I, like many people, love movies that are so bad they’re good. And friends, does this one deliver. From a ridiculous plot to terrible props and make-up to ghastly music to un-salvageable dialogue, this movie is a King Among Kings of films that are fun to mock.
There were four — count them, four — of these Airport films from 1970 to 1979 due in part to the frequency of skyjacking in the 1970s. They all have two things: star-studded casts and ridiculous plots. (Factoid: they also seem to have left a trail of carnage, considering that three of the four planes shown in these films (all but ’77) crashed years after the films’ release.)
I was drawn to this particular chapter in the Airport saga mostly because of my affection for Jack Lemmon, the star and “hero” of the film, and by my total bewilderment that he had anything to do with this franchise.
But his mistake is my personal gain, because there are few things more fun than badmouthing a movie that’s an easy target. The rest of the cast is also pretty stellar (Christopher Lee, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, James Stewart) and I’m no less confused as to why any of them agreed to this movie — I can only guess the fun of working with other powerhouse stars and the cash. Regardless of the bizarre decision-making that went into this disaster (of a) movie, let’s get to the nitty-gritty! Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts, please. It’s time for…
Philip Stevens (James Stewart) is a wealthy art collector and philanthropist who’s opening a museum in his family’s estate in Florida, and he’s flying lots of VIPs (read: rich white people) down on his brand new, never-before-flown private luxury plane to attend the grand opening. The plane is also carrying several important pieces of artwork that will be showcased in the museum. The art attracts a trio of hijackers who plan to gas the crew and passengers, land the plane on a remote island with an airstrip, steal the artwork, and leave on a getaway plane.
We are quickly going to find that this is:
- the worst plan ever,
- the worst group of Bad Guys™ ever, and
- a very not-good movie.
And as with all the Airport movies, there are personal conflicts and stories among the various characters that manifest throughout the plot. None of the stories are very interesting and few of the characters are all that likable, but A for effort. That being said, I really, really like this movie because of the pure fun it provides by virtue of all its camp and general badness.
The movie starts with Stevens showing a team of reporters through his soon-to-be museum and answering their questions about his private plane bringing the art and guests. Basically, he’s Jimmy Stewart being Jimmy Stewart. We then meet Captain Don Gallagher (Lemmon) and his mustache landing the plane (“23-Sierra”) after a test run in D.C. Here, we get to see the first of many Jack Lemmon “take me now, God” facial expressions that will become familiar over the next two hours.
Gallagher’s co-pilot is Bad Guy #1, “Chambers.” We know he’s a villain because he’s wearing sunglasses. Gallagher, however, misses this obvious sign of Evil Incarnate and merely leaves the cockpit once he’s landed. Fool.
As Gallagher deboards on the tarmac, he meets with Stan Buchek, a crewman who’ll be on the plane on its flight to Florida. They discuss the superior quality of the aircraft and its debut flight later that evening, and establish themselves generally as Two Swell Guys. They go to oversee the packing and loading of the precious cargo, Stevens’ collection of Fine Art™.
Side note: I swear to God there is no other film in Lemmon’s entire body of work with so much accidental blurring between the character and the man because of his intense inner turmoil while making this movie. Observe: the crew is also packing up food and liquor for the flight, and I’m convinced Lemmon’s prolonged look of intense yearning as he gazes at a wine bottle has absolutely nothing to do with his character.
While the plane is being loaded and Lemmon is wishing he was, Bad Guy #2 is pretending to be a pilot to make a sinister and not-at-all-sneaky exchange with some other irrelevant bad dude in the airport, get into the locker room, get the gun hidden there (????), and don his disguise as a crewman. This disguise includes pieces of what look like chalk to put in his mouth (to make his jawline more pronounced?), a
heinous badass pornstache, and a wig that is literally the exact same color as his own hair. “Banker” is played by Monte Markham. But because I know him best as the guy who played Blanche Devereaux’s gay brother Clayton on The Golden Girls, and because “Banker” is a stupid-as-shit name, he shall henceforth be referred to as Blanche’s Brother Clayton™.
