“Look Up in the Sky!”
“It’s a Bird!”
“It’s a Plane!”
(Various nobodies speaking at the beginning of the TV show, “Adventures of Superman”)
Transportation! The going from one location to another for some purpose. A very simple action which is sometimes caused by complex reasons is what I will be discussing for the next three upcoming posts. This first post will discuss aviation which has been used in many different ways going back to the beginning of motion pictures. All the way back in 1902, French director Georges Melies made the short silent film, “A Trip to the Moon” which, although it was only 9 to 18 minutes long, was an international success and was very loosely based on a pair of Jules Verne novels which chronicled a trip to the moon. It is mostly remembered now for the memorable scene where a (toy) spaceship hits the Man in the Moon’s eye (which looks like something in a schlockmeister Ed Wood film).
Since travel in the air was so new back then, films involving flight that had major success were for things like World War I war films. The very first Oscar winning Best Picture was for the movie, “Wings” (1927) directed by William A. Wellman. It was a straight romantic action movie (the two guys in love with the same girl story) with a little thing called WWI getting in the way. It was memorable for the realistic air combat sequences which were brilliantly directed by the underrated and great Wellman who had actual air combat experience in WWI. From that point on, numerous WWI air combat films broke out like “Hell’s Angels” (1930), “The Dawn Patrol” (1930), and “The Eagle and the Hawk” (1933).
With each war came new combat aviation films. WWII had movies like “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944), “A Guy Named Joe” (1943), and “God Is My Co-Pilot” (1945) for example. However, after the war years films involving air combat started to explore the human cost of warfare rather than just jingoistic portrayals during the war years in films like “Command Decision” (1948) and, maybe, the best of them all, “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949).
“High” starred Gregory Peck as Brigadier General Frank Savage who takes over a demoralized air command and improves their morale and performance while the dangerous strain of command and air combat slowly wears him down just like it did his predecessor. Except for the beginning and the very end of the film there is no music score. Also, all of the air combat scenes were from actual black and white combat footage shot from both Allied and Luftwaffe cameras to heighten realism. This film has been cited by veterans of the heavy bomber campaign and by others in the military as the only Hollywood film to accurately capture their combat experiences. It was also widely used in both the military and civilian worlds to teach the principles of leadership and was required viewing for all of the U.S. service academies and various other U.S. training facilities/schools for years afterwards. The movie is anchored by Gregory Peck’s towering Oscar nominated performance and the fine direction by Henry King (who also should have been Oscar nominated). I have said for years that this movie was one of the three greatest movies of WWII that was made during the nineteen forties and that from the period of 1945 to 1950 Gregory Peck and John Garfield were the two finest working actors in America.
With the following decades aviation war films fluctuated between more patriotic Korean and Vietnam war films like “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954), “The Hunters” (1958) and “Flight of the Intruder” (1991) for example before devolving into more pure jingoistic far right pap like “Firefox” (1982) (AKA “Dirty Harry” in a cockpit) or “Top Gun” (1986) (AKA “Risky Business” at Mach 6). However, other movies about aviation covered more sophisticated and character driven storylines (and they didn’t even have to be war films either).
One such popular aviation movie storyline is when either an airplane or a commercial airliner with a number of various individuals onboard is thrown into crisis when potential or actual in-flight disaster strikes. Films like “Five Came Back” (1939), “Island in the Sky” (1953), and “Flight of the Phoenix” (1965) explored these different types of dilemmas. However, one in particular was the granddaddy of them all and it pioneered all future airplane and overall disaster movies ever since. That movie, which was a huge box-office hit, was “The High and the Mighty” (1954). John Wayne, cast against type, had the lead (Spencer Tracy had previously turned it down) as a former captain now a veteran first officer on a DC-4 flight from Honolulu to San Francisco when an engine problem occurs that could mean the plane’s destruction. What made this movie special was, not just the technical side of aviation and the people involved, but rather the exploring of individual passengers’ storylines along with the overall suspense of the situation itself. Although the movie is dated now, it still holds up reasonably well thanks to the fine direction by, once again, director William A. Wellman who knew how to direct movies about aviation better than anyone. As I mentioned, “Mighty” was basically the template for all future aviation disaster themed films such as “Zero Hour!” (1957), “The Crowded Sky” (1960), “Airport” (1970), along with other non-aviation disaster themed films. Fun fact: Robert Stack, who gave a fine performance as the captain in “Mighty”, years later lampooned himself as the captain in the satirical disaster aviation picture, “Airplane!” (1980).
