‘Flying on Film – A Century of Aviation in the Movies 1912-2012’
From Chapter Six: War in the Air – Europe
America’s entry into the war necessitated the creation of an aerial armada never seen before or since. Thousands of planes and hundreds of thousands of airmen and ground crew swelled the British Isles, North Africa and the Mediterranean to bring the fight to the skies over Europe.
It was a learning experience for the Yanks. Their confidence was bolstered by advanced weaponry, but the tactics were far from settled. USAAF doctrine was based on the perceived accuracy of the famed Norden bombsight to hit targets from 20,000 feet of altitude. In practice it proved to be a very difficult task. The British openly criticized the policy as suicidal.
But beginning in late 1942 American bombing raids over France were conducted in daylight, first with scores, then hundreds and eventually thousands of B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and A-20s. General Ira. C. Eaker, commander of the 8th Bomber Command, doggedly persisted in promoting daylight bombing despite heavy losses. Aircrew morale was low. Enter Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, former commander of the 97th Bomb Group, the first B-17 group in England. Armstrong was sent to the “hard luck” 306th Group, which had experienced the highest rate of aircraft losses and the lowest tonnage of bombs delivered on target. Armstrong arrived at Thurleigh to whip the 306th into shape and forge them into a highly effective unit. He led them on the very first raid into Germany.
This was the origin for Twelve O’clock High, released in 1949. Writers Beirne Lay, Jr., and Sy Bartlett had both seen combat with the 8th Air Force and wrote what is considered the best air war film ever made.
The movie opens in 1948 with Harvey Stovall, played with wonderful warmth by Dean Jagger, in London. Spotting a Toby mug in a shop window, he buys it and takes a trip down memory lane to the village of Archbury, where his old unit, the 918th Bomb Group, was based. The audience is taken back to 1942, the first year of the USAAF daylight bombing campaign. The 918th Group has been suffering fearful losses to German attacks, and morale is dangerously low. Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) cares deeply for his men and allows them to lose the combat edge they so need to fight and survive in the air.
General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) is ordered by General Pritchard to relieve Davenport and take over the 918th. Savage relentlessly trains the men and boosts their morale. He demotes poor officers and promotes good ones. He comes down hard on Lt. Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe), whom Savage sees as a lazy coward. Savage forces Gately to take command of a “deadbeat” crew of the worst men in the group. Gately’s plane is named Leper Colony.
Stovall, the group’s adjutant, is a sounding board for Savage’s policies and progress.
Eventually even the hard-nosed Savage succumbs to the strain and grows to love his men, which leads to his own psychological breakdown at a critical moment.
Twelve O’clock High, while not an action war film, is nevertheless a classic. Henry King worked real magic on the movie, eliciting some of the best characterizations ever done from a cast of superb actors. The production was filmed on location in Florida and Alabama over a six-week period in early 1949. At Eglin AFB in Florida the studio built Quonset huts, a briefing room, a control tower and administration buildings to 8th AF specifications. The early scenes where Stovall returns to Archbury were filmed at the abandoned Ozark Field in Alabama, where the overgrown and decrepit condition was perfect for the post-war sequences. Ozark, which Henry King stated “was more English than any other field I have seen in that country,” also possessed wartime dark-surfaced runways and taxiways. After the weeds and overgrown brush was removed, Ozark Field served for the takeoff and landing sequences.
The Air Force cooperated fully on the project, providing twelve B-17Fs. Several had been used as radio-controlled drones in the Bikini Atoll atom bomb tests and still showed traces of radioactivity. The crews could only work in them for short times and they had to be periodically washed down. The aircraft were painted with the markings and insignia of the 91st Bomb Group with the “triangle A” emblem on the tail.
The belly landing in the opening wartime sequence was flown by Paul Mantz. He had to slide into a line of bell tents and come to a stop as close to King’s cameras as possible. The four throttles were fitted with a welded rod to allow Mantz to perform a two-man job.
Most of the combat sequences were done in the Fox studio with full-scale mockups. The mockup in which Gregory Peck is seen was built with a radial engine and propeller just outside the left window to provide visible spinning blade tips.