Gallagher goes and finds Eve (Brenda Vaccaro), his long-time girlfriend and a flight attendant on the plane. Noticing that she seems distracted, he asks her, “My problem is a fear of flying, what’s yours?” For some reason she does not respond, “What your pilot’s-license-havin-ass just said,” and instead tells him that she’s been offered a job at another location for a year or longer, and that she’s very interested in taking it, despite the fact that Gallagher is pushing to get married soon. Gallagher responds that he wants a wife and kids, which is apparently the end of the conversation and also the end of my (already minimal) emotional investment in Gallagher as a character.
Blanche’s Brother Clayton and Bad Guy #3, “Wilson,” go on board the plane to prepare it for the hijacking. Wilson hooks up the tanks of “anesthesia” to the oxygen lines for the various parts of the plane they want to gas. What agent do they plan to use for this mission, might you ask?
military grade chemical irritant knockout gas is installed, the Chuckle Brothers slink off to do some other sleazy stuff and the VIP passengers begin to arrive and board the plane. First aboard are Lisa and Benjy, Stevens’ estranged daughter and young grandson (it is never explained why they’re estranged and I promise it doesn’t matter). Next is Olivia de Havilland, playing a woman named Emily Livingston, presumably because that name could only belong to a wealthy society matron. She brings her companion Dorothy, a middle-aged black woman whose official capacity to Livingston is also never explained. In the course of a minute, Livingston sizes up the airplane, chastises an art critic she doesn’t like, and takes over an ongoing poker game. So, we’ve filled the role of “Spunky Old Lady” in this cast of characters.
And now we are introduced to a character I personally deem Public Enemy No. 1. The uselessness of this character and the broken harmonica that is her voice cannot be overstated. “Jane Stern” aka Bonnie’s Mom aka Jesus Christ Lady Shut the Fuck Up is bragging to Dorothy about her daughter’s
shitty little kid scribble lovely drawing, which won an award and got her on the plane. Stevens’ taste in art continues to impress.
Seriously. I hate her.
The rest of the passengers fill up the plane and the flight attendants prepare for takeoff, playing a video of Stevens as the plane speeds down the runway. Benjy asks who he is. Lisa tells him he met his grandfather “once, when you were a little boy.” To be clear, Benjy is at most a fresh 8½. “Grandpa sure has a neat plane, doesn’t he Mom?” Benjy asks. “Your grandpa has a lot of expensive toys, Benjy,” says Lisa in a her smug, breathy voice. Yeah, okay, Lisa. You resent your wealthy father and couldn’t tell us why with a gun to your head. We get it.
Before we head into the real action of this harrowing tale, I just want to emphasize my point about what terrible Bad Guys these dudes are. As the plane takes off, Blanche’s Brother Clayton and Wilson are seated in the back, dressed as maître d’s. And they are watching the security guard on the plane, “Hunter” (subtle) in the most absurdly obvious “WE ARE CARTOON VILLAINS, HERE WE ARE, HELLO!” way possible.
Way to keep a low profile, my dudes.
So, we’ve been introduced to most of the major (and minor) characters, we know the Evil Plan such as it is, and the plane is officially in the air. Time to get the show on the road (this movie doesn’t deserve appropriate metaphors)!
How it Goes Down (Literally)
In the lead-up to the big heist, the unsuspecting passengers mill about casually, and we are shown glimpses of their personalities, histories, and private lives. The poker game is in full swing, the bar is fully operational, and the passengers are socializing. There is a blind man named Steve at the piano. He is playing and singing some of the worst music that has ever been foisted upon mankind. I am owed reparations for having heard this music.
A woman named Julie, however, apparently has some sort of ear infection and is therefore listening raptly to his crooning and practically drooling over him. Personally, I identify more with Lee Grant’s character Karen Wallace, who’s giving a contemptuous side-eye and staying within easy reach of the booze.
