Hailey novel), and the fact that it already seemed like a throwback when it was released almost half a century ago?

Partly, I think, because it is impossible to resist the way that it is so committed to its characters and its setting, in such a frank, almost ingenuous, manner.

There are no hidden motivations in Airport; with trivial exceptions, what you see is what you get. Though there are numerous human flaws on display, there is no villain in any meaningful sense; Van Heflin’s would-be suicide bomber is a tragic figure with understandable if misguided motivations, Larry Gates’s Commissioner Ackerman exists only to give token opposition to airport manager Burt Lancaster’s always sensible plans, and does the decent thing in the end.

Then there is (again the Hailey factor) a genuine interest in the world of work which — with a very few notable exceptions like Shattered Glass or Glengarry Glen Ross — is almost completely absent from the cinema today (unless it is for employment and organisations to be castigated as heartless and inhuman), a weird omission given that most of us spend so much time working, and many of us enjoy it.

And there is, almost certainly, no metaphor. Though it is certainly possible to read Airport as arguing that a mixture of strong, can-do government (Lancaster, Martin) and Yankee ingenuity (the great George Kennedy’s maverick mechanic) will save the day even in the face of subversive threat (Heflin), probably that is something one could say about any essentially conservative American movie of the time. It reflects the culture rather than specific intent.

There is, though, humanity. If the characters are hardly subtle, the absence of deeper symbolism means they are always individuals, rather than vehicles for a message; and if there is no baddie, equally nobody’s perfect. Lancaster has allowed his marriage to collapse, Martin is a serial womaniser, Hayes is an apparently compulsive petty criminal, Kennedy is stubborn and bad-tempered.

Nor is anybody there purely for their looks. Even though Jean Seberg, as an airline official on the ground, and Jacqueline Bisset, as the chief stewardess, are significantly younger than the male leads they are both given characters as rounded and confident as the men.

It would be wrong, I’m sure, to read this egalitarianism as a statement; it’s more a by-product of the ensemble structure. But ironically in an all-star cast nobody is really a star, allowing Seaton to create some scenes that are much more powerful than a more conventionally name-driven movie might permit.

For example, although Lancaster is kind-of the lead, the character who ties the threads together much like Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno, Seaton is frequently content to keep him on the sidelines: most notably in a fine episode where he and other ground staff gently interrogate Heflin’s wife (Maureen Stapleton, in the best performance of the movie, and the one character for whom things end sadly through no fault of her own).

Stapleton’s role is minor, but here she’s at the centre of the screen, Lancaster relegated to the edges. There’s a 1940s flavour to the whole episode; Stapleton could be the weeping dame, Lancaster the tough-but-not-heartless PI, Seberg his secretary; one could imagine it coming out of something like The Maltese Falcon, an impression that’s backed up at this point in Airport by the derivative histrionics of Alfred Newman’s score (although in other scenes like the final aircraft descent he adopts a much more modernist, Bernsteinian mode).

And then there’s that descent scene: even if Seaton has been occupied for most of the movie with giving equal treatment to his multiple strands and large cast, he handles the climax in a strikingly different way. Up until then, the film has often moved restlessly from one thread and one place to another; even in the cockpit-tower conversations, the director has been unable to resist his beloved split screens.

But the sudden absence of these devices, the almost complete concentration on Martin and fellow pilot Barry Nelson, the apparent emptiness of the passenger cabin in the brief cuts back to it (the terrified occupants are leaning low, braced for impact), the way that cloud removes any visual context we might glimpse through the cockpit window, the relentless counting down of minutes in a single confined space: these contrast so much with the rest of the movie that it becomes a a truly gripping scene.

Airport was, curiously, the penultimate movie credit for both Seaton and Hunter, the latter of whom ended his big-screen career with the disastrous Lost Horizon a few years later (although he returned to Hailey’s oeuvre to produce a TV mini-series of The Moneychangers).

Its influence, though, lasted much longer than their careers, setting off a chain of disaster movies that regularly imperilled large, heterogenous casts throughout the 1970s and beyond (perhaps most notably in The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, more than Airport’s own sequels) before the genre became buried in special effects and excessive production values during the 1990s (Armageddon, Titanic, etcetera).

And, of course, it spawned a parody (Airplane!) which if anything is nowadays better-loved than the original. So it’s perhaps no surprise that we sometimes view Airport itself through the lenses of irony.

Yet it deserves better than giggles; being old-fashioned and well-meaning are not necessarily faults, and though it undoubtedly doesn’t succeed as a thriller, that is surely not all it’s trying to be.

It’s a far more inclusive and generous-spirited — and, despite its gee-whiz awe for engineering, far more human — movie than many of today’s slick, knowing, ruthlessly efficient blockbusters.

This article was originally published in The View From 8D, a Quora space.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.

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