6. Airport 1975 (1975)
Now that disaster was all the rage, the producers of this sequel upped the ante in the extreme – and if you’re wondering from where the 1980 spoof Airplane! got many of its gags, look no further than the original Airport and this insane sequel.
By now, it was clear that you just couldn’t make a 1970’s disaster film without Charlton Heston (or an Apocalyptic one – see The Omega Man and Soylent Green), and Chuck signed on again, this time as Captain Murdock, a pilot who attempts to save a doomed 747 in flight by lowering himself out of a helicopter with a tether into the plane after the pilot of a smaller plane (Dana Andrews) has a heart attack and rams into the airliner, blowing a hole into the cockpit that blinds the captain (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and sucks the co-pilot out into the hemisphere. We can’t make this stuff up. But someone did. Shame on them.
The passengers of the completely jacked plane are kept relatively calm by Captain Murdock’s girlfriend, cool as a cucumber-martini Chief-Stewardess Nancy Pryor (Karen Black), and include Helen Reddy as a singing nun, Linda Blair (The Exorcist) as a child on a stretcher in need of a kidney who happens to carry with her a guitar (hey! Singing nun – you’re on!), acting royals Gloria Swanson (as herself) and Myrna Loy (as an alcoholic who could probably also use a new kidney), Nancy Olson (who fought Swanson for William Holden in 1950’s Sunset Blvd.), TV mom of the Bionic Woman and Six Million Dollar Man Martha Scott (as a more superior nun), famous character actors Norman Fell (Mr. Roper, Three’s Company), Conrad Janis (Mork & Mindy), Jerry Stiller (everything), and Sid Caesar (everything else), George Kennedy (still as George Patroni from the original Airport, now promoted from mechanic to Vice President of Operations – way to go, man!), and a baby-faced letch, Erik Estrada (CHiPs).
There are many notable extras you’ll recognize as well, such as Ray Vitte (Car Wash, 1976) and Susan French (the “old” Elise McKenna in Somewhere in Time), but the greatest thing about this film, and we mean greatest thing, besides the Hari Krishnas and Helen Reddy’s awesome self-esteem song, is the passenger smuggling the little Toto dog in a picnic basket, who is none other than Alice Nunn, better known to us these days as “Large Marge” from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. There’s also an upstairs BAR. Yes, it’s your dream flight. Well, until that whole disaster thing.
While the film was universally panned by critics, with New Yorker critic Pauline Kael calling it “cut-rate swill,” it did make over 47 million on a 3 million budget – a bona fide hit. Getting the inherent comedy in the flick, Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson listed it as one of “The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.” We’re in, fire up the popcorn.
7. The Hindenburg (1975)
This historically-based mega tragedy directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, 1965) is probably the most under-appreciated of all the disaster films. A fictionalized account of the final, fatal voyage of the Nazi’s grand airship, Hindenburg explores one of the conspiracy theories of its destruction and doesn’t stray far from the facts, which is probably why, even though it did well at the box office, critics felt it was incredibly dull. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The film, by its very nature, must look and feel differently from other disaster films – it was real, and it’s 1937, after all. The passengers include Katherine Helmond (Who’s the Boss?), Burgess Meredith, Gig Young, Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heroes), and an adorable Dalmatian (there has to be a dog!), and there’s a brilliant moment evocative of spoof-king Mel Brooks when two passengers perform a not-at-all Maureen McGovern-esque piano tune called “There’s a Lot to be Said for the Fuehrer” that pokes slanderous fun at Hitler. Other than this campy skit, however, none of the cast are nearly as colorful as those in most disaster films, and we don’t get to know them very well or care much about them – but Hindenburg is much more interesting on another level.
George C. Scott headlines as a German Colonel who’s disillusioned with the Reich after he witnesses the slaughtering of Basque villagers, and his only son, a member of the Hitler Youth, dies while painting Jewish slurs on a synagogue (well….). A letter has been received that states the zeppelin, the grand symbol of the new Fuehrer’s power, will be blown up when it reaches New York from Germany, and so Scott is put on board to meticulously inspect the airship and deduce which passenger is the resistance-fighter.
Anne Bancroft (The Graduate, 1967) is his ex-paramour, an opium-smoking countess secretly fleeing Germany who adds a bit of class and sass to the rather uneventful voyage, and her snuffed advances show that Scott is no cheating husband, just a solid guy who’s trapped in a terrible “new” world. This is an important element, because, after all, the filmmakers are asking us to root for a Nazi. No easy request.
Character actor William Atherton plays the resistance fighter, a former Nazi Youth turned against Hitler, who enlists Scott in the plot after he explains that the bomb will not go off until everyone is safely disembarked. This, we know, was not the case. So…what’s interesting about a disaster that we know will happen, and happen to people who should probably get blown up anyway? History.