I should note that Karen Wallace is an absolutely abhorrent person, and I still like her better than this iguana at the keyboard. Lee Grant is cast in a fairly typical bitter, usually drunken, older (i.e. not 23) rich lady role, whose one and only job is to be as obnoxious and unlikable as humanly possible. She’s good at it.
While Steve is keeping the main cabin in musical Gitmo, Karen is boozing it up and goes to be terrible to her husband Martin (Christopher Lee), whose business partner she apparently had an affair with. Livingston reconnects with “Nicky” (*gags for eternity*) St. Downs III (Joseph Cotten), apparently an old flame from when the Depression was on and there was nothing to do but smash.
Eve talks with Eddie the bartender about his wife, who is pregnant with twins. Eddie is now the only person I truly care about. Four for you, Eddie, you go, Eddie. Lisa is upstairs somewhere by herself being all fake deep and shit, and Eve goes up to talk to her about her issues with her dad, because there is apparently nothing that isn’t Eve’s business. It turns out Stevens is seriously ill and has only a few months to live, news that understandably upsets Lisa. Now, this revelation doesn’t really pair up at all with the energetic and spry Jimmy Stewart we saw earlier, but what can I tell you, this is a terrible movie.
Up in the cockpit, Chambers excuses himself under the pretense of stretching his legs to go find Bad Guys #2 and #3. Here again we see Lemmon pondering his downward catapult in career moves.
While the passengers continue to booze and schmooze, Chambers tells Blanche’s Brother Clayton that he has 10 minutes to do his villain stuff, and they’ve got to get Gallagher out of the cockpit. Wilson and Blanche’s Brother Clayton get to work, and Clayton accidentally kills the security guard when trying to knock him out. Wilson tells him almost scoldingly, “You hit him too hard, he’s dead.” Yeah, Clayton. You’re only supposed to maim and traumatize the passengers, jeez.
While Wilson goes up to the air ducts to start pumping the
nerve agent sedative gas into the passenger areas, Blanche’s Brother Clayton strolls casually (eyes shifting, gun out) into a compartment and calls Gallagher back there to help a “sick passenger.”
Evil Plan is officially in action! Gallagher leaves, and Chambers knocks out the other crewman in the cockpit with a crushing blow… to his shoulder.Wilson puts on his oxygen mask, and Blanche’s Brother Clayton (also in mask) pistol whips Gallagher, who takes the most dramatic fall I have ever seen by someone who wasn’t in a pannier and a petticoat.
Chambers masks up in the cockpit and the passengers start to pass out from the gas. Some just keel over (pretty cringe-ily, by the way), some start choking, everybody eats carpet. The Bad Guys get to (super inefficient and sloppy) work. Blanche’s Brother Clayton tries to steal Karen Wallace’s ring off her finger and can’t get it off. What a loser. Chambers takes them off course and off radar and heads them straight into — *dramatic music swells* — The Bermuda Triangle! This detail will have exactly no relevance to anything that happens in this movie.
Back at the tower, the woman monitoring their flight notices they’ve gone missing from the screen and announces she’s lost contact. The dude next to her steps in heroically to mash random buttons on her console. Thank God he was there. “They’re in the Bermuda Triangle,” he says ominously. Once again, this has nothing to do with literally anything at all. They start trying to contact the plane by radio and send Navy and Coast Guard search parties out to scour the area the plane is supposed to be.
Blanche’s Brother Clayton and Wilson start gathering the art they plan to steal as Chambers flies the plane. Some of the passengers are beginning to stir a bit, and Chambers starts stressing a little as he moves into some fog. Suddenly he sees a tower up ahead and swerves, brushing it with the plane’s right wing and one of the engines. Way to go, Captain Fuck-Up.
The passengers start waking up as the plane is going down. Gallagher starts moving toward the cockpit, and Public Enemy Number 1 starts screaming earsplittingly for her daughter and falls in her scramble to find her, headbutting some poor dude in the groin.
