by Arthur Hailey
Ross Hunter Productions
Airport is a 1970 American air disaster–drama film written and directed by George Seaton and starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. Based on Arthur Hailey's 1968 novel of the same name, it originated the 1970s disaster film genre. It is also the first of four films in the Airport film series. Produced on a $10 million budget, it earned over $128 million. The supporting cast features Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Maureen Stapleton, Barry Nelson, Lloyd Nolan, Dana Wynter and Barbara Hale.
The film is about an airport manager trying to keep his airport open during a snowstorm, while a suicide bomber plots to blow up a Boeing 707 airliner in flight. It takes place at fictional Lincoln International Airport near Chicago. The film was a commercial success and surpassed Spartacus as Universal Pictures' biggest moneymaker. The movie won Helen Hayes an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as an elderly stowaway and was nominated for nine other Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography for Ernest Laszlo, and Best Costume Design for designer Edith Head.
With attention paid to the detail of day-to-day airport and airline operations, the plot concerns the response to a paralyzing snowstorm, environmental concerns over noise pollution, and an attempt to blow up an airliner. The film is characterized by personal stories intertwining while decisions are made minute-by-minute by the airport and airline staffs, operations and maintenance crews, flight crews, and Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers.
Ernest Laszlo photographed it in 70 mm Todd-AO. It is the last film scored by Alfred Newman and the last film roles of Van Heflin and Jessie Royce Landis. It was also Ross Hunter's last film produced for Universal after a 17-year tenure.
At Chicago's fictional Lincoln International Airport, a Trans Global Airlines (TGA) Boeing 707 flight crew misjudge their turn from Runway 29 onto the taxiway, becoming stuck in the snow and closing that runway. Airport manager Mel Bakersfeld is forced to work overtime, causing tension with his wife, Cindy. A divorce seems imminent as he nurtures a closer relationship with a co-worker, customer relations agent Tanya Livingston.
Pilot Vernon Demerest is scheduled to evaluate Captain Anson Harris during TGA Flight 2 to Rome. TGA's flagship international service, The Golden Argosy, is being operated with a Boeing 707. Despite being married to Bakersfeld's sister Sarah, Demerest is having an affair with Gwen Meighen, chief stewardess on the flight, who informs him before takeoff that she is pregnant with his child. They consider abortion, but Gwen has moral qualms about such a procedure and expresses the excitement she felt upon being told of her pregnancy.
Bakersfeld borrows mechanic Joe Patroni to assist with moving TGA's disabled plane blocking Runway 29. Bakersfeld and Tanya also deal with Ada Quonsett, an elderly widow from San Diego who is a habitual stowaway on various airlines.
Demolition expert D.O. Guerrero, down on his luck and with a history of mental illness, buys both a ticket aboard Flight 2 and a large life insurance policy with the intent of committing suicide. He plans to set off a bomb in an attaché case while they fly over the Atlantic Ocean so that his wife, Inez, will collect $225,000 of insurance. His erratic behavior at the airport, including mistaking a Customs officer for a gate agent, attracts officials' attention. Inez finds a Special Delivery envelope from a travel agency and, realizing D.O. might be doing something desperate, goes to the airport to try to dissuade him. She informs officials that he had been fired from a construction job for "misplacing" explosives and that the family's financial situation is dire.
Ada Quonsett manages to evade the employee assigned the task of putting her on a flight back to Los Angeles. Enchanted by the idea of a trip to Rome, she talks her way past the gate agent, boards Flight 2 and sits next to Guerrero. When Flight 2's crew is made aware of Guerrero's situation, they turn the plane back toward Chicago without informing the passengers. Once Ada is discovered, her help is enlisted by the crew to get to the briefcase, but the ploy fails when a troublesome passenger interferes and returns the case to Guerrero.
Demerest tries to persuade Guerrero not to trigger the bomb, informing him that his insurance policy has been nullified. Guerrero moves to give Demerest the bomb, but just then the troublesome passenger yells out that Guerrero has a bomb. Guerrero runs into the lavatory and sets off the bomb, dying and blowing a three-foot hole in the fuselage. Gwen, just outside the door, is injured in the explosion and subsequent explosive decompression, but the pilots retain control of the airplane.
With all eastern airports unusable due to bad weather, Flight 2 returns to Lincoln for an emergency landing. Due to the bomb damage, Demerest demands the airport's longest runway, Runway 29, which is still closed due to the stuck airliner. Bakersfeld orders the plane to be pushed off the runway by snowplows, despite the costly damage they would do to it. Patroni, who is "taxi-qualified" on 707s, tries to move the stuck aircraft in time for Demerest's damaged aircraft to land. By exceeding the 707's engine operating parameters, Patroni frees the stuck jet without damage, allowing Runway 29 to be reopened just in time for the crippled Flight 2 to land.
As the passengers exit the plane, a hysterical Inez apologizes for her husband’s actions. Demerest's wife sees him accompanying Gwen's stretcher as he says he will go with her to the hospital. Demerest has by now decided he wants her to go through with her pregnancy. Ada enjoys her reward of free first-class travel on TGA. But while arriving at the gate, she laments that it was "much more fun the other way." Bakersfeld and Tanya leave together, heading to her apartment for rest and breakfast.
