In 1970, one movie invented the modern disaster film. After grossing more than $100 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation, it made more than any of the “Lord of the Rings”), it spawned three sequels that stretched through the entire decade. But this landmark series is now almost totally forgotten, long eclipsed by the film that so brilliantly spoofed the genre tropes it helped define. In honor of its 40th anniversary, we’re looking back at the “Airport” franchise this week, one film at a time. Today, “The Concorde… Airport ’79,” the rare movie with an ellipsis in the title.
The Concorde… Airport ’79
Directed by David Lowell Rich
Nature of Air Emergency: A journalist (Susan Blakely) boards Federation World Airlines’ new Concorde plane with documents implicating weapons manufacturer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner) in illegal arms deals with America’s enemies. He tries to shoot down the Concorde and fails. He tries to shoot it down again and fails. Then he tries to make it crash and fails. Let this be a lesson to all of us: just because you make weapons doesn’t mean you’re any good at using them.
George Kennedy Plays: Joe Patroni, captain of the Federation Concorde flight from Washington D.C. to Moscow.
Most Surprising Subplot: Sometime after “Airport 1975,” where she was one of the passengers in distress, Patroni’s wife died in a car accident. Now a widower, Patroni’s back on the dating scene. During a stopover in Paris — after the Concorde’s been attacked by missiles and jets, but before it suffers explosive decompression over the Swiss Alps — his new co-pilot Paul Metrand (Alain Delon) sets him up on a date. It goes incredibly well and Patroni gets laid. The next morning, he begins to regale Metrand with stories of his conquest. Amused, Metrand confesses that Patroni’s “date” was actually a hooker that he’d paid to sleep with his lonely co-worker.
Metrand’s known Patroni for about 36 hours at this point and he’s already buying him hookers? Think about the co-worker you’ve known longest at your job. Maybe you’ve worked with them for years. Would you surprise them with a prostitute if they were feeling lonely? I think Federation World Airlines needs to reevaluate its sexual harassment training seminars.
“Airport” Makes No Sense: George Kennedy stars in all four “Airport” movies as the same guy, Joe Patroni, but he’s got a different job in each movie. So far he’s been a mechanic, an airline’s vice president, and a private contractor working for a billionaire. Obviously the guy knows airplanes, but suddenly in “Airport ’79” he knows how to fly them too. Now it’s unlikely but not impossible that Patroni was studying to be a pilot on his days off. But when Metrand asks Patroni how long he’s been flying he replies, “I stopped counting after 30 years. I’ve flown just about every aircraft there is through three wars and 40 pounds.” So he’s been moonlighting from his three other jobs at a forth job? For 30 years? Then again, Patroni also talks regretting the fact that he and his wife only ever had one child, but in previous movies he’d talked about having five kids. So maybe Patroni’s not a workaholic. Maybe he’s just a pathological liar.
Character You Kind of Want To Die: Jimmie Walker (J.J. from “Good TImes”) plays Boisie, a jazz musician who walks up and down the aisles of the Concorde playing his saxophone. He’s a talented guy, but what gives him the right to blast a sax in the middle of a crowded airplane? I’m sorry Boisie: you interrupt my Robert Ludlum novel, you have to die.
Lines That Makes You Wonder Whether The Whole Film Wasn’t Just An Informercial Paid For By The Air Travel Industry: “There’s nothing like her in the skies. She can maneuver with a military jet. Go just as fast. And a lot farther.”
“I think I’m falling in love.” — Metrand and Patroni admire the Concorde.
Should Have Been Parodied in “Airplane!”: Amongst the passengers on the Concorde is a Russian gymnastics coach named Markov, played by Avery Schreiber, and his deaf daughter, played by Stacy Heather Tolkin. The whole movie these two wander around the Concorde while the daughter asks questions and the father, who looks like the love child of Béla Károlyi and Gene Shalit, signs the answers back to her. The only reason these two, particularly the gregarious, big haired coach evaded the Zuckers’ aim is the fact that they were already readying “Airplane!” by the time this movie came out.
How Does It Hold Up? By 1979, “Airport” had lasted four films and nearly a decade. It wasn’t a only a matter of months before “Airplane!” came along and killed the disaster genre dead by so brilliantly making fun of its cliches and stupidity. But the fact of the matter is “The Concorde… Airport ’79” was already a self-parody of a disaster movie. The first “Airport” had Helen Hayes. The last “Airport” has Charo.
As self-parody, “Airport ’79” is pretty funny stuff. This movie is here to do two things: show off how awesome the Concorde is and relish every chance it gets to make D-list stars uncomfortable. It’s almost a low-level torture porn, inviting us to get off on the sight of Eddie Albert, Susan Blakely, John Davidson, Jimmie Walker and the rest get blasted by wind machines and flying debris and paper.
The degree to which the film violates basic rules of physics and logic is so daring it’s almost ballsy. It presents totally unbelievable scenarios and dares you to call bullshit. For instance, The Concorde makes an emergency landing in Paris after it comes under assault from a military drone plane gone rogue. The plane depressurizes and nearly crashes on the runway at de Gaulle. If this happened in real life it would be one of the biggest news stories of the year and the incident would spark an enormous law enforcement investigation. The plane would be grounded for days or even weeks to ensure the police were able to gather all the evidence they needed, and to ensure the safety of the aircraft. But not only does the Concorde take off for Moscow as planned a day after the incident, saboteurs are able to sneak onboard and place an explosive device on its cargo door. This plane was just involved in one of the craziest mid-air dogfights in history. Nobody is around to watch it get broken into?
You could argue the laughs are intentional, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Clearly the series had run its course and was totally out of ideas. The guys who made “Airport ’79” couldn’t end the movie quick enough. The credits roll immediately after the Concorde makes a desperate emergency landing on a ski slope, and the crew and passengers evacuate just before the jet explodes. There is no resolution for any of the subplots. You don’t find out whether the sick passengers will survive, or whether the weapons manufacturer will get busted, or whether Patroni will sleep with his hooker girlfriend again. All you get is a shot of the Concorde — and the “Airport” series — flying off into the sunset. Of course, since the plane just crashed, even that shot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Strange But True: The Concorde is supposedly flying to Moscow as a sign of goodwill in anticipation of the Olympic games there in 1980. But the United States and many of its allies boycotted the 1980 games because of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So way to go, “Airport ’79,” there’s another thing you screwed up.