In an interview with B-17 pilot Ed Davidson, who flew with the 96th Group in 1943-44, the author asked about the realism of the film. Davidson replied, “Twelve O’clock High is the best bomber movie there is. It doesn’t have much combat but the sounds, the feel of the action, is perfect. I think it’s a great film in every way.”
Davidson isn’t alone. While interviewing combat crews for this book the author found in nearly every case universal praise for the film. One B-17 gunner commented, “Those .50 caliber machine guns sound like solid thumps, just as the real guns did.
A few anachronisms are seen in the combat footage. A German fighter is played by a Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, seen in a three-quarter view.
Twelve O’clock High is often used in military leadership courses at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, according to Captain Dick Evert, a retired Naval aviator. The movie earned several Academy Award nominations and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dean Jagger.
While most air war movies attempted to convey what it was like to fly bombers in combat, they generally fall short in three respects: the brute power of roaring engines, shaking airframes, and the cramped interior. Having been fortunate enough to ride in a B-17, the author realized how inadequately film reproduces reality.
The noise of four powerful Wright Cyclone engines is a force, not a sound, as it permeates the airframe. The plane shakes and shudders with none of the smoothness we have all come to expect on a commercial airliner. Conversation is virtually impossible. A B-17 looks like a huge plane from the ground, but negotiating the interior from the tail to nose is like threading a needle. The bomb bay catwalk is only eight inches wide, set between two angled racks. Only by expelling all breath was the author, at a burly 250 pounds, able to squeeze through. Yet in most movies the crew runs through the plane as if they were four-year olds.
The next film in our historical chronology is Memphis Belle (1990). The movie opens on the day before the Belle’s crew is to fly its 25th and last mission. Colonel Harriman (David Strathairn) is caught between concern for his crews and the badgering of callous public relations officer Derringer (John Lithgow).
Belle’s Captain Dennis Dearborn, played by rising star Matthew Modine, is a serious officer only concerned with the mission. The crew is an eclectic bunch of dramatic personalities, from a self-professed ladies’ man to a former whorehouse piano player, from an Irish Catholic dreamer to a cocky co-pilot. The ten crewmembers have five antagonistic pairings, which during the course of the film neatly resolve their mutual issues.
Their target is Bremen, known as “flak city.” The mission goes badly with a heavy smokescreen forcing the group to come around and approach the target again. Belle’s navigator, sure he is doomed, tries to force the bombardier to jettison the load so they can return to base. The co-pilot desperately wants to shoot down a German fighter and takes over the tail guns. He hits an Me-109, but it careens out of control and slices through the fuselage of another B-17 crewed by rookies.
While the Belle is away, Derringer, concerned only with publicity, is taken to task by Harriman, who forces him to read several letters from the families of dead crewmen. Derringer realizes how fragile the young lives are.
The ball turret gunner, played by Rudy star Sean Astin, who had been teasing the flight engineer about being a virgin, is nearly killed when his turret is shot to pieces. The engineer pulls him from the shredded turret. The waist gunners have their own personal issues.
Finally they are once again on the bomb run and successfully hit the target. The radioman is seriously wounded, and an engine catches fire after being hit by flak. Only a desperate dive by the pilots extinguishes the flames. Then the right wheel refuses to extend. The flight engineer has to manually lower it. In a tense build-up, the Belle narrowly escapes destruction when the wheel locks down a mere second before touchdown. After landing, the crew celebrates.
The plot is totally fictional. The real Memphis Belle, a 91st Group B-17F out of Bassingbourn, England, was the first plane whose crew flew the required twenty-five missions to complete a combat tour. Their last mission was in May 1943 over Lorient, France, and not nearly as hairy as depicted in the movie.
Robert Morgan, the Belle’s pilot, said of the film that more happened in that one mission than could have happened if he’d flown another fifty missions. The real Belle’s nose art was less extravagant than appears on film—just simple block letters. But that wouldn’t have looked as good on the posters.
Yet while largely apocryphal Memphis Belle is the Das Boot of bomber movies. It conveys how frightening aerial combat was. Being trapped in an aluminum tube more than four miles above a hostile country and watching other planes torn to bits and falling to earth is something no airman could ever forget.