Unlike the Titanic tragedy, there are actual photos and newsreels of the destruction of the Hindenburg, and, even in 1975, most people didn’t know a thing about why it happened or how. Therefore, Wise’s film offers excellent dramatic insight into one possible explanation, and it’s done so well that suspense and urgency are palpable.
The climax that we all know is coming finally arrives in a truly shocking moment for Scott and delivers a disaster payoff that resonates far beyond fictional thrills. Converting the movie into black and white, Wise had actual footage of the Hindenburg’s destruction incorporated into studio shots of models and flaming passengers falling and jumping to their deaths. The new footage, shot with a handheld camera in order to match the archive film, looks incredibly modern, probably because “shaky cam” became a tool routinely used by filmmakers (and too often) about a decade ago. The merged images are almost seamless, a brilliant special effects moment done without computer technology that won the visual effects team a special Oscar.
Watching the real zeppelin go down, and seeing the reenactment of the human death much like it probably occurred, is riveting. It’s also incredibly moving, bringing a sense of connection to that loss that could not have occurred when the passengers were merely faceless, nameless numbers. The one spoiler, and it just must be spoiled for the sake of kindness: the dog lives. A+ Robert Wise!
8. The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
Produced by Italian Carlo Ponti (Mr. Sophia Loren – and we’re just never going to understand that), and directed by Greek/Italian George Pan Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985), this British-produced film was Europe’s answer to cinema disaster, and still holds up relatively well today, if you don’t mind a genuinely disappointing special effects payoff.
This time, the melee is ignited after some peaceniks bust into the International Health Organization in Geneva and try to blow up the US wing, which houses a deadly bio weapon strain of the flu. They botch it, get infected, and one man escapes through a window – because it’s always a good idea to have a WINDOW in your hermitically-sealed bio death wing. He then stows away on a passenger train bound for Stockholm. Peaceniks are such losers.
On board is a cavalcade of celebrity and the usual tropes of nuns, the ever popular Hari Krishnas, a dog, and whiney children, with the centerpiece couple consisting of gorgeous Sophia Loren as a romance novelist and her ex-husband, world-renown neurosurgeon Richard Harris (who is probably handsome, but somehow, when anyone stands next to Loren, he or she ends up looking like an ogre). While the two smooch and bicker and discuss their messy relationship, Ava Gardner is a few compartments down purring and pawing her boy-toy, Martin Sheen, making him feed her Bassett hound and pose, yoga-style, in his skivvies. No wonder he’s doing heroin.
Speaking of heroin, OJ Simpson returns to the genre as a creepy priest who keeps calling a little girl “sweets” (no, really, stop), but turns out to be a good-guy cop chasing down Sheen for his drug trafficking (insert ironic laughter here). Burt Lancaster also returns, because, apparently, “junk” disaster films still pay the bills, and he makes a pretty decent villain in the form of Col. Mackenzie, who has the train welded shut, passengers inside, and sends them off to a remote concentration camp, only accessible by a rickety old train bridge that even pigeons know better than to sit on called the Cassandra Crossing. He’s sooo mean.
Far-fetchedness and cheap-looking disaster culmination aside, Crossing manages to have some genuine thrills, such as Sheen scaling the outside of the train cars at death-defying speeds as he tries to reach the engine to shut it down (he’s also a mountain climber, see). Other strong points include Loren as a pretty lady getting to be unusually proactive in her own rescue, instead of just sitting around screaming or crying, a criminally-underused yet eternally-appreciated cameo by Italian icon Alida Valli, and a crazy-disturbing substory in which kooky old Jewish man Lee Strasburg becomes unhinged after realizing he’s being taken back to the concentration camp where his wife and children were murdered. Way to take all the fun out of death and destruction, Europe.
While the Cassandra Crossing won zero awards or nominations from anyone, and failed miserably at inserting a Maureen McGovern-styled song into an ear-splitting scene of warbling musician hippies, it’s garnered a loyal fan base in years since, and apparently did very well in Japan. Did we mention that the amazing Sophia Loren looks amazing? Just checking.
9. Airport ‘77 (1977)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the sky – or the ocean – now arriving at gate 13 (pun intended), a high-concept combination of the Poseidon Adventure and your favorite doomed airliner. Featuring the classiest cast of any of the disaster films, ’77 also takes fancy planes to a whole new height with a luxurious three-level Boeing 747-100 that has no actual passenger seats, eschewing them for a spacious lounge with a piano bar and tabletop Pong video game, bedrooms, offices, and a laserdisc player for movies (the rest of us didn’t get them until 1978). The exotic private flight is on its way to billionaire-with-a-heart Jimmy Stewart’s Florida mansion where the guests intend to party with Stewart as he hangs a heap of valuable artwork (as in Renoir) in his new museum.
