Starring Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, Barry Nelson, and Lloyd Nolan
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Emotionally engaging disaster melodrama proves better than its reputation.
I know I’m not supposed to like Airport, or, at least, I’m supposed to like it only in an ironic way. It’s not a movie that serious connoisseurs of film consider worthwhile. Too often, we lump it in with the increasingly ridiculous sequels, rip-offs, and parodies and forget that the original movie actually had cinematic merit instead of just camp value.
Airport is known as the movie that inaugurated the disaster cycle of the 1970s, but it’s hardly the first disaster movie. It owes a lot to the 1950s films No Highway in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, particularly the latter, in which a crippled airplane filled with eccentric characters played by an all-star cast tries to make it to safety.
Also, what might be surprising about Airport to first-time viewers is how little of the movie actually involves the disaster, in this case a bomb on an airplane. The bomb doesn’t go off until an hour and forty-three minutes into the movie. Until that time, the movie plays more like a sky-high version of Grand Hotel, a movie where characters undergoing disparate dramas all converge in the same place at the same time. For this movie, they come together at the titular airport during a blizzard.
Produced by Ross Hunter, Airport recalls some of his glamorous melodramas of the 1950s, including the films he made with director Douglas Sirk: Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, and All That Heaven Allows. A number of the storylines in Airport have to deal with romantic problems, including those between put-upon airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) and his cold fish of a wife, Cindy (Dana Wynter), and between arrogant pilot Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) and his stewardess mistress, Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset). The domestic nature of these conflicts undermines Airport’s reputation. It’s often dismissed as petty soap opera as opposed to something of real importance. That people’s domestic lives are considered trivial suggests more about the critical standards used to judge movies than it does about Airport.
The valuation of Airport suffers among critics and serious filmgoers because of how old-fashioned it seemed, even when it first appeared. The conflicts recalled 1950s melodramas and a lot of the filming techniques looked ten to fifteen years old when it came out. The stars, at least many of them, had their heydays decades earlier. Released at a time of great dynamism in cinema, Airport was a throwback to an age of Hollywood glamour that didn’t resemble the innovative artistry of the era of the film’s release.
Taken out of time and looked at as a classic movie, it matters less that Airport wasn’t on the cutting edge of cinema. In fact, as a throwback, it succeeds in a way that more innovative and contemporary-feeling films fail—it’s about characters who resemble real people with concerns, feelings, goals, backgrounds, and interests that are familiar, including, for example, a middle-aged man who uses work to avoid his disappointing home life, a lonely old woman who can’t afford trips to visit her family, an unemployed veteran at the end of his rope, a teenage girl excited about her first trip to Europe, and an unfaithful husband who finds his extracurricular relationship is more serious than he thought.
The performances are generally solid. Lancaster, Martin, Bisset, Jean Seberg, Barry Nelson, Lloyd Nolan, and George Kennedy stand out as characters who are all very good at their jobs and who must solve the problem caused by the bomb—first trying to separate it from the mentally ill man who brings it aboard and, then, dealing with the damage to the plane after the bomb goes off. One flaw in the film occurs because the script hesitates to show any of the heroes as less than exemplary in their jobs, so the attempt to wrest the bomb from the bomber fails because of the actions of an obnoxious passenger. This character, played by Peter Turgeon, belongs in one of the films campier sequels. His behavior is so unrestrained as to be comical. To have a minor character’s ill-advised action lead to the pivotal event of the movie, the explosion of the bomb, is a cheap writing tactic. Since the bomb has to go off—it would epitomize anti-climax if the bomb didn’t explode—good writing should have the moment come out of some organic action of one or more of the main characters. And the bathos-laden moment during the plane’s descent involving this character and the priest should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Turgeon’s character adds camp to the movie as does the more famous, Oscar-winning performance of Helen Hayes as stowaway Ada Quonsett, but on the whole, the film’s tone is serious, not camp. This is not a movie with singing nuns, a stewardess flying the plane, a plane underwater, the whole crew succumbing to food poisoning, or any of the other over-the-top mishegas associated with the sequels and parodies. In this movie, unlike films appreciated only for camp value, the viewers care about the characters.
I’ll admit it. I enjoy Airport. Far from liking it on a camp level, the parts that I like least are the campiest. The conflicts in the film may not rise to the level of world crisis, but they reflect the little dramas that everyone faces, here heightened by an extraordinary situation. That’s the key feature of the disaster genre. Too often in later such films, the characterization is given the short-shrift in favor of spectacle, with stock figures and trite conflicts substituted for character and plot development, resulting in cheap sensationalism instead of genuine audience engagement. Airport, however, provides more of the latter than its reputation would suggest. It’s a classic that stands up to repeat viewing, much more than many of its more innovative contemporaries.