“I know there are thirty-seven people back there. All we have to hope for is that one of them knows how to fly a plane, and…hasn’t had chicken for dinner.”
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Starring: Doug McClure, Roddy McDowall, Lois Nettleton, Leif Erickson, Kenneth Tobey, Jack Ginn, Leonard Stone, Sam Melville, Loretta Leversee
Screenplay: Steven Karpf, Elinor Karpf and Dick Nelson, based upon a story by Arthur Hailey
Synopsis: At Minneapolis Airport, an already much delayed flight to Seattle is held for a few more minutes to allow for the arrival of a final tardy passenger, George Spencer (Doug McClure). On the plane, Emmett Milton (Keenan Wynn), who is in charge of a rowdy and rather drunken group of football fans, irately demands to know how much longer they will have to wait? The stewardess, Janet Turner (Lois Nettleton), does her best to soothe him – and make him sit down – but he is still standing by the door when George bolts across the tarmac and climbs the stairs to the cabin. Milton abuses the latecomer before returning to his seat. George apologises to Janet, who laughs it off, reporting the final arrival to the pilot. Captain Wilson (Kenneth Tobey) tells her to get him strapped in: the weather is closing in and they must take off immediately. George makes his way to his seat as the plane prepares for takeoff. Glancing at his neighbour, George is startled to see him produce a liquor bottle from what is clearly a doctor’s bag. Introducing himself as Dr Ralph Baird (Roddy McDowall), George’s companion confesses to being terrified of flying. He shudders as the engines roar, commenting that he has always believed that they do that so that if anything is wrong, it will go wrong while they’re still on the ground. George laughs, explaining that they do it to make sure they have full power in all four engines. Surprised, Baird asks if George has done some flying himself? George replies that he has, but says nothing more. After takeoff, Janet carries coffee to the cockpit. As she leaves, First Officer Stewart (Sam Melville) makes his interest in her clear. Wilson tells him drily that he’d better be prepared to take on a ready-made family: Janet has two young children, and has recently been forced to return to work because her ex-husband has failed to pay child support. Out in the cabin, the passengers receive their dinners. Having finished serving, Janet returns to the cockpit, telling the pilots they have a choice between lamb chops or chicken pot pie. When Wilson tells Stewart to go ahead, he initially asks for the lamb but then, remembering that he had lamb the day before, changes his order. Later, as Janet is removing the pilots’ trays from the cockpit and most of the passengers are settling down to sleep, one of the women, Mrs McCann (Loretta Leversee), complains of nausea and a headache. Noticing, Baird asks Janet quietly if there is anything he can do, and she gratefully accepts his services. Baird learns that on top of the headache and nausea, the woman is now suffering abdominal pain. Meanwhile, Janet is speaking to two other passengers who have also been taken ill. She reports this to Baird who, after speaking to the men, insists on seeing the pilot. Leaving Stewart in control, Wilson meets with Baird in the galley. The doctor tells him that he suspects food poisoning, and that they should put down at the nearest landing field. Wilson replies that this is impossible: the weather has closed in, and they will have to push on to Seattle, more than three hours’ flying away. Suddenly, the plane plunges violently. As the passengers scream, Wilson and Baird manage to make their way to the cockpit, where Stewart is bent over in pain. Wilson fights to regain control of the plane as Baird helps Stewart from his seat. As he examines the co-pilot, Baird tells Wilson to have Janet bring a pillow, a blanket and the dinner-plan. She does so, and Baird learns that Stewart and the three sick passengers all had the chicken pot pie for dinner. Listening, Wilson turns pale: he, too, had the chicken for dinner…
Comments: I didn’t mean to do this; I really didn’t. I had quite another film picked out for this Roundtable – another disaster movie, as it happens; but that’s not important now – but in the end the temptation was too much for me. Those few of you who have been paying attention to my various ramblings might remember that quite early in the year I mentioned a film that I intended to review as soon as I received an interlibrary loan to support the job; and that later, I was muttering instead about the world’s slowest interlibrary loan. The film was, of course, Zero Hour!, and the book, Flight Into Danger. February had turned into June before I got my hands on the latter, and July was almost gone before reading, watching and writing had been accomplished…leaving us a mere week short of a Roundtable dealing (predominantly) with Made-For-Television Movies of the 1970s. The lure was too strong: no sooner had I posted Zero Hour! last Sunday evening than I was in front of the television watching Doug McClure, Leif Erickson, Lois Nettleton and Roddy McDowall go through some very familiar paces…and I was hooked all over again.