On board are stellar couples with seven Oscar wins among them: Pilot Jack Lemmon and his girlfriend, Stewart’s assistant, Brenda Vaccaro; fright king Christopher Lee, a marine biologist who’s planning on feeding the world with oceanic microbes or something, and his lushy, brazen wife, a fabulously shrewy Lee Grant; rich lady (and veritable card shark) Olivia de Havilland, accompanied by companion Maidie Norman, who rekindles an old flame with businessman Joseph Cotton; Buck Rogers heartthrob Gil Gerard as Lee’s assistant and Grant’s one-time fling; and breathy (to the point of strangulation) Pamela Belwood and her kid, who are Stewart’s estranged daughter and never-before-seen grandson. Back at the control tower is none other than good old Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), and it’s pretty clear by now that Joe is one hell of a harbinger of death.
Everyone is all smiles when the plane takes off, except whiney Pamela Belwood, until co-pilot Robert Foxworth and his two incognito flight attendants gas everyone to sleep and fly the plane into, where else? The Bermuda Triangle! This is fitting, of course, because everyone was obsessed with the Bermuda Triangle in the 1970’s – even rock group Blondie wrote a song about it called “Bermuda Triangle Blues.”
Soon enough, Foxworth’s miscalculations result in the plane crashing into the ocean, but gently enough to allow it to remain in one piece and sink to the bottom. Enter Poseidon. Now, with everyone waking up, and all the bad guys except Foxworth dead, it’s time to figure out how to crack out of Davy Jones’ locker and get back to land. The suspense isn’t great, probably because there’s little of that typical “doom music” around to punctuate impending danger, but no matter – the characters are full and rich and we really, really like them. Even Lee Grant. In fact, we love nasty old Lee Grant.
Alas, no one finds the lost continent of Atlantis, and, conveniently, no sharks or other merciless sea life happen by, although a little Jaws in here wouldn’t have hurt, and soon the Navy arrives to figure out what to do. Obviously, raise the plane with balloons! It sounds silly, but the stunts and special effects on this one are top-notch, using actual Navy divers and ships with, again, no ability to stick in fancy CGI – it’s all real, pretty much. The actors even joined in the authenticity mission, with Christopher Lee doing his own stunt work in his final scene, and Jack Lemmon impressively exhibits the many hours of diving and flight school he attended in preparation for his role, as well as some pretty fine 52-year-old gams.
In tragically weird trivia, the plane used in the film is the only one from the Airport franchise that didn’t eventually have a real life fatal disaster: the airliner from Airport crashed in 1989, the smaller Beachcraft in Airport 1975 also crashed in 1989, and the Concorde from 1979 fell from the sky in 2000 killing everyone aboard. Well, let’s check it out anyway….
10. The Concorde…Airport ‘79 (1979)
The final installment of the Airport franchise is by far the most ludicrous – it was pretty much billed as a comedy – still, the flying sequences are exciting, and once it gets off the ground, the sky is filled with more perils than a furniture showroom sucked up into a tornado. Or something like that.
When news reporter Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) is given documents proving that her millionaire industrialist boyfriend Kevin Harrison (welcome back, Robert Wagner) is a nasty arms dealer right before she boards a “goodwill” Concorde flight to Moscow via Paris, the race to see Maggie dead is ON. Just shooting her would be too easy, of course, so Harrison, who’s conveniently produced a drone that tracks planes and destroys them, reprograms the “Buzzard” to chase after the Concorde during an experimental test. Clearly, he feels he has enough insurance to compensate everyone who’ll also be killed, as well as the airline and all those useless minions on the ground. It’s good to be the king.
Piloting the plane is none other than our good old friend, Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), who, over the course of the Airport films managed to work his way up from mechanic to pilot of a supersonic airliner, and even when he reminds Maggie that the last time he saw her was during that crash landing in 1975 (nice!), no one questions that Joe should never be around any airplane, at anytime, anywhere. But don’t get bogged down in logical details, or distracted by the flimsy special effects, because what Concorde fails to deliver in realism, it completely serves up in chaos and humor, making you laugh when you aren’t supposed to, but even better, making you laugh when you are.
The thrills start when the Concorde, which is flying at Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), is attacked by the Buzzard and Joe rolls that slick bird TWICE, tumbling the passengers around like a dryer full of shrieking laundry. Once the flying bomb is avoided, it’s still not over because Harrison sends a fighter jet from Paris to shoot down the wily Concorde, and during this attack, French co-pilot Alian Delon also flies the plane upside-down, TWICE, while Joe shoots flares out of the cockpit window to distract the heat-seeking missiles fired by the fighter. Spoilers are a drag, so stop reading now if you intend on seeing this flick.