Another category of aviation films were character driven studies of individuals under pressure who worked in aviation or did research or investigation of aviation issues. The comedy drama, “Pushing Tin” (1999) explored the competition between two air traffic comptrollers (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) while highlighting the extreme stress of the job itself. The drama, “No Highway in the Sky” (1951) had James Stewart as an eccentric researcher who, while analyzing the reason for an aviation crash in Canada, theorizes that it was due to metal fatigue after a certain number of flight hours (an actual undiagnosed early issue with commercial jet aviation). When later traveling on a similar type of airliner he takes drastic action after discovering that his plane passed the same number of flight hours that caused the other airliner to crash. A more recent film, “Flight” (2012) had Denzel Washington as an airline pilot with serious substance abuse issues who, after his airliner suffers an in-flight mechanical failure, makes a miraculous crash landing which saves almost all of the passengers but later exposes his personal problems for critical review. All of these films are pretty good but one I particularly want to mention, even though it was a critical and a box office failure, is the movie, “Fate is the Hunter” (1964).
“Fate” starred Glenn Ford as airline executive Sam McBane who is tasked with investigating a fatal airline crash that occurred shortly after take off killing everyone onboard except for an airline stewardess (Susanne Pleshette) at the very beginning of the film. Early suspicion centers on airline pilot Jack Savage (Rod Taylor), a larger than life playboy type who was a close long-time friend of McBane and was seen in a bar possibly drinking an hour before the flight. The investigation involves flashbacks to different moments in Savage’s life with both McBane as well as others who reminisce about their experiences with Savage. As more information is uncovered, a slow portrait unfolds of a man that McBane never completely knew and of how he affected others over his lifetime.
“Fate” had a lot of problems. Author Ernest K. Gann was a fine writer, especially for books about aviation (he wrote “Island in the Sky” and “The High and the Mighty”). He was so angry about his novel’s adaption (justifiably so) that he demanded that his name be removed from the credits. Although the movie had an all star cast, no one other than Taylor (in flashback) and Ford had substantial screen time. Also, Glenn Ford was a bad choice for the lead role (they originally wanted Charlton Heston). Ford always had very little dramatic range as an actor other than too often looking either frustrated, perplexed or generally pissed off. In “Fate” he sort of acts like someone with a bad case of jock itch. Lastly, Director Ralph Nelson was known for small intimate character driven dramas (“Requiem for a Heavyweight”, “Lilies of the Field”, etc.) not anything involving large scale action or a large cast. So why do I want to (sort of) praise this movie? Well let me explain.
Despite Nelson’s inadequacies as a Director, he definitely could elicit (except for Ford) fine performances from his fellow actors like Wally Cox, Dorothy Malone, Nancy Kwan, Mark Stevens, Susanne Pleshette, and especially, Rod Taylor. Taylor never became a major film star but he could actually act and in Jack Savage he gave the performance of his career. With each flashback, you learn more and more about this man and what makes him tick. He reveals a quiet contemplative inner self to others as a really decent, brave, and supportive human being behind the outward façade. That is ultimately the heart and soul of the film. The mystery of why the plane crashed is a good one and when it is solved, it puts an end to the story of someone who touched a number of different individuals’ lives all for the better. With “Fate is the Hunter,” if look past the outer façade, you just might find an unexpected gem.
Lastly, commercial aviation could also be utilized for action, crime, horror, terrorism, and even humor (unintentional or otherwise) in films. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that many of these films were any good. For example, some of these winners (not) were dogs like:
(1) “Turbulence” (1997) with Ray Liotta as a psycho rapist killer (bet he has a great Tinder profile) on an airliner terrorizing lone flight attendant Lauren Holly after almost everyone is killed.
(2) “Passenger 57” (1992) with Wesley Snipes as a retired U.S. Secret Service Agent (of course) on a airliner also carrying a captured psycho international terrorist (of course) escaping custody in flight due to his gang of terrorists on board freeing him (of course) which requires Snipes to save the day (also, of course)! As an aside, I especially like how Snipes has a final fist fight with the terrorist while there is a gapping hole in the fuselage with people being sucked out and neither Snipes nor the terrorist is either sucked out or pass out from cabin decompression. However, you may wish that you passed out if you made the mistake of watching this piece of dreck.