…and pain in your retinas.
I suppose I should apologise to the rest of you for the overkill. Feel free to move along if you’ve had enough of planes, food poisoning and reluctant heroes; I promise I won’t blame you a bit. But from my own peculiar point of view, I have to confess that the more I thought about this film, the more fascinated with it I became: far too much to just put it aside for another time.
Terror In The Sky is, on its own merits, a typical 70s MFTVM: in other words, unambitious, but quite enjoyable and completely professional. However, its place in the Flight Into Danger / Zero Hour! / Flying High! family tree adds a whole other layer of entertainment value to this otherwise innocuous little film; so much so that there is – as I assure you I am very well aware – a real danger of me completely overselling it. It would therefore behove those not as obsessed as I am with the minutiae of the disaster movie generally and of this particular genealogical branch of it in particular should take everything I say from this point onwards with the appropriate dose of salt.
The first thing to know about Terror In The Sky is that it is a Paramount production. All of the major studios had established television production arms in the 1960s; and while most of them were dedicated to the making of drama series, the overwhelming success of the ABC television network’s Movie Of The Week program drew fierce competition from not just rival networks but from the major movie studios, too. Of course, this sudden need for scripts for movies that could fit into a ninety-minute time-slot gave the movie studios an advantage, at least in terms of speed of production: a great many old screenplays from the 50s and 60s, produced and unproduced, were pressed into service while the TV networks were still busy optioning original works. At Paramount, one of the screenplays brought out of the vault and dusted off was the Hall Bartlett-John Champion penned Zero Hour!
I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating with emphasis: the MFTVM of this era were, at worst, always professional works; the directors, the writers and the actors involved were the kind of solid, reliable types that just don’t seem to have a place in the entertainment industry any more, more’s the pity. As a consequence, a remarkable number of these rapidly-shot, inexpensively produced little movies hold up astonishingly well; and some, indeed, are wonderful and memorable by any standard. Terror In The Sky certainly isn’t amongst the cream of the crop: were it not for the unfair advantage of its accidental cousinship, the film would sit comfortably in the second or third echelon of MFTVMs. It’s not one of those where a mention evokes a gasp of, “Oh, that’s the one where – !!”, or even shuddering memories of childhood nightmares; but it is one that provokes a reminiscent smile. It’s the kind of film you were glad to find playing when you were flicking the dial after midnight, or on a Sunday afternoon, and could always watch again.
Here he comes to save the da-aa-ayyy…
A glance at the credits for Terror In The Sky finds us in secure hands. Director Bernard L. Kowalski had an amazingly long and successful career as a television director – but it is not for that that I personally admire him: along with Terror In The Sky, Kowalksi was behind the camera for Attack Of The Giant Leeches and for Sssssss…both of which I really need to get around to… He also directed another aeroplane-based disaster movie, Flight Into Holocaust, which I haven’t managed to get my hands on yet. (It’s about a plane that flies into a building, which might explain why it’s disappeared from view.)
Meanwhile, the husband-and-wife writing team of Steven and Elinor Karpf were responsible for two of my other favourite MFTVMs, Gargoyles and A Cry In The Wilderness (the latter featuring a skunk-bitten and possibly rabid George Kennedy: what’s not to love?), as well as Devil Dog: The Hound Of Hell. Their co-writer, Dick Nelson, another television mainstay, doesn’t have quite the same B-Movie cred, but he did pen yet another airborne disaster movie that has so far eluded me, Mayday At 40,000 Feet! (And again with the exclamation mark.)
