‘Airport’ Franchise Deserved Leslie Nielsen’s Epic Takedown

Four 1970s airline films. Four disasters (in more ways than one)

The “Airport” films were a major staple of commercial 1970s cinema, a popcorn and cotton candy alternative to a decade of movies that included “The French Connection” (1971) and “Coming Home” (1978).

While a generation of comedy lovers grew up on the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker masterpiece “Airplane!” and its sequel, most who can quote those movies may not be aware that those pair of parodies are based on the “Airport” dramas.

In the same way a lot of ’90s teens loved the “Austin Powers” movies but had never seen the Sean Connery era-007 thrillers of mod comedies they’re based on.

William Wellman’s 1954 “The High and the Mighty,” starring John Wayne, was another major inspiration for “Airplane!” as well, though that film lacked dialogue between seatmates Jimmie Walker and Charo (more on that later, I promise).

Now that the “Airport” thrillers are on Netflix, it’s time to revisit one of the most successful and wildly uneven franchises to emerge from the ’70s.

Airport (1970) (Theatrical Trailer)

The original “Airport” builds two dueling narratives that eventually intersect: while the crew of a Boeing 707 is preparing for a packed flight, someone on the passenger list is planning to bring a bomb onboard.

“Airport,” the biggest movie blockbuster of 1970, is uneven but very entertaining. It maintains interest, even as it has nothing to say about its era, aside from the way it provides total escapism from its Hollywood Golden Age ensemble cast.

You won’t find real issues here, or any reference to the escalating Vietnam war or the counterculture revolution taking place. This is escapism, though its depiction of air travel as being fraught with fear and danger was ahead of its time.

The film recalls when air travel was still considered sexy and exotic, with two-story jets with a piano bar and first class that felt like another planet. “Airport” went so far as to depict one of the members of The Rat Pack as the pilot.

Remember, this was released at the time the legendary “Hi, I’m Judy…Fly Me” ads were ubiquitous on television.

Director George Seaton makes great use of widescreen cinematography, particularly in its opening and a great point-of-view shot of the pilot inspecting the aisles. Seaton, who also directed “Miracle on 34th St” (1947), is a good storyteller, even when the tale itself is this pulpy and tonally inconsistent.

FAST FACT: “Airport” scored an impressive $100 million in 1970, coming in second for the year behind “Love Story” ($106 million).

The screenplay by Seaton, faithfully based on Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel, is so jokey, it undermines the tension, going the crowd-pleasing route when it should be building suspense. The frequent use of split screen is inventive and so are the simple but still lovely special effects.

The all-star cast isn’t enough to counter the uneven tone. As the airport manager, Burt Lancaster isn’t great in this (I blame the role) and Dean Martin is not who you want playing an airline captain and hard to buy in a dramatic part.

The two should have swapped roles.

Helen Hayes’ Oscar-winning performance as a stowaway starts strong but becomes a series of opportunities to mug for the camera. On the other hand, Maureen Stapleton, playing the wife of the bomber, is very effective, providing a complex emotional center the film badly needs.

As the chief mechanic called in to help when things get bad, a blustering George Kennedy ultimately (and easily) walks away with the whole movie.

As expected, the attitudes on hand are incredibly sexist and chauvinistic (no surprise when Rat Packer Martin is flying the plane!). “Airport” is never tense enough once the big incident occurs- after the stunning explosion, the crew is far too calm and kept considering what is taking place.

It’s classy but corny.

“Airport 1975,” by director Jack Smight (who had better luck with “Midway” in 1976), depicts another Boeing 747 and the disaster that the crew and passengers face mid-flight. In this case, a small plane crashes into the Boeing and forces an emergency landing.

This first sequel frontloads the disaster at the top of the second act, immediately distinguishing it from the original, which at least took time for character development and atmosphere.

Charlton Heston has the Lancaster role and is, likewise, neutered by the assignment. In fact, despite top billing, Heston is barely in this. Kennedy continues to prove his worth to the series by giving a lot to his role.

Airport (1975) - Dropping in Scene (8/10) | Movieclips

The dopey list of co-stars doesn’t fare as well, as this really needed Helen Hayes and Maureen Stapleton’s touch. A post- “Exorcist” Linda Blair is barely utilized- ditto Erik Estrada. Sid Caesar’s character is grating, Myrna Loy plays a one-note lush and Gloria Swanson hams it up.

We also get a crew of horny airline workers and many cliché-ridden passengers. While less quip and joke-heavy than the original, it’s still drawn out and dull.

“Airplane!” cribbed much from this.