(3) “Snakes on a Plane” (2006) with Samuel (Anything for a Buck) Jackson as an F.B.I. agent escorting a murder witness on an airliner to testify at a trial in L.A. when (Surprise! Surprise!) a whole butch of poisonous snakes are let loose in flight to kill everyone and crash the plane (Oh, the Horror)! Now if they only would have changed the storyline to the snakes being released on a flight of passengers going to a Chevy Chase Film Festival, I would have paid good money to see that!
(4) “Flight of the Living Dead” (2007) with basically, nobody except maybe ex-Dinner Theatre rejects, starring as assorted victims/zombies/food, etc. fighting to survive when a zombie outbreak occurs on a trans-Atlantic flight (Boy, TSA Pre-Check sure blew that one)!
However, there have been a few really good ones too. Two that I want to mention are “Executive Decision” (1996) and “Non-Stop” (2014). “Executive Decision” stars Kurt Russell as David Grant, a U.S. Army Intelligence consultant who is tasked to be a part of a military Special Ops team led by Lt. Colonel Austin Travis (Steve Seagal) to retake a hijacked trans-Atlantic flight heading to Washington D.C. The terrorist group onboard is believed to have a highly toxic nerve agent bomb which will be detonated over U.S. airspace causing mass casualties. The team will be transported to the airliner by a smaller experimental aircraft which will attach itself secretively under the airliner letting the Ops team have access into the airliner to overpower the terrorists.
I have said many times that the absolutely toughest movie to make really well is an “action” movie. Too often the action is unbelievable or stupid; the characters are undeveloped or cardboard usually due to a weak script; the plot is unbelievable; there is no real suspense; and the overall acting and direction is awful. “Decision” is a rare exception. First time Director Stuart Baird does not focus on the action as much as on the “suspense” and it works marvelously. When there is action, it is exciting, believable, and not overdone. While the feasibility of an aircraft attaching itself to another airliner seems farfetched, Baird’s direction is so smooth that it doesn’t seem to matter. The plot is exciting with numerous unexpected twists which ratchet up the suspense even more. The script is tight, well developed, and provides rare depth into the characters. Russell is believable as an out of his depth civilian who uses his brain rather than brawn to help the team. Other actors such as John Leguizamo, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, David Suchet, and others give fine performances too. Most surprising of all, somehow Baird got an actual performance out of Steve Seagal who was only in the movie briefly before he flies off (literally) from the scene. Anytime someone can get an actual performance out of an obnoxious, no talent jerk like Steve Seagal (even though he was nominated for a Razzie Award for his performance) I have to tip my cap to that person. Mr. Baird, you done good!
“Non-Stop” stars Liam Neeson as Bill Marks, an alcoholic U.S. Air Marshall on a trans-Atlantic flight from New York City to London. While in flight he receives a text message on his secure phone supposedly by someone onboard threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a specific bank account. Marks breaks protocol by making contact with a second Air Marshall onboard, the airliner Captain and, ultimately, a TSA agent by his cell phone explaining the threat. Ultimately, Marks discovers through TSA that the bank account is registered under Marks own name and now he is their prime suspect (talk about having a lousy day at the office…).
Liam Neeson has had a mid-life career resurrection ever since he did the movie “Taken” (2008) which was a colossal hit. Ever since, he has played a series of middle-aged tough guys which have either ranged from awful (“Taken 2”, “Taken 3” and “The Commuter”), to OK (“A Walk Among the Tombstones” and “Cold Pursuit”), to very good like “Unknown” (2011), “The Grey” (2012), “Run All Night” (2015), and, of course, both “Taken” and “Non-Stop”. Neeson has the unique ability to always make his characters sympathetic with an everyman quality about them while at the same time projecting an air of toughness mixed with vulnerability. In “Non-Stop” all of these traits are at play which helps to mask a storyline that’s, let’s be real, just a little bit far-fetched (I’m being kind). He is helped by Director Jaume Collet-Serra who also directed him to good affect in “Unknown” and “Run All Night”. Collet-Serra’s direction keeps the movie moving right along while keeping the focus on Neeson at all times. In so doing you almost do not notice the gaps of logic in the storyline or the almost criminal non-development of characters in the film played by such fine actors as Michelle Dockery, Corey Stoll, and Lupita Nyong’o. The suspense and action scenes in the film are excellent too with maybe the greatest closed door airplane lavatory fistfight between two men in motion picture history (of course it also might be the only one too)! If you like a pulpy good action suspense movie with some good acting by the lead, then just stop and see “Non-Stop” (You know I just had to say that, don’t you)!