And it is here that my admiration for those responsible for Terror In The Sky begins to rise, because the making-over of the story for this film really is a clever piece of work. Fascinatingly, it is very apparent that Nelson and the Karpfs went through exactly the same process here, turning Zero Hour! into Terror In The Sky, as Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers did turning Zero Hour! into Flying High! – only they went the other way. Just like ZAZ, the three of them obviously pounced on every overly melodramatic moment in Zero Hour!, all those scenes that would make us snicker even without the Flying High! connection; but instead of making them even more ridiculous, they defused them. Most, although not all, of the infamous lines are still here, but they’ve been transformed in the writing and direction. Most often, instead of being delivered straight, they’re delivered sarcastically, or nervous-jokily: the sting has been taken out of them.
Now, for some people the removal of the unintentional entertainment value of Terror In The Sky might mean there’s no reason to watch it; but it had the opposite effect on me. Having sat and studied Flight Into Danger and Zero Hour! and Flying High!, the perceptiveness of the rewrite and the judgement shown in the film’s direction inspired me with a real affection for it – and besides, I found that the substitute game of “spot the re-touch” made it, in its own quiet way, almost as amusing as its companion-pieces.
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit chugging booze…”
I mentioned the briskness of Zero Hour!, with its running-time of only eighty-one minutes. Terror In The Sky outdoes even that, being a convenient TV length of just under seventy-five minutes; ninety with ads. It certainly hits the ground running, with this evening’s George Spencer doing a dash through Minneapolis Airport and across the tarmac onto his flight to Seattle.
Now, as a B-Master, I am almost literally surrounded by unabashed Doug McClure groupies; so it is with some sense of shame that I realise that this is the first Doug McClure film I’ve ever reviewed. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you that Doug is “the star” of Terror In The Sky, though: the revamped script divides the work evenly amongst its cast of dependable character actors, rather than having “a” star. Indeed, after his introduction, Doug pretty much disappears for the next half an hour, during which time Roddy McDowall dominates the film as Dr Baird; while during the second half of the film, Doug shares screentime with Leif Erickson, this version’s Martin Treleavan. Lois Nettleton, meanwhile, lends support to both plot-threads. Even the credits acknowledge this divvying up of the workload, resorting to listing the actors in alphabetical order.
Back in the cabin, we find a very rowdy crowd of football fans, all of whom have spent the time during which their flight was delayed getting soused to the gills, who are still passing bottles around even now, and who think it’s the height of sophisticated humour to let off air-horns in each other’s ears. Given that the world has just lived through the Vuvuzela Horror, I’m sure that you’ll all join with me in saying – they deserve food poisoning.
In charge of this obnoxious bunch is one Emmett Milton, our Pain In The Neck du jour, played by Keenan Wynn, who tells off George Spencer for his presumption in holding up the flight. It isn’t just George that is to blame for that, though. As the plane begins to taxi, Janet gets on the PA and apologises for the delay, explaining that a mechanical fault in their 737 was responsible for the need to change planes. They are now on a T-400, a four-engine propeller job, rather than a jetliner.
(One of the few subtle jokes in Flying High! is the fact that you can hear a propeller all the way through, even though they’re on a jet.)
There’s never a homicidal orca around when you need one.
As George takes his aisle seat, the pilot revs the engines, sending shudders through George’s new travelling companion, who produces a bottle of hooch from his bag and starts swigging. His eyebrows travelling up his forehead, George’s glance moves from the stencil on the bag – Ralph Baird M.D. – to the bottle. “I thought you were a doctor,” he comments. Unmoved, his companion admits it, and also that his bottle is, “The best cure I know for what ails me”. In other words, he’s terrified of flying. As the engines roar, Dr Baird adds that he always figured that was a bizarre safety check: “If anything’s going to fly off, it will do it while we’re still on the ground.” George laughs, explaining that the routine is to, “Test the mags; the magnetos. They want to make sure they have full power in all four engines.” Dr Baird is somewhat comforted by this, remarking as an afterthought, “You sound like you’ve done some flying yourself.”