The Concorde soon makes a perilous landing with barely any brakes, and then everyone is rushed to the hospital, given psychiatric counseling, threatens to sue, and never flies again. Oh, wait. Actually, they all go out and get loaded and get laid, and then get right back on the same plane the next day to Moscow. Hello…it’s the 1970’s!
After the near-death experience, Maggie has dinner with Harrison in Paris because, you know LOVE, and again, he doesn’t just strangle her, deciding instead to set the Concorde up for a another deadly encounter, one that is sure put an end to his big headache. And forthcoming treason charges and execution.
Highlights – beyond the crazy awesome flying – include hilarious big-mouthed comic icon Martha Raye as a lady with a bladder problem, Mr. Dy-no-mite Jimmie Walker (Good Times) as a sax player who smokes many doobs in the john, legend Cicely Tyson in a perfectly thankless role as a mother trying to rush a human heart on ice to her little boy (where is that signing nun when you need her?), Eddie Albert (Green Acres) who gets “the best seat in the house” thanks to a hole in the bottom of the plane, and a much too brief cameo by cucchi cucchi girl Charo, as a passenger trying to smuggle on, what else? A Chihuahua. Because there really must be a dog in every disaster film, at least for a second, and you’re just going to pretend not to notice the glaring ethnic-based canine trope here.
No matter who’s on board, this is George Kennedy’s movie all the way, and after hanging in with the franchise for so long, he certainly deserves the spotlight. Telling dirty jokes, bedding an age-appropriate French hooker, shooting flares upside-down, and cracking jokes the entire time, Joe is the guy you want flying your plane. As if you’d ever fly again after sitting through this series, or ever sit through another Airport film.
Sadly, the real life Concorde was retired from service in 2003, ending those insanely loud, nasty exhaust-spewing flights from the US to Paris in less than four hours that only cost about $10,000 per seat. The aircraft was still a marvel, however, and half the fun of Concorde is really just ogling the Concorde.
11. Meteor (1979)
By 1979, no one cared about disaster films anymore, and just about everything had been destroyed in horrific glory. Everything, that is, except the entire Earth. Hollywood doesn’t give up until it runs an idea into the ground tenfold, of course, and so low-budget film company American International Pictures hired Poseidon Adventure director Ronald Neame to bring this tale of a 5-mile-wide meteor on a collision course with our planet to the wide, wide screen.
In a progressive approach to real-life politics, the story offers a Cold War olive branch to strained Soviet-American relations by revealing that the two nations must work together to nuke the rogue rock, else all life will perish. Enter American space scientist Sean Connery, Russian space scientist Brian Keith, and his space scientist interpreter Natalie Wood (Keith and Wood could both speak fluent Russian and Wood was of Russian descent), and it all soon becomes one big gag about getting along. One particularly funny scene has Wood competing with the American translator, talking over each other in ridiculous cacophony. It’s welcome spoofing, because the long-shots of the meteor are hardly believable, and the entire cast apparently realized early-on that the Earth wasn’t the only thing that was doomed.
In a nod to 1964’s Fail-Safe, Henry Fonda again turns in a solid (if brief) appearance as the President of the United States, and it’s always a pleasure to see Karl Malden and his nose. There are also some decent destruction scenes when splinters of the father meteor, Orpheus (which was struck by a comet, thus sending its chunks toward us), rain down before Baby Orpheus arrives and in an effort to include every other disaster from every other disaster film, producers offer up lots of skiers being buried by an avalanche, lots of Chinese folks getting wiped out by a tidal wave, New York City being decimated by rock and mud flood (insert Twin Towers nostalgic moment here), and, in a random act of evil, a sweet little Eskimo family getting plowed in the middle of nowhere. Like they don’t already have enough problems, imperialists.
Alas, no one bought any of it, and Meteor signaled the demise of AIP studios and the disaster film genre, with few successful offerings until Armageddon and Deep Impact resurrected this particular tale in 1998 to terrific box office. Nonetheless, it’s Sean Connery, and it’s the lovely Natalie Wood, who had but two more years left before her tragic death near Catalina Island at age 43. There’s memorabilia for all in this one, regardless of its foolishness, and the shot of Soviet nukes co-mingling in space with “made in the USA” reminds us that whenever the heavy hammer of cosmic fate is about to come down, we really do need to break out the Stolichnaya.
Honorable mentions: Avalanche (1978), Hurricane (1979), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)
Author Bio: Stacy Davies is an art and culture journalist, radio personality and screenwriter.