How 'Airport' Invented The 1970s Disaster Movie Formula

Entertainment | October 22, 2020

Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset play a pilot and a flight attendant, here surrounded by passengers in 'Airport.' Source: IMDB

In 1970, the novel Airport was adapted as a film that established the formula for the disaster movie genre of the 1970s. Though it featured numerous big names, including Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Burt Lancaster, and Jacqueline Bisset, Airport was a small budget film, as it was produced for just $10 million. The movie made a lot of money at the box office -- and spawned three sequels. But its even bigger impact was setting a template for numerous blockbusters that would follow -- films with bigger budgets and ever more convincing special effects. Character types, plot elements, and themes from Airport would recur in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and others.

Source: (Ultimate Classic Rock)

In 1968, Arthur Hailey published his novel Airport. He had previously published Hotel, a novel about the inner workings of a hotel as it deals with several crises: a building facing financial troubles, a thief, and a freefalling elevator. The novels set ordinary people against a backdrop of unfolding problems. While Airport may have been a cheap film to make, it became a box office hit, bringing in more than $100 million and spawning three sequels: Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concorde…Airport ’79

By the end of the decade, and the fourth film in the franchise, the seams were showing. The formula had become comically predictable. That's how we ended up with one of the funniest movies ever made: Airplane!

The Setting Is A Public Location Packed With Innocent Bystanders

Burt Lancaster and Jean Seaberg. Source: (IMDb)

The title of the movie, of course, reflects the setting. The airport in question is the Lincoln International Airport outside Chicago. On the night that the worst snowstorm in a decade is about to hit the airport, Mel Bakersfield, the airport manager is trying to hold it all together. The flight crew of a Trans Global Airlines flight take a wrong turn and get stuck in the snow on a runway, leading to its closure. The airplane is similarly packed with innocent passengers about to become victims of a situation outside of their control.

A Stressed Everyman Is Struggling To Keep Things Together

Burt Lancaster. Source: (IMDb).

Burt Lancaster plays the role of that everyman, Mel Bakersfield, the manager of the Lincoln International Airport. He is just an ordinary man trying to cope with some extraordinary circumstances. Like the rest of the characters, he has problems in his personal life which come to light as the chaos converges around him. 

It Features A Large All Star Cast As A Cross-Section Of Society

Chaos on the plane. Source: (IMDb).

In addition to Burt Lancaster, the cast list includes the likes of Dean Martin, who plays Vernon Demerest, an arrogant pilot who is supposed to be flying the doomed plane to Rome that evening, Helen Hayes, who plays the role of Ada Quonsett, a stowaway, Jacqueline Bissett, who is cast as a pregnant stewardess, and Van Heflin, who plans to blow up the plane so his wife can collect his life insurance. The travelers are a microcosm of society, as there is a priest, three doctors, two GIs, a mouthy kid, just for starters.

The Disaster Is A Backdrop For Individual Drama

Jacqueline Bisset and Dean Martin. Source: (IMDb)

The characters are each dealing with their own dramas, and there really are a lot of little dramas.The overworked Mel Bakersfield is on the verge of a divorce, while he is embroiled in an affair with the head customer relations agent for an airline. He also has a conflicted relationship with his brother-in-law, Vernon Demerest, who happens to be on the doomed plane. Demerest has gotten a stewardess pregnant. Quonsett is an elderly woman who sneaks onto airplanes so that she doesn’t have to pay for the flight. And of course, there is the troubled Guerrero, who, prior to becoming a bomber was a failed contractor.

The Attempts To Avert Disaster Fail Repeatedly

Helen Hayes and Van Helfin. Source: (Pinterest)

Guerrero’s erratic behavior attracts attention at the airport, but this doesn’t stop him. After finding a special delivery envelope from a travel agency, his wife, Inez, goes to the airport because she is afraid he might do something desperate. Quonsett, who is seated next to Guerrero, is discovered to be a stowaway, and is enlisted to help get the bomb-carrying briefcase away from Guerrero, which she does, but a meddling passenger returns it to him. Demerest manages to defuse the situation, until the same meddling passenger calls out that Guerrero has a bomb, so Guerrero runs into the lavatory, sets off the bomb and dies. This creates a hole in the fuselage and Demerest now needs to land the plane back at Lincoln, and, of course, the runway is blocked.

Cathartic Ending With An Unexpected Hero

George Kennedy as the hero, with Burt Lancaster. Source: (Ultimate Movie Rankings)

The damaged plane is, of course, able to land safely. Why? Because Joe Patroni, the head mechanic, played by George Kennedy, is able to clear the runway of the plane that was stuck in the snow. The film was a commercial success and did earn Helen Hayes an Academy Award, and the movie received other nominations, but the critics were not enamored with the film. Perhaps its lasting achievement was that it had not only several sequels, but also that its formula spawned a series of films, creating a genre. Two years after Airport, The Poseidon Adventure was released, which was followed by Towering Inferno and Earthquake in 1974.

Tags: Airport | Burt Lancaster | Dean Martin | Disaster Movies | George Kennedy | Jacqueline Bisset | Jean Seberg

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!