The plane is shaking and shimmying and just generally getting jiggy with it until finally Chambers crashes it into the surface of the water. The appropriate reaction to the pandemonium during the crash scene probably isn’t hysterical laughter, but look…
The first casualty, not at all sadly, is Blanche’s Brother Clayton, who is in the cargo hold when the plane hits the water, and is crushed by a metal container and drowned by the water bursting through the sides of the plane. He died neither hero nor competent villain.
And so, the plane has crashed, the Evil Plan has failed, and the heroes must prevail where the villains fell short! Just kidding, it’s nowhere near that good. But it is fun!
How it Goes Up (They Hope)
Gallagher moves through the plane checking on the state of his passengers and crew. They’re… not good. Plane crash and all that. Buchek’s arm is broken, Bonnie was mildly injured until her lunatic of a mother grabbed her, shrieking, and probably severed her spinal column or something. Dorothy has a head injury, and it’s just general chaos.
Karen notices that the water outside the window seems to be rising, meaning the plane itself is sinking slowly beneath the surface. Everyone gets thrown around some more as the plane drifts slowly toward the ocean floor, which is apparently, like, 10 feet from the surface. People start to panic (understandable) and then move to open the plane doors (stupid). Gallagher goes into Command mode and tells them to remain calm as the plane is pressurized and people from the towers will be looking for them soon, since he doesn’t yet know his douche co-pilot took them off radar.
Gallagher gives instructions to start tending to the injured, and Karen has another one of her charming outbursts which is largely ignored. We next see Gallagher upstairs with Lisa and Eve because the cutting in this film is truly terrible. Lisa goes running and screaming like a banshee for her son Benjy, so put her down as Public Enemy No. 2. Eve asks what happened and starts to panic, and Gallagher — hero and Manly Man™ that he is — grabs her face to quell her hysteria.
(For the record, I high-key hate the way the women in this are written, but the movie is nowhere near good enough to merit gender analysis. It’s bad. All bad.)
He sends Eve down to the main cabin to help the passengers and goes to inspect the cockpit. Bad Guy #3 is dead at the controls, and Chambers is unconscious. Gallagher checks his pulse and starts to move him (the impulse to move these injured people is one of the more stressful things about this film), when he notices the gun in Chambers’ belt and his concern turns to anger. He and another passenger move him out of the cockpit and plan to question him when wakes up.
The doctor is moving around the passengers assessing their conditions, and Buchek, with his arm in a sling made from his necktie, is inspecting the state of the plane. He and “Nicky” (I wretch every time) find Eddie, whose legs have been crushed under a heavy piece of equipment. They cut open his pant leg to inspect the wound and both men act alarmed at what they see, which happens to be some of the worst make-up and special effects I’ve ever witnessed.
As the doctor continues to move around trying to help people, Buchek and Gallagher inspect the fuselage. It’s pretty banged up and partially flooded. They also find Blanche’s Brother Clayton floating down there. The thing about really bad movies is that a lot of the shots or dialogue that’s intended to be really effective is rendered comical.They get a closer look to make sure he’s dead (very), and then move on to check other parts of the plane for damage. In the main cabin above, Julie is tending to
Buchek and Gallagher discuss how long the plane can withstand the water pressure and how long their oxygen will last, and by “discuss” I mean they basically express to each other that they have no idea and that this situation is, in aviation terms, Bad™. A passenger comes to tell them Chambers is awake, and they go to see him. Chambers tells them how everything happened, and that because of his actions radar will be useless in the search for the plane. This puts everyone in a really good mood.
A group of men help carry Eddie into the main cabin, and a cluster of uninjured douchebags on the couch have to be asked three times to get off their asses so he can lie there with his broken leg. When a flight attendant asks the doctor about Eddie’s condition, he reveals that he is not, in fact, a medical doctor. He’s a vet. He looks after horses at Stevens’ racing stables. Horses. He’s a horse doctor.
