Hollywood Takes Flight: Aviation in Cinema Part 1

DALLAS — Hollywood's love affair with commercial aviation begins with Zero Hour!, a 1957 American drama film directed by Hall Bartlett and based on a script by Bartlett, Arthur Hailey, and John Champion.

Zero Hour! was a remake of the Canadian television play Flight into Danger, which served as the foundation for the 1974 parody classic film we’re all familiar with.

The following list covers a range of genres, from disaster movies and thrillers to comedies and dramas in the air. These films appeal to our natural fascination with flight, the lure of aviators, and our interest in the inner workings of the aviation industry.

From the 1970s to today, Hollywood has produced around thirty movies whose themes revolve around commercial aviation. We’ll need to segment this airborne list into five posts covering the 1970s-80s, the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s, and the 2020s.

1. Airport (1970)

Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin are stars in George Seaton's 1970 American air disaster drama film Airport. Based on Arthur Hailey's 1968 novel, the film gave rise to the disaster cinema genre of the 1970s and is the first of the four installments of the Airport film series. Despite having a US$10 million budget, the film brought in almost US$128 million.

In the movie, a suicide bomber plans to blow up a Boeing 707 airliner while it is in flight, while an airport manager struggles to keep his airport operational amid a snowstorm. The scene is the fictional Lincoln International Airport, close to Chicago. The movie became Universal Pictures' highest-earning picture, surpassing even Spartacus. 

The story revolves around the handling of a crippling snowstorm, noise pollution worries for the environment, and an attempt to blow up an airliner, all while paying close attention to the minutiae of daily airport and airline operations. 

The film features interwoven personal stories as decision-making occurs minute-by-minute between flight crews, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers, airport and airline workers, and operations and maintenance crews.

2. Airport 1975 (1974)

Airport 1975 (sometimes referred to as Airport '75), is the first in a series of sequels to the popular 1970 film Airport. Don Ingalls wrote the screenplay, Jack Smight directed it, William Frye produced it, and Jennings Lang served as executive producer.

The story revolves around the dramatic events that occur inside a flying Boeing 747 when a tiny plane crashes into the cockpit, killing senior crew members and blinding the pilot, leaving no one on board with the necessary skills to take over the controls.

The film was 1974's seventh-highest-grossing film at the US and Canadian box office.

3. Airport '77 (1977)

Airport '77 is the third movie in the Airport film series. The film features an ensemble cast of seasoned performers, including Olivia de Havilland, Brenda Vaccaro, James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, and Joseph Cotten, along with George Kennedy's return from the two earlier Airport movies.

The plot revolves around a private Boeing 747 carrying VIPs and valuable art that is hijacked and crashes into the water in the Bermuda Triangle, setting off a desperate struggle for survival among the survivors. Despite receiving conflicting reviews from critics, Airport '77 was a box office success, making US$91.1 million globally. It received two Academy Award nominations.

A NAVY representative who worked in the film commented on YouTube that his favorite line that did not end up in the final release was when Joseph Cotten told Olivia, "You look like shit, my dear."  “They had to keep throwing buckets of water on her so she would look like she had just been rescued (she dried out between takes).”

4. The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979)

The fourth and last movie in the Airport series, The Concorde ... Airport '79, was retitled Airport '80: The Concorde in the UK a year later. Despite receiving negative reviews from critics and generating little money in North America, the movie was a commercial success elsewhere, making US$65 million over its US$14 million budget.

David Lowell Rich directed the movie. Alain Delon, Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner, and George Kennedy, who starred in all four Airport series films, are part of the all-star cast. There are cameos from Martha Raye and Mercedes McCambridge.

The story centers on Kevin Harrison, a corrupt arms dealer who, upon learning that one of the passengers, reporter Maggie Whelan, knows he had sold weapons to communist nations during the Cold War, tries to blow up an American-owned Concorde on its inaugural flight.

Departing from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, the Concorde makes a go-around as environmental protesters deliberately fly a hot air balloon across its approach route. It lands at Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C.

5. Airplane! (1980)

In 1980, Jon Davison produced the American catastrophe comedy film Airplane! (also known as Flying High!), which was written and directed by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers on their directorial debuts. Along with Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Lorna Patterson, it stars Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty. 

The film is a spoof of Zero Hour!, from which it takes some conversation lines, the main characters' stories, and the narrative. Additionally, much inspiration is taken from Airport 1975 and aforementioned movies in the Airport series. Its use of fast-paced slapstick humor and surreal humor, as well as gags, running jokes, gag visuals, and dark humor, have made it a classic.

With a US$3.5 million budget, it was a critical and commercial success, earning US$171 million worldwide. Along with nominations for the BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, the film's creators were honored with the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Comedy.

Since its release, its reputation has risen significantly. It was voted sixth among Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies. In a 2007 survey by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, it was ranked second to Monty Python's Life of Brian as the finest comedy ever made. Empire magazine named it one of 'The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time' in 2008, and it was rated #1 in The 50 Funniest Comedies Ever in 2012. The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2010 as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Airplane II: The Sequel came out two years later and received mixed reviews from reviewers and was a commercial flop, generating $27.2 million on a $15 million budget.. However, the writers and directors of the original Airplane! were not involved with this sequel. A third movie in the spoof franchise was announced in the post-credit scene of Airplane II, but it would never be made.

Stay tuned to part two when we look at eight films that soared high the 1990s.

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