“Some,” says George wryly, his tone not encouraging further conversation.
One of the nice things about Terror In The Sky is its casting of Kenneth Tobey as Captain Wilson; it’s always good to see him. There are a number of hints that ZAZ studied this film as well as Zero Hour! when preparing for Flying High! – and didn’t find what they were looking for – and Tobey’s presence in both is one of them. Another nice thing is the fact that most of the dialogue in the film, including those bits we know with hindsight to be “significant”, actually sounds like normal conversation.
This scene is a good example. Stewart is interested in Janet, but doesn’t say so outright; he just manages to make his chat with Wilson keep circling back that way, which in turn allows Wilson, in the guise of offering a friendly warning, to give us Janet’s potted history: divorced, two kids, bum ex. Janet is also interested in Stewart, but she doesn’t say so either. When both pilots are taken ill, though, it is Stewart she silently hovers over. This light sketching is characteristic of the film as a whole, which in its refusal to indulge in Big, Emotional Scenes is almost enough to make you say, “And you call yourself a disaster movie!?”
And speaking of, “And you call yourself a disaster movie!?”, out in the cabin, Janet is discovering that two of the passengers, young women, are deaf and dumb. Now, I’m not well-versed enough (yet) in the pre-Airport disaster movies to know how far the passenger with a disability or a medical condition was already a cliché by 1971; but if it wasn’t one by then, boy oh boy, they sure made up for it afterwards! So we expect the worst when this particular subplot rears its ugly head.
“And you’re sure there are no small boys on this flight?”
And do you know how it works out? It doesn’t. The two women are the first on their feet when the crisis hits, offering to help; and that’s what they do for the rest of the film, look after the sick passengers. Their condition is not schmaltzed up, nor does it increase their danger in any way. In fact, it plays no part at all in the story, but is merely an incidental detail.
I love this film for that.
The next thing we know, Janet is taking dinner orders, and offering a choice between – duh-da-da-daahh! – lamb chops and chicken pot pie. That’s right: they decided to give the poor beleaguered fish a break for once, while still pushing lamb as “the safe alternative”. I dunno: maybe the lamb industry had mob connections; everyone seems mighty afraid of offending in that direction. Anyway, both George and Dr Baird order lamb, of course. Up in the cockpit, Wilson is doing the paperwork and tells Stewart he can have dinner first. Stewart orders the lamb, apparently out of habit, because he then recalls he had lamb for dinner yesterday, and so changes his mind… Back in the cabin, Mr and Mrs McCann are having one of each. Mrs McCann comments on how nice everything looks, and Janet agrees in a relieved tone of voice, explaining that they’d had to try a new caterer.
Later on, as everyone is settling down for the night, Janet is called back to Mrs McCann, who complains of headache and nausea. Janet goes to get her some aspirin, pointing out the dreaded paper bags first, though. (They’re less coy about that aspect of things here than they were in Zero Hour!, but we still don’t see anyone using them.) Baird is just putting his seat back, and through the gap sees what is going on. As Janet passes him, he asks her quietly if he can help. She replies that she doesn’t think it’s serious, but that seeing a doctor might reassure Mrs McCann. Baird has to climb over the sleepy George to get out, by which time Janet is helping two more sick passengers, two of the football crowd, who are inclined to blame their symptoms on their pre-flight booze-up.
The chicken pot pie…of DEATH!!
[Brought to you by the Lamb Council of America.]
But with Mrs McCann now complaining of abdominal pain – and already sans appendix – and having questioned the two men as well, Baird has far other ideas. He asks Janet to get Wilson for him. The two men meet for a low-toned conversation in the galley, where Baird insists on landing, and Wilson explains that they can’t: that the weather has, “Closed down everything on this side of the mountains”, but that Seattle is still open.
