I have a confession… And it isn’t very “studious film scholar of me”. Okay, here it goes, I enjoy disaster movies, particularly of the ‘Airplane in Trouble’ variety. Perhaps it is the usually star-studded casts, or maybe its the delightfully mod, mid-century design of the period, or are they just compelling as you-know-what? So, when TCM ran a few entries into the sub-genre throughout the month of December, I found myself diving into some of the pictures still languishing on my list. Yes, fair and gentle readers, you’re going to be seeing the results of that over the next couple of weeks, but we have to start somewhere.
So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Favorite ‘Airplane in Trouble’ Movies.
5.) Airplane (1980)
Of all the films on this list, I do have a particularly nostalgic relationship with this one. As an 80s baby, this is a movie I remember watching quite a lot at a young age. Thinking back on it, Airplane also introduced me to the host of classic works it parodied… I just understand the references yet.
Airplane is widely considered one of the greatest Hollywood comedies ever. Though, I must admit, my relationship with the movie is a bit more conflicted after first-time-watching Zero Hour in December. However, this doesn’t change where Airplane sits in the pantheon of Hollywood comedy.
The film follows Ted Stryker (Robert Hays), a veteran struggling with PTSD. He’s forced to confront his struggles when he’s the only person able to land a passenger airliner when the crew and passengers are overcome with food poisoning.
Airplane is is available for purchase here.
4.) Skyjacked (1972)
This was a 2020 first-time-watch for me when TCM played it in celebration of star Charlton Heston. I went in with minimal expectations and ended up truly surprised. Isn’t it wonderful when that happens?
The film follows a pilot (Heston) who must fight to save his passengers when they learn there is a bomb on board. To make matters worse, it is soon discovered that the bomber plans to detonate the device if they don’t reroute the plane to Russia. They’re lucky Chuck is behind the controls…
I’m a sucker for a loaded, all-star cast and this one is peak 1970s goodness. The movie lists talent like: James Brolin, Yvette Mimieux, Jeanne Crain, Walter Pidgeon, Nicholas Hammond and Mike Henry. Readers, I won’t tell a lie, watching this film started me down a Mike Henry rabbit hole.
There’s a lot of names and faces to like here and Skyjacked is infinitely watchable in the way that an episode of The Love Boat is. It’s difficult to call this a quality work of cinema, but it is a heck of a lot of fun to watch.
Skyjacked is available to purchase, here.
3.) Zero Hour (1957)
Zero Hour is another 2020 first time watch for yours truly and I’m ashamed it has taken me this long to get here.
In fact, I’ll say it. I want justice for Zero Hour. When I sat down to watch this little movie, I learned an uncomfortable fact. While I knew Airplane was based off Zero Hour, it turns out the 1980 comedy is actually a carbon copy of the older picture. Like, we’re talking a shot-for-shot remake. Just run a search through YouTube… there are side-by-side comparisons. Yet, when watching Airplane, Zero Hour writers Arthur Hailey, Hall Bartlet and John C. Champion don’t receive screen credit, despite the substantial presence of their work in the newer picture. It just doesn’t feel right.
Zero Hour follows Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) a World War II veteran struggling with PTSD after a mission he commanded went horribly awry. One day, he hops on a plane to convince his unhappy wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) to stay married. However, he ends up having to face his demons when the airliner’s passengers and crew are overcome with food poisoning.
If you at all enjoy Airplane, or the other films in this sub-genre, I would certainly recommend checking out this low-budget gem from the late 1950s.
Zero Hour is available on DVD.
2.) Airport 1975 (1974)
To be honest, I’m surprised to have placed this movie so high on this list. I sat down to watch this one (another 2020 first-time-watch) with some definite pre-conceived notions in my head (“The Stewardess is flying the plane!?). I’ll just say that I really didn’t expect to like it.
The action follows a crowded airliner plunged into disaster when it collides with a single engine plane. The film features a super-sized cast, including: Charlton Heston, Karen Black, George Kennedy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Helen Reddy, Myrna Loy and Ed Nelson to name a few. Trust me, there’s more.
Airport 1975 makes stellar use of the absolutely packed cast in order to ratchet up the narrative drama. Sure, it feels over-wrought and “of its time” every so often. I did find myself gritting my teeth through the treatment of women in the film, particularly those on the flight crew. Despite this though, it is surprisingly easy to care about each and every one of these compelling characters, and you want to see them make it out of this situation. This is the hallmark of a good disaster movie, a side of heart with your popcorn.
If you’ve been steering clear of this one for any reason (like I was!), definitely give this one a shot.
Airport 1975 is easiest to find on DVD with the other films in the series.
1.) Airport (1970)
It probably isn’t a surprise, but I have to bring this list to a close with the ultimate “airplane in trouble” movie, Airport (1970).
The film traces the harrowing adventures of the crew and passengers of a jetliner, when a despondent man (Van Heflin) sets off a bomb in the cabin. Airport features another huge cast, starring: Dean Martin, George Kennedy, Burt Lancaster, Jean Seaberg, Helen Hayes and Jacqueline Bisset– once again, to name a few. The movie was a massive success and received ten Academy Award nominations. Helen Hayes took home its only award.
Thinking though all these movies, I think Airport most easily captures the depth and vulnerability of its characters in the face of these events. This is particularly true with Dean Martin, who gives a very rare dramatic performance. And to be frank, he’s very good in this role (and surprisingly likable). His character arc with Bisset is so powerful and compelling that it has become one of my all-time favorites. Meanwhile, Helen Hayes is a complete and utter joy, and most certainly deserved the award she took home.
While plenty of ‘Airplane in Trouble’ movies came before, Airport really is the granddaddy of the sub-genre, and remains one of the biggest and best executed of a series of interesting and formidable films. Check this one out when you have a chance.
Airport is easiest to find on DVD with the other films in the series.
‘Airplane in Trouble’ movies are a wide-ranging sub-genre in Hollywood, lasting much longer than the periods recognized high point in the 1970s. These pictures have big casts, interesting stories and equally delightful costume and set design. They truly are an experience.
What are your favorite ‘Airplane in Trouble’ movies? Shout them out in the comments.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!