Gallagher and Buchek are looking through a book of blueprints for the plane, and water starts to drip onto the pages from the ceiling. And they both just… watch it happen. They let it continue to saturate the pages. That they need. In order to hopefully not die. This is meant to be ominous and to heighten suspense, but it actually just drives me nuts. MOVE THE BOOK!
Emily is comforting Julie — still grief-stricken over the
merciful tragic death of Steve — when she hears the sound of something passing overhead. She calls everyone’s attention to it, and they realize it’s a large ship cruising by. Everyone gets excited, assuming it’s a rescue vessel. They stand around listening to it, and then realize it’s going past, not stopping. “How could they leave us like this? How could they?” Lisa asks dramatically. It’s because they hate you, specifically, Lisa.
Gallagher gathers the passengers and tells them his plan of forcing open the doors of the cargo hold, inflating a life raft, and getting to the surface where he can radio for help and be seen by passing planes and ships. He explains that the cargo hold should be the only compartment that floods when he leaves the plane. Martin (Karen’s husband) volunteers to go with Gallagher because he’s an experienced diver and can increase their chances of getting to the surface. Gallagher reluctantly agrees. Karen tries to talk him out of it, but he’s determined. Also, doomed.
Gallagher, Eve, and Buchek fix the wiring so that Gallagher can blow open the cargo hold and get into the water. Before he and Martin prepare to go, Gallagher talks to Eve. They say some romantic stuff and kiss, and I wish very much at this point that I cared about their relationship. But… girl, you can do better. Eve and Buchek leave while Gallagher and Martin suit up with the flimsiest diving equipment in the history of ever.
Gallagher reminds Martin that they’ve got only 2 minutes’ worth of air, and they press against the wall as he holds the two wires together to blow the door open. Gallagher presses the wires over and over and nothing happens. Martin goes to check on the door as Gallagher inspects the wires, and totally unpredictably the door bursts open at that moment. He’s blown backward as the water pours in, and Gallagher has to locate his oxygen mask underwater. Once he does, and swims over to try to help Martin. This sequence is much more infuriating than suspenseful since Gallagher is running out of air and Martin is clearly hella dead.
After Gallagher finally gives up on Martin, he grabs the life raft and, just as he’s running out of oxygen, makes it to the surface. He jumps in the raft, uses the built-in radio to send out a distress signal, and the tower receives it. Something I didn’t notice until having watched this a few times (shut up) is that the dude at the control tower who picks up the signal is a very young Chris Lemmon, Jack’s son.
As they pinpoint Gallagher’s location and begin rescue plans, back on the plane Karen Wallace checks her makeup in her compact mirror and proceeds to start trying to open the plane door, because melodramatic suicide that kills everyone else aboard is very much Her Style. This woman is determined to be the absolute worst. Eve tries at first to calmly and kindly dissuade her, but because Karen is the perfect mixture of grief-stricken, drunk, and terrible, things escalate and Eve is forced to punch her out. This is both hilarious and utterly satisfying.
Water starts to leak into the main compartments of the plane and it begins to shift on the ocean floor, throwing the passengers around. Up above, a military plane flies over and spots Gallagher in his raft. They also see the plane.
Quickly moving past this laughably bad and implausible effect…
Gallagher is rescued from the raft and taken aboard a Navy vessel, where he fills in the military personnel about what’s happened and what shape the plane and passengers are in. Everyone coordinates, and the mission is begun.
The Navy sets about planning the rescue — coordinating divers and getting equipment to raise the plane to the surface to get passengers out. The way they do this is honestly the one cool thing about the film. The divers run air hoses underneath the belly of the plane and connect them to balloons that will inflate and bring the plane off the ocean floor.
As this is set in motion, Gallagher insists on going with the divers, as he knows the weakest points of the plane and can help them raise it in one piece. When asked if he’s a trained diver, he answers “amateur.” Comforting. But go, he does. So the Navy divers and rescuers head toward the crash site. They’re all in booty shorts for some reason.