Suddenly, the plane goes into a dive. The passengers scream as they are thrown around. Janet falls over, and is helped up by George. Wilson and Baird hurry as fast as they can to the cockpit, where Stewart is bent over in agony. Wilson regains control of the plane as Baird examines the co-pilot, asking Wilson to summon Janet with the dinner list. He does so, and the problem is soon apparent; all too apparent for Wilson. There’s no silly “afterthought” here: as soon as Baird mentions the chicken, he blenches, and speaks up. Much exchanging of silent wide-eyed looks follows, and—
More passengers get sick, and as Baird and Janet try to cope, our Pain In The Neck decides that this would be a good time to do what he does best. Janet manages to evade him, and it is George who wins everyone’s gratitude by suggesting – forcibly – that Milton sit down and shut up. Baird and Janet are making muttered game-plans in the aisle when Wilson appears in the doorway up ahead, summoning Baird with an expression of embarrassed apology. It turns out that Wilson is feeling very post-emetic. He and Baird have a spat here, with Baird insisting Wilson put the plane down, and Wilson adamant that he can’t, and that Baird has to keep him going. It’s stalemate, of course; although Wilson gets the last word with his reflection that, left on autopilot, they should have enough fuel to travel about 300 miles straight past Seattle…
“Well, then…somebody else just has to land the plane,” offers Baird weakly, prompting a rueful chuckle from his companion. Baird goes to check on his other patients, while Wilson radios Seattle with the glad tidings.
Reasonably Efficient Tom, rockin’ his seventies ‘do.
Terror In The Sky does a terrible thing to me here as we cut to the ground, because although this film has a Harry Burdick, it sure isn’t my Harry Burdick. In fact, that name is given to someone else, the manager of the airline to which the plane belongs, and a right weasel he is, too; but we won’t meet him for some time yet. Here, the airport operations manager is someone we know only as “Tom”, whose hair and tie seem to be locked in a Startling Width contest. With this streamlined version of the story, Tom, while still reasonably efficient, gets much less to do than my Harry Burdick did.
We also get a welcome reminder here that the times, they were thankfully a-changing: while Zero Hour! was completely whitebread, there are both black passengers on the plane, and black employees at the airport. Not many lines between them, but at least it’s a start. Non-Caucasian characters in important roles were notable by their absence in the disaster genre for far too long.
(And what film, at long last, finally redressed that imbalance? Why, Snakes On A Plane, of course…just one of its many, many virtues…)
George helps Baird carry Mrs McCann to the internal luggage bay, in the tail, where a makeshift bed has been put together on the floor. Meanwhile, Wilson finally has to give up his fight. After she and Baird settle him on the floor of the cockpit, Janet starts to panic, insisting that Baird has to give Wilson something to get him up, get better, just long enough, just long enough to land…
A no less panicky Baird bites her head off, snapping that far from getting him up, he’s not even sure he can save him. The two gather themselves for a moment, after which Baird, more in hope than expectation, starts inquiring about other airline employees on board…and then asks whether, maybe, just possibly, Janet…?
She rejects the idea, declaring it ridiculous; but we’re nevertheless left with the notion that she might have taken a crack at it, had things been different. The trouble is, Janet’s used to working 737s; she knows nothing about this particular model of plane. So – no go.
An historic moment in Disaster Movies. Sad to say.
By now, Baird has passed the point of panic and is almost despairingly calm, even seeing the sickly funny side of it, as he starts calculating the odds.
“I know there are thirty-seven people back there. All we have to hope for is that one of them knows how to fly a plane,” he remarks; adding after a moment’s reflection, “And…hasn’t had chicken for dinner.”
All things considered, I think Roddy McDowall’s performance is what I like best about Terror In The Sky. His Dr Baird doesn’t exactly strike us as the world’s greatest doctor, but there’s something reassuring about his lack of assurance, if you know what I mean. But that line— You could not, could not, imagine a greater distance than that which lies between Geoffrey Toone’s pompously melodramatic delivery in Zero Hour!, and Roddy’s rueful, Ah, ya gotta laugh tone here; which means that while we do indeed laugh, for the first time we’re laughing with that line, and not at it.
