Airport, which was released on March 5, 1970, is generally recognized as the first disaster movie, initiating a genre that, for better or worse, has been with us ever since.
Based on a novel of the same name by Arthur Hailey that sold more copies than any other book in 1968, the film established virtually all the quirks the disaster genre became famous for. There’s a large, all-star cast, including Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset and George Kennedy. There’s a busy public location packed with innocent bystanders. There is, of course, a disaster. And the hero is a harried everyman, doing his best to hold things together despite the fact that bureaucratic incompetence, marital implosion and Mother Nature herself seem to be conspiring to lay waste to the institution and people he’s been tasked with watching over.
The everyman here is Mel Bakersfield (Lancaster), the manager of Lincoln International Airport, outside Chicago. He’s having a bad night. The worst snow storm in a decade has hit his airport, a pilot has miscalculated and gotten a Boeing 707 stuck in the snow halfway off a runway and Bakersfield’s wife (Dana Wynter) is sick of his job getting in the way of their marriage and wants a divorce. As if that’s not enough, he’s also having an affair with the head customer-relations agent for an airline (Jean Seberg), and continually locks horns with his brother-in-law Vernon Demerest (Martin), a cocky pilot who’s supposed to be flying a plane to Rome that night.
Demerest has his own problems as well. He’s gotten a stewardess (Bisset) pregnant and is facing a disruption in his own marriage. After he gets his 707 off the ground in the blizzard, he also realizes he’s got a pair of troublesome passengers. One is Ada Quonsett, an elderly woman whose hobby is sneaking aboard airplanes to get where she wants to go without paying for it. (Helen Hayes won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Quonsett.) The other is D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), a building-demolition expert who has fallen on hard times and is planning to blow up the airplane so his wife can collect the insurance money from his death.
Watch the ‘Airport’ Trailer
When Guerrero detonates his bomb in the bathroom of the plane, blowing a hole in the fuselage, Demerest realizes the only airport east of the Mississippi that’s not shut down because of the storm is Lincoln. So, he turns the plane around and heads back. But the only runway he can use to land is the one blocked by the 707 stuck in the snowdrift, meaning that the chief mechanic (Kennedy) has to take desperate measures to get the plane moved in time.
For much of its running time, Airplane functions as a domestic and procedural melodrama. Even though one of the original posters for the movie features a burning 707 on a snowy runway (a plot element that never occurs), the film is ultimately far more interested in exploring the private lives of its characters and the functioning of the airport that brings them together than in thrilling viewers with stunts and explosions.
This caused a great deal of consternation among critics at the time of its release. Virtually all of the heavyweight pundits – from Variety to Pauline Kael to Roger Ebert – hated the movie. Excited by the American New Wave cinema of the late ’60s, they saw Airport as laughably retrograde. The Graduate had already destroyed notions of domestic life; Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch had advanced the action and adventure film to new heights of violence and verisimilitude. What could an old-fashioned drama featuring aging stars possibly offer a newer, hipper audience?
Plenty, it turns out. Airport earned more than $100 million, 10 times its budget. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and spawned three sequels. Airport 1975, which featured a 747 struggling to land after being struck midair by a small airplane, and Airport ’77, in which the passengers of an airliner are trapped underwater after crashing into the Bermuda Triangle, were big hits. The unintentionally hilarious The Concorde: Airport ’79 failed to connect with audiences and marked the end of the franchise.
Airport‘s greatest influence was in the genre it founded; disaster-movie imitations were soon hatched right and left. Two years later came The Poseidon Adventure, about the survivors of a cruise ship that gets flipped upside-down in a storm; 1974 brought both The Towering Inferno, about people trapped in a burning skyscraper in San Francisco, and Earthquake, whose plot is accurately reflected in its title.
More would follow until, by the ’80s, the genre was parodied in movies like Airplane. By the ’90s – undaunted by the parodies – Sylvester Stallone was saving people from the collapse of the New Jersey Tunnel (Daylight), Pierce Brosnan was saving them from lava (Dante’s Peak) and Tommy Lee Jones was saving them from even more lava (Volcano). That trend continued well into the new millennium with more sinking ships, asteroids threatening to wipe out the planet, global-warming catastrophes, pandemics and the terrifying menace of the Mayan calendar.
Despite the disapproval of critics, Airport hit on a successful formula. The writing and direction (both by George Seaton, a longtime president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science) is no more than workmanlike. The cinematography, by Ernest Laszlo, is perhaps a step above that, though its infatuation with split-screen images can be wearying. But at the heart of the movie is a story of the impossibly complex workings of modern life and the ease with which that can be fatally disrupted. This is a story that fascinated audiences and still does.
The melodramatic marital affairs, personal despair and shenanigans of the elderly stowaway in Airport do more than make us care about the characters. They also remind us of the fact of how susceptible we all are to the larger forces around us, and of the fact that the moment when all of our individual stories collide and become visible to one another is the exact moment we are the most vulnerable. You may not know anything about your neighbor or the man sitting next to you on the airplane when things are going okay in the world, but when disaster strikes, you’re going to learn a lot in a hurry. Airport put all that into a movie.