A few days ago, my wife had Arthur Hailey’s Airport on an old retro movie channel. That movie began a lifelong aversion to plane travel. My parents took me to every one of those air disaster films throughout the Seventies and to this day they can’t understand why I detest any form of plane travel.
All joking aside, though, Airport is interesting to me not only in terms of how it reflected prevailing social views of the era but also how it pointed toward toward the future of screenwriting.
First, the movie’s (and, I presume, the novel’s) plot still embraced modern as opposed to post-modern views – interesting, considering that many movies that were coming out at roughly the same time exhibited discernible post-modern traits. At the top of the list of these emerging post-modern films: The dystopian Planet of the Apes, which was released a couple of years earlier and that took a very dim view of where science and technology were taking humanity.
Interestingly, Airport foreshadowed the release some 25 years later of Apollo 13 – equally remarkable when one considers that the move was released the same year as the Apollo 13 incident which could have easily ended up as one of history’s most conspicuous scientific disasters. Yet, Airport, much like Apollo 13, released a quarter century later, affirmed the blessings of modernity – not only how science and technology enhanced the quality of life but also the role that specialists (in this case, airport administrators, pilots and mechanics) played in ensuring this success. The staff at Lincoln International Airport played as integral a part in guiding the damaged plane back to safety as the specialists at Mission Control served in bringing the shattered Apollo 13 command module safely back from the Moon.
The movie is also interesting in the way it unintentionally foreshadowed profiling. One conspicuous achievements of the film was the casting of renowned stage actress Helen Hayes, who subsequently won an Oscar for her portrayal of the endearing septuagenarian Ada Quonsett, an unusually resourceful stowaway who had eluded the airport security system countless times in her quest to visit her daughter and family. She obviously got away with it because people seldom suspected an elderly lady capable of such wrong doing.
In one scene a young, perceptive airport employee fascinated with Quonsett’s success, questions her about the ruses she has developed in the course of eluding airport security – an amusing foreshadowing of the 2002 biographical crime film “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In a post-9/11 world, a successful petty criminal such as Quonsett undoubtedly would be regarded as a goldmine of insights among airport security professionals. But we are talking about an era long ago when a disturbed man like D.O. Guerrero, portrayed by Van Heflin, could walk onto a plane with a bomb completely undetected – small wonder why ingenious criminal innovators like Quonsett were considered little more than quaint oddities.
The film also wove seven stories into one – a device frequently used in films today but still considered a bit of a novelty in the early 1970’s.
And, of course, there are the depictions of ancient sexual relationships – notably the extramarital affair of pilot Vernon Demerest (portrayed by Dean Martin) and Chief Stewardess Gwen Meighen (played by Jacquelin Bisset). In one scene Meighen explains to Demerest that her unplanned pregnancy is entirely her fault, having quit taking birth control pills to ensure that she remained suitably svelte. She then ensures her philandering fly boy that she would soon be paying a visit to a doctor in Sweden to make all things right.
Almost fifty years later, such a flagrant depiction of white male privilege would never be written into a film, unless the heartless male malefactor were consigned to a fiery death later in the plot.