Interior and effects filming was done at Pinewood Studios. An unused RAF base at Binbrook in Lincolnshire was the location for the ground and flying scenes. Other exterior sequences were done in Duxford.
Five B-17s were collected from the U.S. and Europe. All but one of the Fortresses were B-17G models with the chin turret removed. B-17G Sally B, owned by the B-17 Preservation Trust in England, played several planes. The sole F model, N17W, is owned by Seattle’s Museum of Flight. Dan Hagedorn, the museum’s curator, told the author the plane is now restored to perfect wartime condition, with every detail as perfect as can be.
“When someone walks into our B-17F they are stepping into history,” said Hagedorn.
Seven P-51Ds were gathered for the film, despite that there were no 51Ds in England in May 1943. Three veteran HA 1112 Bochons used in The Battle of Britain appeared as 109s.
Famed aviation writer Bruce Orriss, known for his love of the B-17, was one of the production’s technical advisors. He worked with the intention of making sure the film historically and technically toed the line. The B-17s were not only painted correctly but “weathered and battle-worn” with chips and scrapes from combat. Orriss also worked on assembling original or reproduction flight gear. Fleece-lined leather suits, oxygen masks, helmets, Mae West life preservers and other paraphernalia were as correct as possible.
To create the illusion of an entire bomb group preparing for takeoff, several “billboard” mockups were placed in the background. Some ten-foot wingspan radio-controlled models moved close to the cameras while the real planes were in the distance.
Most of the aerial photography was shot from the B-25 camera ship Dolly, formerly owned by Tallmanz Aviation and now by Aces High. A modified Grumman TBM Avenger served as another camera ship, and cameras were mounted in some of the Mustangs as well. Memphis Belle used real Browning machine guns.
Orriss and Tommy Garcia, another B-17 buff and restorer, worked with Pinewood Studios to perfect the interior of a 1943 B-17F. They worked from 8 a.m. to midnight for weeks. Garcia coached the actors how to operate the guns and speak while wearing oxygen masks. In the sequence in which D.B. Sweeney as the flight engineer has to crank down the landing gear, Garcia said wartime B-17s had emergency cables to allow the doors to fall open. The script was modified to have Sweeney trip the cables and nearly fall out. A full-scale mockup with ball turret was built twenty feet above the sound stage floor for underside photography. Spent blank cartridges rained down on the heads of the production crew so less harmful rubber cartridges ware substituted.
Ball turret gunner Ed Silverstone had this to say about Memphis Belle: “I thought it was very accurate, as far as the ball turret goes. It was just like that. Cramped and isolated. And that’s what flak was like. The plane shook like hell. All you could do was wait it out and pray.”
Silverstone commented on the young age of the crew. “I was nineteen when I flew in the 100th. All the guys were young, even the officers. There was a sign on our Officers Club door that said something like, ‘Any officer below the rank of Colonel must bring his mother along,’” he laughed.
There’s a curious statement made by Val the bombardier (Billy Zane six years before his role as Cal Hockley in Titanic) when the crew is trying to help Danny, the wounded radio operator. Knowing that he can’t do anything, Val suggests putting a parachute on Danny and pushing him out to be picked up by the Germans on the ground. Val says, “Another crew did it. This guy lost an arm.”
Val is referring to Twelve O’clock High, when a bomber crewman tells Dean Jagger he put a chute on a wounded top turret gunner and pushed him out to be taken by the Germans to a hospital. That happened to a 92nd Group plane, Ruthie II, on a raid over Hannover in July 1943. The top turret gunner, Tyre Weaver, was hit by a 20mm shell from an Fw-190 which blew off his left arm at the shoulder. Navigator Keith Koske knew Weaver wouldn’t survive until they reached base, so Koske helped Weaver into the forward hatch. After tumbling out of the plane, Weaver was able to pull his ripcord and was picked up by German troops and taken to a hospital. He later let his comrades know he was in Stalag Luft IV.