Most of the filming was at Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport. A display in the terminal, with stills from the field and the film, says: "Minnesota's legendary winters attracted Hollywood here in 1969, when portions of the film Airport were shot in the terminal and on the field. The weather remained stubbornly clear, however, forcing the director to use plastic 'snow' to create the appropriate effect."
The expensive set built representing the full interior of the 707 was left standing at Universal Studios, and was eventually joined with a more expensive airliner set, the front half of a 747 interior constructed in 1974 for Airport 1975. These two sets became known as "Stage 747" on the lot, and both sets were used extensively in other Universal films and television series. The 707 set was used, for instance, in The Andromeda Strain and on series like Ironside. The sets were amortized over these many productions, and later removed around 2002 and the space converted into a workshop.
Only one Boeing 707 was used: a model 707-349C (registration N324F) leased from Flying Tiger Line. It sported an El Al cheatline over its bare metal finish, with the fictional Trans Global Airlines (TGA) titles and tail. This aircraft later crashed on March 21, 1989 during approach into São Paulo while in service as cargo flight Transbrasil Flight 801, killing all three crew members and 22 people on the ground.
Airport was released on May 29, 1970. It premiered as the first 70mm film to be shown at New York's Radio City Music Hall, running for 12 weeks there as its Easter attraction.
The film made $100,489,151 in the United States and Canada, which, adjusted for inflation, is equivalent to $757 million in 2022. Internationally, it grossed $27.9 million for a worldwide gross of $128.4 million.
Variety wrote: "Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, over-produced by Ross Hunter with a cast of stars as long as a jet runway, and adapted and directed by George Seaton in a glossy, slick style, Airport is a handsome, often dramatically involving $10 million epitaph to a bygone brand of filmmaking" but added that the film "does not create suspense because the audience knows how it's going to end." Film critic Pauline Kael gave Airport one of its worst contemporary reviews, scornfully dismissing it as "bland entertainment of the old school." "There's no electricity in it", she wrote; "every stereotyped action is followed by a stereotyped reaction." Roger Ebert gave the film two stars out of four and faulted a predictable plot and characters that "talk in regulation B-movie clichés like no B-movie you've seen in ten years." Gene Siskel gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and reported that while the theater audience cheered at the climax, "it's a long and torturous road to the applause. Blocking the path are speeches that promote the industry, dialog that ranks among the silliest in memory, and a labored plot that tells you everything twice. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "an immensely silly film—and it will probably entertain people who no longer care very much about movies." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called the film "breath-taking in its celebration of anything which used to work when Hollywood was younger and we were all more innocent." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "a lousy movie" that was "utterly predictable." The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Corny is really the only word for this unbelievably old-fashioned look at the modern phenomenon of an international airport: the one surprise is that the sweet old white-haired stowaway doesn't spring to the controls and bring the distressed aircraft down single-handed as Doris Day did once upon a time in analogous circumstances."
Christopher Null wrote in 2000, "With one grandiose entrance, Airport ushered in a genre of moviemaking that is still going strong—the disaster movie... Too bad the 'disaster' doesn't happen until 2 hours into the 2:15 movie. No matter—Airport's unending sequels and spoofs are a testament that this film is a true piece of Americana, for good or for bad." Despite the film being one of the most profitable of Burt Lancaster's career, he called it "a piece of junk."
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 75%, based on 16 reviews, with an average rating of 6.3/10. On Metacritic, the film holds an average rating of 42/100, based on 5 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
|Best Supporting Actress
|Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium
|Best Art Direction
|Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen and E. Preston Ames;
Set Decoration: Jack D. Moore and Mickey S. Michaels
|Best Costume Design
|Best Film Editing
|Best Original Score
|Ronald Pierce and David H. Moriarty
|American Cinema Editors Awards
|Best Edited Feature Film
|British Academy Film Awards
|Best Actress in a Supporting Role
|Golden Globe Awards
|Best Motion Picture – Drama
|Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
|Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture
|Best Original Score – Motion Picture
|Golden Reel Awards
|Best Sound Editing – Dialogue
|Best Instrumental Composition
|"Airport Love Theme" – Alfred Newman
|Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a Television Special
|Top Male Supporting Performance
|Top Female Supporting Performance
|Writers Guild of America Awards
|Best Drama – Adapted from Another Medium
The film was first broadcast on Canada's CTV on October 24, 1973, nearly a month before ABC on November 11. The ABC broadcast became the joint highest-rated film on television, matching Love Story, with a Nielsen rating of 42.3 but with a slightly higher audience share of 63% (compared to Love Story's 62%). The record was beaten in 1976 by Gone with the Wind.
The film was the final project for composer Alfred Newman. His health was failing and he was unable to conduct the sessions for his music's recording. The job was handled by Stanley Wilson, although the covers of the Decca "original soundtrack album" and the 1993 Varèse Sarabande CD issue credit Newman. Newman did conduct the music heard in the film. He died before the film's release. Newman received his 45th Academy Award nomination posthumously for this film, the most received by a composer at that time.
Airport had three sequels, the first two of which were hits.
The only actor to appear in all four films is George Kennedy as Joe Patroni. Patroni's character evolves and he goes from a chief mechanic in Airport to a vice president of operations in Airport 1975, a consultant in Airport '77, and an experienced pilot in The Concorde ... Airport '79.