Finally, Baird and Janet decide on the old, “Can anyone help with the radio?” ploy. Baird gets onto the speaker, and we get an absolutely unforgettable moment, unique to this film, as he asks the passengers to check their bags for medication he could use to help the sick people – namely, antibiotics and barbiturates.
Ah, the early seventies! – when only could anyone be carrying barbiturates, but they were so commonplace that you could forget whether you were carrying them or not. I’m going to give Baird the benefit of the doubt here, and assume, as with the morphine shot in Zero Hour!, that he wants the drugs to help with the pain and to slow the action of the toxin. All the same, I always get a distinct sense here that while the antibiotics might be for the patients, the barbiturates are for Baird. His attitude, as he envisions seeing what kind of pharmacy we can put together, is just a little too eager. (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit popping pills!”)
That out of the way, Baird then asks, oh so casually, whether anyone has flying experience, and could maybe help with the radio…?
“Me land the plane!? Who do you think I am, Karen Black?”
You can almost hear crickets chirping.
Baird and Janet exchange a Well – that’s that look. Janet goes to sit with the pilots. And then Baird recalls that brief conversation of some hours earlier, and realises that there is someone on board with flying experience…
Baird is mad now, not just scared-mad, but really mad, as he makes his way down the aisle. He doesn’t want anyone to overhear, of course, so he lowers his voice and, barely above a whisper, speaks accusingly into George Spencer’s ear:
“You’re a flyer…”
George still isn’t budging, though, protesting that he’s done some flying but that he’s not a flyer; that they don’t need him; that pilots are trained to do double-duty. Baird isn’t having any, first asking George to the cockpit, and then, dropping his voice still more, “Correction: I’m telling you. You are coming with me to that cockpit even if I have to drag you there. Uh-huh. I believe you’re beginning to get the picture,” he adds softly as George’s eyes suddenly open wide in shocked realisation.
This is, I think, my favourite scene in Terror In The Sky, and it’s Roddy’s delivery again that does it, his enunciation getting clearer and clearer as his voice gets lower and lower, and as Baird gets madder and madder…
Left with no choice, George makes his way to the cockpit – giving us something we haven’t seen before: a George Spencer (or Ted Stryker) with an idea of what he’s in for before he sets foot in the cockpit. Just the same, Janet and Baird react as their predecessors did: as soon as they have George where they want him, they put their backs to the door so he can’t get out again.
And as it turns out, perhaps it’s just as well: after one glance around tells him that Wilson is not just sick, but down for the count, George not only starts yelling at the pilot to get up, but tries to drag him to his feet. The ensuing shouting match reveals that George flew helicopters, and in Vietnam – “For eighteen fun-filled months!” – and that he doesn’t believe there’s any point in him even trying to land the plane. More shouting follows, in the course of which Baird sarcastically uses the expression reluctant hero; and George finally capitulates with a despairing cry of, “Jesus!” As he climbs into the pilot’s seat, Baird heads for the cabin. Janet moves to follow him, but George points at the co-pilot’s seat and orders her brusquely to, “Put it there!”, before telling Baird that he does have reasons for his reluctance.
“…but we’ll be fine as long as we have barbiturates; lots and lots of barbiturates…”
“Let’s hope we get the chance to talk about that sometime,” responds Baird; with which, he vanishes for most the remaining running-time, as Roddy McDowall hands the baton to Doug McClure.
It hardly starts well: George has to ask Janet where the radio is. He sends a mayday, and almost collapses in relief when he gets an immediate response. (Another new thing here: a speaker in the ceiling instead of the headsets.) He explains the situation, demanding they get hold of a pilot who knows everything there is to know about a T-400, and who can talk him down; adding that he has mostly flown helicopters, and only a little in planes – and never in multi-engine models.
And down in the airport—oh, ouch, it’s Harry Burdick, a sneaking, snivelling sort. He dithers when asked what pilot could do the job, but finally, most reluctantly, admits there is have one man – a man called Marty Treleavan – who used to behave like the T-400 was his own personal property; clearly the best man for the job; only the company forced him into retirement the year before…
As a round-up squad is sent after Treleavan, up in the air Janet fills in the waiting time helping Baird, leaving George free to have a quiet little breakdown, one that ends with him staring down at his own shaking hands and laughing and crying at the same time.