The author interviewed Sean Astin, who played Sgt. Richard “Rascal” Moore, the lothario of the crew. When asked about the filming and what it meant to him, Astin replied, “My initial impression of being in the B-17 was that it was a lot smaller than I thought. Crawling through the fuselage was terribly claustrophobic.”
Astin and the other actors were able to talk to the survivors of the original crew. “Eight of the original crew came over to England and we spent some time together,” said Astin. “One night in particular at a pub, everybody drinking lots of English ale, they regaled us with stories of their experiences. Their stories were funny and harrowing. Our performances were made vivid because of our extraordinary opportunity to spend time with them.”
During the filming one of the French B-17s, Baby Ruth, crashed on takeoff after losing directional control and clipping a wing on a tree. The gear collapsed. Amazingly the crash was nearly identical to one created by the special effects department for the film. “It [The B-17] split in two in the crash,” Astin explained. “Nobody was killed, thank God, but a column of thick and dense smoke went up into the sky.”
“Getting to fly in formation with a couple of other B-17s and Mustangs and Messerschmitts screaming around us is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Astin said. Memphis Belle, while fictional, is as close as Hollywood is ever likely to get to what it was like to fly a B-17 in combat.
From Chapter Thirteen: ‘A Funny Thing Happened in the Air’
If The Great Waldo Pepper holds a place as one of the best true aviation film dramas, then its comedy twin is 1965’s Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes. Ken Annakin, who directed The Longest Day in 1962, departed from serious epic war films to take on an epic comedy. Filmed entirely on location in England and at Pinewood Studios, the movie utilized 70mm Todd-AO cameras for the best image quality.
A true madcap comedy with shades of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, the film relates a 1910 aerial race sponsored by Lord Rawnsley, played by the quintessential British blueblood Robert Morley. Rawnsley was loosely based on the real Lord Northcliffe of the London Daily Mail who sponsored several early aviation feats including the first attempt to cross the English Channel in 1909. The race was to pit the most advanced aircraft and daring pilots from around the world to fly from London to Paris—a then-grueling 213 mile as the crow flies. The planes of the day were incapable of flying the distance in one leap, so a stop in Dover was arranged for refueling and night rest.
The contenders were as racially nationalistic as possible, from a haughty British officer to a strutting German, from a French lothario to a wealthy Italian inventor, and of course a laid-back fair-play American cowboy.
But what really makes the film fun isn’t the zany comedy chases on the field at Croydon, nor even the rapscallion Terry-Thomas’ evil deeds to win the race, but the wide variety of twenty accurate vintage aircraft reproductions. This is one film not to be missed by early aviation buffs. Among the examples of pre-1914 airplanes are a Santos-Dumont Demoiselle monoplane, a 1910 Bristol Boxkite, an A.V. Roe IV Triplane, an Eardley Billing Tractor Biplane, and the graceful Levasseur “Antoinette” IV monoplane. The Eardley Billing played the role of two aircraft—the German and Japanese entries—with a few modifications. For instance, the Japanese plane was disguised with fabric panels on the wing struts and other places. Annakin’s team built three of each of the flying aircraft, and at least one was in the air every day.
Some planes built for the film were not intended to fly and were used for ground or model shots. These were the strange Walton Edwards Rhomboidal, a Lee Richards Annular Biplane with circular wings, a Passat Ornithopter with flapping wings, a Picaut Dubrieul, and the Little Tiddler canard. The distinctive Philips Multiplane often appeared in old films of early flight. This last one was flown by the British airplane inventor in a “backwards” flight to his goal. He—that is, the aerial stuntman—also flew the wildly unstable Lee Richards circular-winged biplane and the unworkable Passat Ornithopter. Both of those were towed, rather than flown.
An original 1910 Deperdussin monoplane and a 1910 Blackburn Type D monoplane were seen in some of the ground sequences but not flown. Orville Newton’s “Phoenix Flyer” was originally intended by Annakin to be a Wright Flyer, but the Bristol Boxkite—based on the sturdy Farman biplane—was used instead. It bore a resemblance to the American Curtiss and Wright pushers of the day.