When they reach the plane, Gallagher follows the divers down to the sides and mark the places where the balloons and airlines should be placed to best keep the craft in tact as it rises to the surface. The passengers watch out the window and Gallagher holds up a sign informing them of what’s happening.
Buchek tells everyone to hang onto anything fixed so they won’t get tossed around when the plane starts to move upward. He also tells the “doctor” to bring Bonnie toward the front so she can be pulled out first. Once again, poor Bonnie is grabbed and flailed around. She’s probably been dead for hours.
Gallagher and the divers continue to move around the plane, inspecting and setting up. Dramatic music plays as they move through their work. They are serious heroes on serious business, hurrying to save as many lives as they can!
My favorite part of this rescue mission — at least the underwater portions — is how little Gallagher actually participates. He holds up his sign, draws some X’s on portions of the plane, and then he just kind of… observes.
The passengers, all in life jackets, wait anxiously as
Gallagher chills on the wing the divers continue their efforts. They thread the air hoses underneath the plane and start bringing the balloons down to connect them to the ends of the hoses. As the divers begin to clear away from the plane so the air can be pumped to the balloons, they radio the men on the naval vessel emphasizing the need for immediate action and to expect the plane to rise at a steep angle due to the flooding toward the tail.
They start feeding air to the hoses, and the passengers brace themselves. As the plane starts to rise, a balloon snaps free from too much air pressure, and water starts to burst into the main cabin where the passengers sit. For some reason, the passengers do not enjoy this. Karen Wallace is swept backwards, yelling for her husband. And that’s the last we hear from her. Good. Unfortunately, it’s also the last we hear from Dorothy. You were sweet and you deserved a better movie, D. (Chambers also died, but literally no one cares.)
The plane begins to rise to the surface and the water recedes a bit from the main cabin. Buchek opens the main door and waits for the rescuers to arrive in their rafts. They haul the injured toward the door, definitely injuring them way more than they were already, and start passing them out to the men in the rescue boats. As the passengers begin to fill up the boats and Gallagher helps Livingston out of the plane, we get the purest indication of Lemmon’s feeling about this film. He looks directly into the camera with the face of anger and defeat. His soul has long since died.
Almost everyone is off the plane except for Buchek and Eve, who’ve been helping passengers into the boats from inside the door. BUT! What is a disaster movie without one last thrill? (Over — it’s over, but no such luck here.) Just as they’re about to leave the plane, another of the balloons breaks free of the plane, knocking Buchek out of the door and Eve backwards into the cabin, which begins to flood again.
Gallagher tells the rescuers to help Buchek into a boat and he jumps into the plane to get Eve, who is somehow unconscious (God, this movie is so bad…). He slaps her awake, as ya do, and the start fighting their way through the water to another exit of the plane. Eve is being weirdly resistant to moving at all and just generally panicky and useless, which is obviously meant to make Gallagher look more heroic and capable by contrast. That’s annoying, but whatever, we’ve established this movie is très dumb.
They move up to another door in the plane and manage to escape just as the plane is sinking back into the sea. A helicopter hovers overhead and drops a ladder down to them. They are pulled out of the water safely as the rest of the survivors are either sent off for medical help in the other helicopters or milling about aboard the the Navy ship. Lisa and Benjy hug Stevens, and the others wrap themselves in blankets and watch the balloons slowly detach from the sinking plane.
The movie closes out with Eve and Gallagher romancing it up on their rescue copter. They make some innuendo-ish banter and finally Eve says, “I love you.” Twice. To which Gallagher doesn’t respond. He kisses her and… that’s it. Doesn’t say it back. Doesn’t say anything at all. Allllll righty then.
After this touching and totally non-reciprocal exchange of emotion, their helicopter lands and the rest of the passengers run to greet and thank them. And the movie is, mercifully, at its end. (*triumphant music sounds*)
So, that’s it! It’s abysmal, but it’s glorious. Glorious in its badness. I hope this drawn-out snarkfest was enjoyable, and I highly recommend having one of your own over this or some other movie that’s So Bad It’s Good™. Happy Viewing!