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“Airport” launches the genre of disaster film

Airport, which released on March 5, 1970, is widely credited as the first disaster movie, initiating a genre that, for better or worse, has been with us ever since.

Based on a novel of the same name by Arthur Hailey that sold more copies than any other book in 1968, the film established virtually every quirk for which the disaster genre became famous. There is a large cast of stars including Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset and George Kennedy. There is a bustling public place filled with innocent passers-by. There is of course a catastrophe. And the hero is a harassed ordinary man, doing his best to keep things together despite the fact that bureaucratic incompetence, marital implosion, and Mother Nature herself seem to be conspiring to devastate the institution and the people in it. was responsible for monitoring.

The common man here is Mel Bakersfield (Lancaster), the manager of Lincoln International Airport outside of Chicago. He’s having a bad night. The worst snowstorm in a decade has hit his airport, a pilot miscalculated and stuck a Boeing 707 in snow halfway down a runway and Bakersfield’s wife (Dana Wynter) is fed up with her job annoys their marriage and wants a divorce. As if that weren’t enough, he also maintains a liaison with the head of customer relations of an airline (Jean Seberg), and keeps hanging on to his brother-in-law Vernon Demerest (Martin), an arrogant pilot. who is supposed to be flying to Rome that night.

Demerest also has its own problems. He got a flight attendant (Bisset) pregnant and faces a breakup in his own marriage. After taking off his 707 in the blizzard, he also realizes that he has two troublesome passengers. One is Ada Quonsett, an elderly woman whose hobby is sneaking on planes to get to where she wants to go without paying for it. (Helen Hayes won an Oscar for her portrayal of Quonsett.) The other is DO Guerrero (Van Heflin), a building demolition expert who has been having a hard time and is considering blowing up the plane so his wife can collect money insurance from his death.

Watch the “Airport” trailer

When Guerrero detonates his bomb in the plane’s toilet, making a hole in the fuselage, Demerest realizes that the only airport east of the Mississippi that is not closed due to the storm is Lincoln. So he turns around and turns around. But the only runway he can use to land is the one blocked by the 707 stuck in the snowdrift, which means the chief engineer (Kennedy) must take desperate measures to get the plane to move in time.

During much of its operating time, Airplane works as a domestic, procedural melodrama. Even though one of the film’s original posters features a burning 707 on a snowy runway (a plot element that never happens), the film ultimately turns much more into exploring the privacy of its characters and the operation of the airport which brings together that in exciting viewers with stunts and explosions.

This caused great consternation among critics at the time of its release. Virtually all heavyweight experts – from Variety to Pauline Kael to Roger Ebert – hated the movie. Excited by American New Wave cinema of the late 1960s, they saw Airport as ridiculously backward. The graduation had already destroyed notions of domestic life; Bonnie and Clyde and The wild group had taken the action-adventure film to new heights of violence and verisimilitude. What could an old-fashioned drama starring aging stars offer a newer, more hip audience?

A lot, it turns out. Airport earned over $ 100 million, or 10 times its budget. It was nominated for nine Oscars and spawned three sequels. Airport 1975, which featured a 747 struggling to land after being struck in mid-flight by a small plane, and Airport ’77, in which passengers on an airliner are trapped underwater after crashing in the Bermuda Triangle, has been a big hit. The unintentional hilarious Le Concorde: Airport ’79 failed to connect with the public and marked the end of the franchise.

Airports greatest influence was in the genre he founded; imitations of disaster films were soon hatched on the right and on the left. Two years later came The Poseidon adventure, about the survivors of a cruise ship hit by a storm; 1974 brought both Imposing Hell, about people trapped in a burning skyscraper in San Francisco, and Earthquake, whose plot is accurately reflected in its title.

Others would follow until, in the 1980s, the genre was parodied in films like Airplane. In the 90s – undeterred by parodies – Sylvester Stallone was saving people from the collapse of the New Jersey tunnel (Day light), Pierce Brosnan saved them from the lava (Dante’s peak) and Tommy Lee Jones saved them from even more lava (Volcano). This trend continued for much of the new millennium with more and more ships sinking, asteroids threatening to wipe out the planet, global warming disasters, pandemics and the terrifying threat of the Mayan calendar.

Despite the disapproval of critics, Airport found a successful formula. The writing and directing (both by George Seaton, longtime president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science) is nothing more than professional. Cinematography, by Ernest Laszlo, may be a step above that, though his infatuation with split-screen imagery can be boring. But at the heart of the film is a story of how incredibly complex workings of modern life, and how easily it can be fatally disrupted. It’s a story that has fascinated audiences and still does.

The melodramatic marital relations, personal desperation and shenanigans of the aged stowaway Airport do more than make us care about the characters. They also remind us of how sensitive we all are to the larger forces around us and that the moment when all of our individual stories collide and become visible to each other is the exact moment we are most vulnerable. You might not know anything about your neighbor or the man sitting next to you on the plane when things are going well in the world, but when disaster strikes you will learn a lot quickly. Airport put it all in a movie.

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