The small “Demoiselle” monoplane, which greatly resembles the modern ultralight, was developed by the innovative Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont, who designed and successfully flew dozens of balloons and fixed-wing aircraft in France after the turn of the century. The replica was built so close to the original design that when it came time to fly the “Demoiselle” it refused to lift off and only bounced along the grass runway. Annakin learned from an aviation historian that Santos-Dumont had weighed only about 120 pounds. The man who was to fly the plane was far too heavy. A diminutive stunt pilot named Joan Hughes was able to fly the plane. All the aerial scenes of the “Demoiselle” are of Hughes at the controls, wearing a costume to appear as the male actor.
Derek Piggott, who flew in The Blue Max, was Stuart Whitman’s double and pilot for the Bristol Boxkite.
The “Antoinette” monoplane is a nearly exact copy of the only one ever built. The original was intended to be a competitor for Louis Bleriot’s monoplane in his attempt to fly the English Channel in 1909. But it was Bleriot who won the Daily Mail Prize of ?1,000 for the July 25 flight simply because Hubert Latham, the British contender, overslept.
At a cost of roughly $5,000 each, the planes were constructed by various builders to appear as close to the real thing as possible, using wood and fabric materials. Only the engines were modern, as dictated by the film’s aviation consultant, RAF Air Commodore Allen Wheeler. Wheeler, long considered an expert on pre-war aviation, was relentless in his pursuit of authenticity and safety, two requirements that don’t always work together. For example, the “Antoinette” was slightly changed from the original design. The real plane had “wing-warping” for controlling rolls in the air, but this proved to be too unstable and large ailerons were installed instead. A modern de Havilland Gypsy I four-cylinder in-line engine was used. Yet the final result is fairly faithful to the lovely “Antoinette.”
Since the aircraft, modern or not, were fragile, aerial filming was done primarily in the morning and evening hours when the air was calm. When poor weather intervened, the production concentrated on ground and other sequences.
In the DVD commentary, Annakin describes some of the innovative means the production used to simulate flying. Two wheeled towers were set a few hundred yards apart. On wires between them were wheeled trolleys, from which was suspended a framework holding the aircraft to be filmed. An operator controlled the speed and orientation of the aircraft. This allowed the camera to film moving ground underneath. The apparatus, named “Dick Parker’s Flying Rig” in honor of the American special effects coordinator, was only used on clear, blue-sky days, as the framework and wires were painted blue to blend in with the sky. The rig was used in the ground chase sequence where the tailless German plane “leaps” over other planes. “I defy anyone to see the wires,” Annakin said with pride.
Other flying effects were achieved by using an Aerospatiale SA 313 Alouette II helicopter. In some cases, a mockup of a plane’s forward section was built and mounted on the skids of the Alouette. This allowed the camera to shoot down on the pilot while in flight.
An airfield resembling what was seen in England in 1910 was found at the Booker Airfield in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Several hangars emblazoned with the names “Sopwith,” “A.V. Roe,” “Humber” and “Vickers,” among others, were built. A few historical notes here: Sopwith, the builders of the legendary Camel during the war, was not founded until 1912, two years after the film’s era. Alliott Verdon Roe, whose company later became Avro, was the builder of the famous Avro Lancaster bomber of World War II.
The French government refused permission to film in the skies over Paris, so Annakin’s model makers built a miniature Paris set complete with the Eiffel Tower for the model planes to fly over. A fake Calais was also constructed for the arrival over France.
Several downright funny if overly unrealistic scenes made it into the film. The German entry is flown by Goldfinger title lead Gert Frobe. As Colonel Manfred von Holstein, he toots German “oom-pah” music through his teeth as he attempts to fly the plane with the help of an instruction manual. During a test flight, the tail is torn off the German plane, prompting the Keystone Kops routine with Benny Hill as the fire brigade marshal leading his troops to the rescue. Careful examination of the footage reveals a small tail wheel under the broken end of the fuselage to keep it from dragging. When von Holstein loses the vital manual during the Channel crossing he climbs back along the open frame fuselage to retrieve it. Finally the pilotless plane turns over, and Holstein finds himself hanging over the water and tries to “run” before the crash.