While “Airport 1975” was made during the height of the ‘70s Disaster Movie Era (a genre it ostensibly created with the first film), it lacks the elegance of the original or the more dynamic showmanship of most Irwin Allen thrillers of its era.

There’s a nice surprise with a failed rescue attempt, but those rear projection effects aren’t fooling anyone. It’s hard to believe this was a hit, let alone the second of what would become a four-part film franchise!

“Airport ‘77” is a wilder film than its predecessor, with a hijacking plot out of James Bond and a concept that aims to recreate the thrills and visuals of Allen’s “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972).

Airport '77 Official Trailer #1 - James Stewart Movie (1977) HD

Until the hijacking finally takes place, this has the look and feel of “The Love Boat.” Directed by Jerry Jameson (who helmed “Raise the Titanic” after this and mostly directed for TV afterward), the dialog is bad from top to bottom and none of the performances are enough to elevate it.

Jack Lemmon tries hard as the captain but looks foolish giving so much to this. Lee Grant is painfully over the top playing a drunk, Olivia De Haviland doesn’t match Helen Hayes but tries, and James Stewart does little and appears lost.

Kennedy barely registers this time, Christopher Lee’s fine work is cut short and Brenda Vaccaro winds up faring best. Kathleen Quinlan being serenaded and wooed by a blind pianist is the eye-rolling low point.

The appeal here is the disaster – it’s a cleverly staged spectacle, with effective exterior visual effects shots. An extensive sequence of in-cabin flooding knocking over bystanders impresses, as is the audacity of the salvation through flotation finale.

There are also long scenes of spouting lousy exposition, undermining the action. “Airport ‘77” is better than “Airport 1975,” but not by much. The film’s teaser trailer famously touted it was “Bigger and More Exciting Than ‘Airport ’75,” which is correct.

“The Concorde…Airport ‘79” is among the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Let’s start with the title- which appears drab and tired looking, like the whole movie.

The Concorde ... Airport '79 Official Trailer #1 - George Kennedy Movie (1979) HD

This feels very much like a TV-movie from its era, with no sense of scope, wonder or even a need for widescreen. Directed by David Lowell Rich, whose filmography includes the notorious TV movie “Satan’s School for Girls” (1973) and, perhaps the reason he landed this gig, two other TV movies about commercial airlines in peril: “The Horror at 37,000 Feet” (1973) and “SST: Death Flight” (1977).

The former stars William Shatner and Buddy Epson, while the latter was featured during the first season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Somehow Eric Roth wrote this- clearly, he got better.

The messy plot involves an arms dealer and a crisis that can be solved by a commercial plane being able to dodge the efforts of a missile in midflight. Lalo Schifrin’s score is the only plus. Otherwise, the awful aspects stack as high as 20,000 feet.

Behold the terrible Russian athlete subplot, the woman who can’t leave the restroom, the gratuitous Jimmy Walker and Charo cameos, the corny and the nonsensical Robert Wagner plot line (his evil plan is to crash a plane to get rid of a file!).

There’s also the wretched dialog (“Why do you think it’s called a cockpit, honey?”) and accompanying sexism, Charo talking to her dog, the maudlin deaf girl, David Warner’s banana joke and the hot tub scene(!).

Series MVP George Kennedy can’t save this, either, as his hambone performance is arguably the film’s most embarrassing.

Airport (1975) - Singing Nun Scene (1/10) | Movieclips

The special effects are awful, but at least that aspect and the upside-down plane sequences are unintentionally hilarious. Notice how the closing shot of the plane and the Concorde logo in flames is then quickly followed by a pretty shot of the Concorde in flight because, after all, this is just an all-star commercial for the Concorde, right?

“The Concorde…Airport ‘79” wound up being to the class act “Airport” what “Jaws The Revenge” is to “Jaws.” It’s an unfortunate, campy end to a formerly prestigious film franchise.

On the other hand, “Airport” not only inspired those brilliantly funny “Airplane!” spoofs but continues to fly high on the fumes of every subsequent disaster movie. When an official remake (and not a shameless rip-off) is eventually and inevitably announced, fasten your seatbelts.


  1. Zero Hour is the basis for the Airplane movie – gotta love Sterling Hayden. I have to admit – I love the original Airport movie. Yes, it’s cheesy but it’s entertaining. What a novel thought – an entertaining movie not preaching anything.

  2. How can you write this and not include the 1957 Movie, “Zero Hour!”?

    Yes a lot of the jokes in Airplane! are based on the airport movies, but they quote Zero Hour! word for word in so much of Airplane.
    It also explains why Robert Hays’s character is talking about WWII and why all the planes have propeller sounds in them, because Zero Hour was set after WWII.


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