“Our survival hinges on one thing – finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner.”
Zero Hour! is the film that inspired Airplane! and much of the dialogue and scenes were lifted wholesale from the earlier film. With such gems as the quote above, I can see how Zero Hour! was a candidate for spoofing (along with disaster films in general), though it is actually not a bad little B thriller. It’s quite tense at times.
Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) was a squadron leader during WWII, but when he makes a poor decision that costs the lives of six of his pilots during a bombing raid, he is shattered. Over ten years later, his confidence is still shot. He can’t settle down to a job, his marriage is in trouble, and he’s never flown a plane since. When his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell) takes their son and leaves him, he manages to get on the same plane to talk with her.
And then the fish lays waste to half the passengers, as well as the pilot and co-pilot. It’s almost enough to reconcile one to those little bags of pretzels they hand out on flights now. It’s a potentially fatal case of food poisoning and the only one who can fly is Ted (who, fortunately, had lamb chops for dinner). But not only does he still have a bad case of PTSD, but he’s also never flown a jet. The airline must get someone to talk him through his landing. The man they chose is Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), who knew Ted during the war.
I think what adds a little tension to the film is the fact that literally no one has faith in Ted, including Ted. His wife has no confidence, Treleaven has no confidence. In fact, Treleaven thinks Ted is the kind of guy who always folds up under pressure, but he still has to instill in Ted that confidence he does not himself feel. There’s a lot at stake for Ted. No one respects him, his son could die of food poisoning, and he must wrestle with his sense of personal failure, all during a bad storm.
There seems to have been a whole spate of airplane disaster films during the 1950s: The High and Mighty, No Highway in the Sky, and even Julie, where Doris Day notoriously plays a flight attendant who must land the plane after her insane husband shoots the pilot. In Julie, the exact same thing happens, where she has to be talked down by those on the ground with access to radar, who gives her blow by blow instructions via radio.
Perhaps it makes sense, since the 1950s was the first decade where average Americans were beginning to afford flying. We’re so used to flying now, it has less novelty or sense of danger (more like a sense of cramped and disgruntled impatience). Though perhaps that’s not strictly true. There was the recent film Sully, which captured some of the immediacy and potential tragedy of a plan crash. On the whole, I think our fears in regards to planes are more related to terrorism than accidents now. But by pilot error or terrorist, the fear that passengers must feel on a plane, which they cannot control, is still a relatable fear.
I have to comment on how flying is portrayed practically like a holiday (at least until the fish incident). Stryker is able to take his son up to meet the pilot, who gives his son a toy airplane. They serve meals, the seats look roomy, even the airplane bathroom looks about twice the size of the bathrooms today. Since movies tend to err on the side of fiction over fact, I have to ask: does anyone know how accurate that portrayal is? How much has flying really changed over the years?
If you have not seen Airplane!, I would recommend watching Zero Hour! first. I’ve read many people say that after seeing Airplane!, it is impossible to watch this without cracking up every few minutes. I must admit that I have not seen Airplane! yet, but after watching the trailer, laughed so hard that I decided I absolutely had to see it next.