Terry Thomas’ character, the dastardly Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, is foiled in his sneaky attempts to win the race by cheating when he accidentally lands the A.V. Roe IV triplane on the back of a moving train. While trying to run forward to tell the engineer to stop he realizes the train is approaching a tunnel. Knowing he has no chance, Sir Percy throws himself to the deck and listens as his plane is shredded in the tunnel. When he opens his eyes he sees the torn remnants of the Roe with its wings ripped off. With the face only Terry Thomas can display, he yells “Blast!” through clenched teeth.
The UK-produced Twentieth Century Fox Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines was in every way a true and successful aviation film. In fact it would take more than a mere few pages in one chapter to do it justice. The opening sequence uses the highly visual comedy of Red Skelton, who plays various unsuccessful early aviation pioneers. Silent movie footage of some of the most ridiculous contraptions are shown, with cleverly inserted and carefully matched close-up shots of Skelton. The sequence sets the tone for the film very well. According to the DVD commentary by director Ken Annakin, the film’s original title was Flying Crazy.
Sam Wanamaker, who plays Orville Newton’s friend George, is less than enthusiastic about Orville’s flying. Orville says, “You don’t know what it’s like up there, cause you ain’t never been there.”
Wilbur, deadpan, replies, “It ain’t the goin’ up that worries me; it’s the different ways you find of comin’ down.”
Steven Spielberg stepped outside his usual comfort zone with his wild war comedy 1941 in 1979. The plot follows semi-historical events in Los Angeles during the weekend after the attack on Pearl Harbor. With an all-star cast, 1941 relates the story of several people as they cope with invasion hysteria, riots, air raids and a Japanese submarine off the Santa Monica Pier.
John Belushi’s role as the slovenly wild man Bluto Blutarsky in National Lampoon’s Animal House the previous year made him perfect for the role of Captain Wild Bill Kelso, U.S. Army Air Corps. Kelso is a P-40 pilot who has been chasing two Japanese squadrons all over the southwest, only to lose them over Fresno. The fact that the Japanese exist only in his imagination does not deter him from wreaking total havoc with the local populace.
Fellow Faber College alumnus Tim Matheson plays Captain Loomis Birkhead, a lecherous Army officer determined to seduce sexy Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen), a plane-crazy reporter. Donna is willing to submit to Birkhead’s advances—but only if she is inside a plane. The fact that Birkhead washed out of flight school doesn’t deter him from trying, even in a parked B-17.
Later Birkhead and Donna are in Barstow, California, where they secure the use of an unarmed Beechcraft twin-engine trainer. Birkhead, nervous but still horny, takes Donna up and flies towards Los Angeles. What they don’t know is they are being tracked by skittish Civilian Defense spotters and the trigger-happy Kelso, who only see Japanese. The aerial chase and battle result in the Beech being shot down in the La Brea Tar Pits. Kelso is shot down by a pistol bullet fired by a geeky air spotter on the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel.
Hang in there.
Kelso bellies in along Hollywood Boulevard, breaking up a riot between Zoot Suiters and military personnel. Kelso finally escapes to find his way back to Santa Monica, where he rides a motorcycle off the pier and climbs aboard the Japanese submarine to take its crew prisoner—or so he hopes.
All in all, a typical day’s work for Spielberg.
The B-17 bomber was the CAF Arizona Wing’s Sentimental Journey, a restored B-17G before the chin turret had been fitted. Left in its natural metal color, with early-war Air Corps markings, the Fortress merely had to stay on the ground. In the background sharp-eyed viewers can see the tall rudder of a B-52 Stratofortress. The sequence may have been filmed at the March Field Museum in Riverside.
The twin Beechcraft was owned by Planes of Fame in Chino, California. Pilot Steve Hinton, who provided the author with some excellent information on many films in this book, said, “We filmed most of the ground sequences at Indian Dunes. I taxied the P-40 and the Beech. Tom Camp coordinated the sequences, including the shots where Kelso lands to get gas at the old station.” The P-40 is painted with the ubiquitous “shark mouth” motif that audiences expected on the Warhawk. “During the flight over the Grand Canyon,” said Hinton, “Tom Camp flew the Warhawk while Jim Gavin handled the aerial coordination. It was tight in there.”
