Masters Of Disaster returns with Jonathon Dabell taking a look at Airport ’77 (1977) starring Jack Lemmon, James Stewart and Lee Grant.
The Airport franchise began in 1970, in a film which many consider to be the starting point of the whole disaster sub-genre (although films like The High And The Mighty, Zero Hour!, and Krakatoa: East Of Java all precede it and have very evident disaster elements). Airport 1975 (1974) followed a few years later and, despite a critical mauling, performed very respectably at the box-office. It’s no surprise therefore that a third entry came along in 1977, titled (imaginatively) Airport ’77.
As ever, a strong ensemble cast is brought aboard for yet another airborne melodrama (or perhaps ‘seaborne’ would be a better description for this particular entry). Big names involved this time include Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, Lee Grant, Joseph Cotton, Olivia De Havilland, Christopher Lee, Brenda Vaccaro, Darren McGavin, Robert Foxworth, Gil Gerard and, of course, George Kennedy (who, in what has become something of a running joke, is present in just about every airplane-set disaster movie ever made).
A private Boeing 747 owned by millionaire philanthropist Philip Stevens (Stewart) is on its way to Florida when a group of high-tech robbers attempt to steal some of Stevens’ valuable art treasures, being transported in the hold. The passengers – all on their way to Stevens’ estate at his personal invitation – are knocked out with gas, while the thieves seize control of the plane and try to fly it under radar altitude to some pre-designated landing point where, presumably, they intend to ‘vanish’ with the stolen goods.
Alas, one thing they don’t figure on is the presence of an oil drilling platform in the ocean. Flying low in poor visibility, the Boeing strikes the platform and sustains critical damage. The plane crashes onto the surface of the sea and quickly sinks onto a sand-bank a hundred feet below the waves. As the passengers begin to come round, they realise they are submerged and in desperate trouble. Since the flight was hijacked and flown on a secret flight path by the thieves, no-one at air traffic control has a clue where the missing flight has ended up.
It’s left to the captain, Don Gallagher (Lemmon), to make a hazardous attempt to get to the surface and raise the alarm. But even if he makes it, will the rescuers arrive in time? And will they be able to raise the crippled aircraft from the sea-bed in one piece?
Airport ’77 has a fairly silly premise, but is done with considerable verve and acted with due conviction by the cast of seasoned veterans. The techniques used by the Navy to attempt to raise the aircraft from its precarious position on the sea floor are actually real; although nothing quite like this has ever happened in the history of aviation, this is exactly how such a recovery operation would have been carried out in 1977.
Lemmon gets the meatiest role and is rather excellent in it. He’s one of those actors who makes everything he does remarkably watchable – even in a bubblegum story like this, he oozes class. Stewart is another old pro who makes things look effortlessly easy, and he too registers well as the worried millionaire wondering what has happened to his plane, his art and his friends. Overall, there are no really bad performances in the film.
John Cacavas provides a suitably melodramatic score, as he did with the predecessor Airport 1975 (Alfred Newman composed the score for the original film in the franchise). He creates tension and drama in the right places. Jerry Jameson directs with economy and competence – his films rarely have the distinctive flair of a Huston or a Hitchcock or a Peckinpah, but he always gets the job done in unfussy, top-tier TV-like efficiency, and once again that’s the case here.
I’d say with some confidence that this is the second-best film in the Airport franchise. The original takes top spot, but this one is a considerable improvement on the rather bland second entry and the truly woeful The Concorde – Airport ’79. The idea of having the stricken aircraft trapped on the seabed is quite a novel touch in many respects – in effect, the film is an ocean-bound disaster entry rather than an airborne one, and this makes it rather unique and different. Genuine believability is markedly absent, but if you try to accept the central premise at face value without being too distracted by the general unlikelihood of it all, there’s some good, tense, claustrophobic fun to be had with this movie.
MoM Rating: 6.5/10