Everybody knows that Airplane! was based on a pioneering 1957 disaster movie – but it’s far from being the only other version of that story.
In 1980, the disaster movie was dealt a fatal blow – at least in for a good decade or so – by the release of Airplane!, a relentlessly biting satire of a genre that had taken itself very seriously indeed. Airplane!, made by David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, mercilessly mocked the cliches of the genre and was a huge box office success, spawning a whole new strain of fast-paced, absurdist film comedy (often starring Leslie Nielsen) that itself became little more than a series of strained and predictable routines. In 1980 though, no one had quite seen comedy like this and it was a genuine breath of fresh air – I’ve never heard audiences laugh as loudly and continually as I did when this film played cinemas. The disaster film was already on its last legs following a series of flops – but this was the final nail in the coffin, at least until the era of the CGI blockbuster breathed new life into the genre.
Yet oddly, Airplane! wasn’t a scattershot dig at the genre as a whole. Rather, it was a virtual remake of the story that in many ways birthed the whole disaster movie genre, a film called Zero Hour! made in 1957 and co-written by Arthur Hailey, who would then go on to write Airport – which is really where the whole template for the genre was fixed. Airplane! didn’t just take a few ideas from Zero Hour! and work them into the plot – in many ways, it is a scene-for-scene copy right down to the film title’s exclamation point, so much so that the comedy film’s producers actually bought the rights to the story to cover themselves legally. In that sense, Airplane! is an official remake of the earlier film, one that takes the absurdities and the melodrama of the original and mocks them mercilessly.
Even more strangely, this wasn’t the first remake of the story. In fact, Zero Hour! itself was a remake to begin with. It’s a narrative that has proven irresistible for dramatists – at least until Airplane! came along (you’ll be unsurprised to hear that no one has tried remaking it since) and with good reason. While by 1980 much of the film’s heightened drama had become so overused that it was ripe for parody, the story itself is in many ways the very essence of a tense, claustrophobic thriller. Even Airplane! – despite itself – creates moments of actual tension and as stories go, this is simple but effective. Obviously, you’ll never be able to watch any version of the story now without chortling at the satire it reminds you of and that’s a pity, to be honest. It deserves better.
The first version of the story appeared in 1956 on the Canadian TV drama series General Motor Theatre, one of many series of the era that specialised in one-off dramas. Flight Into Danger, as it was then called, starred James Doohan as George Spencer, a former WW2 fighter pilot who finds himself forced to take the controls of the passenger plane he is travelling on when food poisoning strikes down several passengers and the pilots. Plagued with self-doubt and flashbacks to the war, and unfamiliar with the controls of a modern jet aircraft, he was to somehow land the plane before the stricken passengers die. But why tell you this – you know the story, don’t you?
The play was broadcast live and does not appear to be available if it still exists at all – but it clearly had an immediate impact and was quickly snapped up to be remade as a feature film. Zero Hour!, directed by Hall Bartlett, makes a few changes to the original story – George Spence is now Ted Stryker (as per Airplane!), played with stoic intensity by Dana Andrews. Stryker’s war trauma is now expanded to include a disastrous mission that he led where six men died. Basically, every plot point of Airplane! is here, with some dialogue repeated verbatim – so you can see that, like many a melodrama, the film was already one beat away from becoming a comedy. nevertheless, it works, pulling you into the tension even though there is never any doubt about the outcome. Andrews and Sterling Hayden give the film a gravitas that compels you to take it seriously and dammit, even now it works.
Certainly, it was a story that resonated around the world. As air travel started to become more affordable, the idea that you could find yourself trapped on a plane where the pilots were no longer able to function was something that clearly spoke to many people. And the story leant itself to intimate terror in a way that future disaster movies – where the emphasis was increasingly on huge casts and big, expansive spectacle – couldn’t match. On a more practical level, it also allowed for cheaper productions as the only sets really needed were the cockpit, the plane as a whole and the control tower.
In 1958, the novel Flight Into Danger, credited to Hailey and John Castle, was published. There are doubts as to how much – if any – of the novel Hailey actually wrote; essentially it was a novelisation of his original story from 1956. Nevertheless, the novel was a big success, even though the US publication changed the title to Runway Zero-Eight. It was almost certainly the popularity of the novel that inspired Hailey to later write Airport, where the soap opera elements were cranked up further and the air disaster was more of a backdrop to the assorted domestic woes of the characters.
In 1962, the BBC adapted Flight Into Danger as the third episode of drama anthology series Studio 4 – invariably, this version seems to be missing in action along with fifteen other episodes of the series. Directed by James McTaggart, the drama is closer to the original Canadian play than the movie, with the hero once again called George Spencer, played by Robert Arden.
In 1964, there was a German TV adaptation of the story called Flug in Gefahr, made by Theo Mezger for the SDR channel. Although a German-language adaptation, it retains the American names of the characters from Hailey’s original version and is a pretty straightforward facsimile version. It’s also one of the few versions that is still available to see, albeit in German without subtitles.
In 1966, the story was adapted yet again for TV, this time in Australia as part of the Wednesday Theatre strand for the ABC network with Ray Taylor taking the lead role and Patrick Barton directing what again seems to be a direct remake of the 1956 original. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that this version has also effectively vanished.
Perhaps understandably thinking that the original title was a bit played out, the next version of the story – and the last until Airplane! – was retitled Terror in the Sky. This 1971 version of the story has Doug McClure as George Spencer – now rebooted into a Vietnam vet who hasn’t flown since the war (which is not, perhaps, saying much given that said war was still very much in progress at the time) – and Roddy McDowall as the doctor. Both actors give it their all and do what they can to boost the drama. I think that this was probably the version I saw as a kid and loved, because why wouldn’t you? It’s exciting, gripping and at that point, I would’ve had no idea that the story had already been done to death.
As much as I love Airplane!, I almost feel sorry that it was this plot that Abrahams and the Zuckers so savagely destroyed, based on a version that was already quite possibly a bit of a trashy bastardisation of the original story. With most of the other adaptations now lost in the mists of television past, it’s hard to tell if they were actually superior versions – but perhaps as shorter, more compressed TV dramas, they managed to cut the melodramatic fat that made Zero Hour! so ripe for mockery to begin with. I fear we’ll never know.
I rather doubt that any broadcaster or filmmaker would dare to approach this story again now with a straight face, even though the narrative is, in many ways, a timeless one (though perhaps not a realistic one anymore; after a genuine case of food poisoning that affected 197 passengers – but luckily not the pilots – a Japanese flight in 1975, protocols were put into place to ensure that flight crew all ate different meals prepared by different people to avoid this very scenario actually happening). It would take a very brave person to have a stab at this, even though Airplane! is now over four decades old – but I’d love to see someone try. The story feels ripe for rehabilitation, somehow.
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