The FAA would not permit the studio to film any aerial sequences over the city at night. A huge miniature of Los Angeles circa 1941 was built with thousands of lights along detailed streets and intersections. Spielberg used nearly 75,000 flashbulbs to create the effect of bursting anti-aircraft fire over the city when the miniature Beechcraft and P-40 fly overhead. The searchlights were remotely controlled, with a thin hazy atmosphere to make them visible.
Hinton related that the shot in which Kelso, groggy and ill-tempered, falls of the wing of his plane, was actually not scripted. “He [Belushi] caught his pants leg on something and fell off the wing. He was out for like two days,” Hinton said with a chuckle. Considering the reputation Belushi gained for his antics both on and off screen the fall was hardly worth mentioning.
Even with Spielberg’s magic touch, 1941 wasn’t a major success. Stanley Kubrick had told him to consider making 1941 as a drama, as it would have great impact and appeal.
But Spielberg did it his own way.
Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, whose madcap Police Squad television series later spawned some successful movies, took on disaster films with Paramount’s 1980 spoof, Airplane! Loosely based on Arthur Hailey’s serious Zero Hour! (see Chapter Eight) the script takes great pleasure in shooting down all the cherished traditions of airline disaster movies. Nothing is sacred. Even the 707 jet is accompanied by propeller sound effects, and the FAA’s air traffic controllers have to roll with the punches while their profession is reduced to the comedy equivalent of a kindergarten playground.
What makes Airplane! fun to watch over and over is the plethora of subtle and not-so-subtle sight gags, puns, witty dialogue and jabs at all the Airport films. Airplane! used the formulaic collection of misfits and Hollywood castoffs to fill an airliner and cast. Not surprisingly, the characters so prevalent in the “serious” airline disaster films fit right into the madcap Airplane! If a viewer were to step back and view the characters objectively, they might realize it took very little effort for the writers to take most of the passengers and crew from Airport 1975’s Columbia Flight 409 and—after a five-year layover—have them board Airplane!’s Trans America Airlines Flight 209. The cast of characters—from the sick child to singing nuns, from stable doctors to hysterical passengers, from serious pilots to zany air traffic controllers—add to the movie’s appeal.
From the opening sequences, the film goes full tilt. Dramatic music reminiscent of the Airport 1975 score shows cars unloading outside the terminal. It all seems perfectly serious, but then the airport announcers start arguing about whether the red or white zones are for loading and unloading only. From then on it’s total mayhem.
In a pre-9/11 world, the filmmakers are able to poke fun at airport security, allowing obvious Middle East terrorists to board with weapons while innocent passengers are roughly searched.
The relation to Zero Hour! is seen when the passengers and flight crew are incapacitated by bad fish. According to patrician doctor Rumack (Leslie Nielsen), “We have to find someone who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” The stewardess Elaine, played by Julie Haggerty in her first role, flies the plane with almost as much success as Karen Black.
Enter Ted Stryker, a former military pilot with emotional problems. A disastrous bombing raid during some unnamed war has left him with a drinking problem. But he is put in the driver’s seat and flies the plane.
At the control tower, Chief Pilot Rex Kramer assists addled airport manager Steve McCroskey. Robert Stack, whose aviation film career goes back to Fighter Squadron in 1948, is hilarious as the overly serious Kramer. He is actually spoofing himself in The High and the Mighty. Lloyd Bridges, as McCroskey, displays an unbelievable skill at comedy.
Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible fame is the pilot, Captain Oveur. He also takes shots at his own role in the television disaster film SST: Death Flight. Stephen Stucker plays Johnny, a controller who does his level best to make the impending disaster into a cinematic pillow fight.
In the end Stryker lands the plane and wins the girl.
A favorite character is Otto Pilot, a grinning blow-up doll whose deflation requires Elaine to “blow him up” via a tube at his beltline.
Airplane! deflated Universal’s long series of airline films with one prick—no pun intended.
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