Treleavan arrives at the airport and, in a nice touch, he still has his pyjamas on under his coat. He’s an older man than his alternatives, and without the post-military attitude; and we soon realise that the writers of Terror In The Sky have (as with the use of the name “George Spencer”) reverted to the Flight Into Danger scenario: Treleavan and George have no history. Treleavan immediately makes his mark by suggesting that they move at once to the tower, to save having to lose time doing it once the plane gets into radar range.
Weaselly Harry Burdick.
He also proves himself either smarter or more self-controlled than his fellows by adopting an attitude both confident and soothing towards George. It’s at least partially an act, as we soon learn, but an effective one. He starts by assuring George that he has spent what he calls a ridiculous amount of time flying T-400s, answering George’s expressed doubts by almost chortling, “Certainly it’s going to work!” Indeed, it is not long before we realise that here we have something else we haven’t seen before: a Martin Treleavan who is, on some level, enjoying the situation; certainly enjoying his former employers having to come crawling; perhaps enjoying being the centre of attention, too.
Treleavan and his pupil do a run through of the instruments, and then Treleavan announces needs a drink of water. Even this short break in contact makes George slightly panicky, but there’s nothing he can do but wait. Down below, Tom suggests that instead of trying to talk George through a standard landing, they pour foam over the runway and let him do a belly-landing instead. Treleavan negates the idea, arguing that in spite of the foam there would be a high risk of fire, and that the sick people wouldn’t be able to get out; and that in any case, a belly-landing needs a skilful pilot who won’t end up, “Smearing himself all over the airport. If Spencer’s gutty enough to try this,” Treleavan concludes, “he deserves the best shot we can give him.”
When Treleavan makes contact again, Janet is back in the co-pilot’s seat and working the radio. We get another slight refinement of the scenario here, as this reluctant hero shows no interest at all in cutting his flying lessons short, but quaveringly suggests that they go over the whole routine again…and maybe again…
Finally, though, George has to switch the autopilot off. His first attempts at “steady level flying” are anything but as he struggles to coordinate the altimeter and the throttle. Losing the fight, George lets the plane drop into a dive, as the passengers scream behind him, before pulling it up again as much with willpower as with control.
As Treleavan lectures his pupil about relaxing, back in the cabin good ol’ Pain In The Neck decides it’s the perfect time to storm up front and give the pilot a piece of his mind. Baird sees his intention but is too late to catch him: by the time he gets there, Milton is staring jaw-dropped and incredulous at the scene in the cockpit. Then he starts shaking poor George by the shoulder, choking, “You’re not— You’re not—” Baird hauls him off, shoves him against the wall and gives him the facts of life before pushing him out of the cockpit.
Imminent gruesome death? Ya gotta laugh.
Back in the cabin, a chastened Milton tells the other passengers what’s going on. There are gasps, and some panic, and Baird has to intervene. He fudges the issue somewhat, calling George an “experienced flyer” who has been flying “military aircraft” in Vietnam, before explaining about the radio-coaching and concluding as they always do: if anyone has a better idea…?
Meanwhile, George’s lessons in flying with the flaps and gear down could be going better; so, at least, we judge from the fact that the plane ends up heading nose-first towards the base of a mountain…
And down at ground control, there is silence…
…at least until the other side of the ad-break, where we find the plane in level flight, George struggling to control his shaking hands, and Janet trying to re-tune the radio. She can’t find Seattle again, though. This is Janet’s moment for an emotional scene, or as close as she ever gets, as she thinks about never seeing her children again. She doesn’t collapse, though: instead, she gets angry and teary all at once, essentially telling George that he’d better get the plane down, or else. This, in turn, sets George off, and provokes the revelation of his trauma.
It was Med-Evac choppers that he flew in ’Nam; and one day, taking off with the heaviest load of casualties he’d ever had – “They were stacked three feet deep – tied to the landing-gear!” – his chopper was clipped by a VC shell and dropped. And guess who the one survivor was? – the one person thrown clear…?
A different trauma from Ted Stryker’s, then, one without the same component of personal responsibility; but bringing with it a load of survivor’s guilt no less crippling. And the very last thing in the world that George wants or needs is to be at the controls of a flying machine, with sick and dying people depending on him for their survival…
George’s story brings Janet back to herself; and the two of them, tear-streaked but mostly calm, end up holding hands for comfort and (in a touch I find very psychologically acute) occasionally giggling involuntarily at one another. The emotional venting turns out to have been well-timed as well as beneficial, because the next minute Baird is on the internal phone reporting Mrs McCann’s perilous condition and asking how long it will be until they land?
“Thank you for flying Ellis-Northern…”
“Well, I don’t know,” replies George drily. “Right now that’s kind of a moot point.”
As Baird hangs up, George ponders aloud whether he should have told him the truth – and then laughs wearily again. Turns out there was no particular reason for him to be on the plane in the first place; no particular reason he had to leave Minneapolis, or to go to Seattle; just a feeling it was time to move on…
And then Seattle finds them again. George, by this time, is wrung out like a sponge and tells Treleavan frankly that he’s not up to any dry runs: he just wants to land. Treleavan argues, but George is adamant – “I’ve got the feel of your bus, and it feels like a wagon-load of corpses!” – and finally Treleavan gives in. They start the approach…
Well, we know how it goes from here, right? The lousiest landing in the history of this airport, as Treleavan will later tell George gleefully. And, do you know? – having watched this series of lousy landings, I really think this is the worst; which, given that of all of our reluctant heroes, George knows least about the business, is probably fitting.
There is a lovely moment when George and Janet stagger out into the cabin, and in total silence the passengers stare at them, and George stares back incredulously at this plane-load of people whose lives he’s just saved. (When he sees Baird, his first question is, “Did we lose anyone?) It isn’t until George reaches Emmett Milton that anyone moves or speaks – but with that first movement, the place erupts… Yup: those damned air-horns again.
While on one hand this is the same film all over again, what we tend to notice are the disparities between them. In updating the scenario of Zero Hour! for Terror In The Sky, I’m sure the writers intended simply that, just to bring it up to date; but what they actually did, however inadvertently, was make a film about the generation gap; or rather, about the distance between 1957 and 1971, which in sociological terms was a lot greater than a mere fourteen years. There’s a telling moment when Milton emerges from the cockpit. In letting the other passengers know what’s going on, he describes George as, “The boy in blue jeans.” The much-older Milton, his drunken antics notwithstanding, is wearing a suit and tie, of course – as Ted Stryker did, fourteen years earlier.
Our Heroes celebrate the lousiest landing in the history of the airport.
Of course, George is a lot more than just “a boy”. Vietnam veterans were everywhere in the world of movies in the early seventies; and despite George’s terrors and self-doubts, he’s treated quite kindly here, where apart from his lingering fears, his disaffection shows chiefly in his footlooseness, his inability to find somewhere he can fit in. This is as stark a contrast as it could be with his cinematic contemporaries elsewhere, who were repeatedly being depicted as psychopaths or serial killers – or even devourers of human flesh. At the same time, George’s history definitely provides a focal point for the gap between this film and its model.
Perhaps the place where change makes itself most felt is the later film’s emotionalism: there’s no perceived need here for a stiff upper lip; George makes little effort to hide his terror, and has no qualms about crying in front of Janet. But however inescapable these seeming differences – the difference between suffering in silence and letting it all hang out; between landing a plane in formal dress and in a checked shirt and jeans; between World War II and Vietnam; between—well, between Dana Andrews and Doug McClure – in the end we see that they are only superficialities. The essence of the situation hasn’t changed at all – and neither has the moral. Despite the intervening years and upheaval, both Zero Hour! and Terror In The Sky say exactly the same thing: that when push comes to shove, and worst to worst, human beings will find within themselves the capacity to stand up.
It’s a remarkably comforting lesson.