“He didn’t tell me what it was. He said it was just—samples. Chemical samples… Oh, it—couldn’t be! People don’t do things like that! Ernest, you wouldn’t – !?”
Director: C. Raker Endfield
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Stanley Baker, Mai Zetterling, George Rose, Diane Cilento, Virginia Maskell, Elizabeth Sellars, Patrick Allen, Hermione Baddeley, Harry Secombe, Sybil Thorndyke, Neil McCallum, Megs Jenkins, Marty Wilde, David Kossoff, Cec Linder, Jocelyn Lane, Bernard Braden, Barbara Kelly, Lana Morris, Jeremy Judge
Screenplay: C. Raker Endfield and Sigmund Miller, based upon a story by Sigmund Miller
Synopsis: At Heathrow, passengers for Atlantic Flight #101 London to New York receive their first boarding call, and begin to assemble on the tarmac. As they are checking in, Ernest Tilley (Richard Attenborough) startles his wife, Carol (Mai Zetterling), by reacting violently to the sight of another passenger. The flight crew, led by Captain Bardow (Stanley Baker) make their final preparations. The co-pilot, Gil Gilbert (Neil McCallum), introduces a new stewardess, Pamela Leyton (Virginia Maskell). Outside, reporters and cameramen mob rising singing star Billy Forrester (Marty Wilde), as journeyman entertainer Binky Meadows (Harry Secombe) looks on ruefully. In the crowd, Carol Tilley loses sight of her husband. When she finds him, he is gazing up at the undercarriage of the plane. The passengers board, and after the flight check the plane takes off. On board, Dr Jacob Bergstein (David Kossoff), who is with the United Nations, and ex-military man Colonel John Coe (Cec Linder) introduce themselves; while the young Jeremy Tracer (Jeremy Judge) settles down to sleep, much to his parents’ relief. Further forward, Alan Mulliner (Patrick Allen) tries to make time with Inez Barrington (Elizabeth Sellars), but she evades him, going to the lounge for a drink. Some time later, Carol Tilley wakes from a sound sleep to find Ernest staring despairingly before him. As he mutters brokenly about what a heartless, senseless world it is, Carol suddenly intuits that the man at the airport, the man whose presence upset Ernest so, is James Brock (George Rose). Ernest confirms this, adding that it has taken him two years, but he finally has James Brock where he wants him – that James Brock is going to die – and that the rest of the passengers might want to say a prayer, too… Unbeknownst to Ernest, his anguished words are overheard by Binky Meadows and Emma Morgan. In a whisper, Emma tells Pam Leyton that they have just heard a threat made against one of the other passengers; she promises to tell the captain. In the lounge, Inez has been cornered by Mrs Satterly (Hermione Baddeley), who speaks uncaringly of the recent death of her elderly husband. Captain Bardow also enters the lounge, moving away from the passengers. He is joined by Carol Tilley, who has been summoned by Pam Leyton. Bardow asks about the threat that Ernest is alleged to have made. Carol confides that she and Ernest have only been married a year, and that they met while he was recovering from a breakdown after the death of his only child, who was struck by a drunken driver who failed to stop. Hiring detectives, Ernest found out that the driver was James Brock, although they were never able to prove it legally. As she speaks, Carol suddenly realises why Ernest was so suddenly eager for the two of them to take a holiday in New York… Upstairs, Ernest makes his move, confronting Brock. As his voice grows louder and more uncontrolled, it attracts the shocked attention of the other passengers, who hear the terrible story of the death of Ernest’s daughter. Pam Leyton intervenes, steering Ernest back to his seat. When Brock shouts after him that he’s made a mistake, that he’s got the wrong man, Ernest tells him flatly that he is going to die… As the passengers, some frightened, some angry, some resigned, discuss the situation amongst themselves, Pam quietly asks Ernest to go down to the lounge. There, having heard Ernest’s story, Bardow tells him that, as a widower with two children, he can understand how he feels, but that he cannot take the law into his own hands. Bardow searches the unresponsive Ernest, but does not find the weapon he expected. Trying to get through to him, Bardow begins a conversation with Carol that touches upon Ernest’s work as a chemist – an expert in explosives – and Carol gasps in horror as she remembers the small metal box tucked inside Ernest’s luggage…
Comments: This will not, I hope, be a grim review, but it is necessary that, at the outset, we deal with a little grim history.
On 1st November, 1955, United Airlines Flight #629, a Douglas DC-6B, blew up over Colorado and crashed, killing all forty-four people on board. The circumstances were suspicious, and a bombing was soon confirmed. The person responsible was Jack Gilbert Graham; the single target was his mother, Daisie King. An FBI investigation did not take long to fix upon Graham as a suspect. However, having arrested him, the investigators then discovered that there were no statutes on the books adequate to address a crime of that nature, the only similar offence having been committed in Canada in 1949. While the legal system got to work drafting a new set of laws, Graham was pragmatically charged with the one crime prosecutors knew they could prove, the murder of his mother. He was convicted, and executed early in 1957.
It’s not surprising that films were eventually made, based upon these events. What is interesting is that everyone seems to have had the same idea of how long it was appropriate to wait before doing so. The closing months of 1959 saw three films released within weeks of each other that, each in its own way, dealt with the subject of a bomb on a plane.
One of them, the big-budget Warners production, The FBI Story, opened with a re-enactment of the Flight #629 bombing, and cast Nick Adams as Jack Graham. The other two films were part of that emerging genre known as the “disaster movie”; and while one of them was also an American production, the other, somewhat curiously, was British.
Released in October of 1959, and with a clear eye on markets on both sides of the Atlantic, Jet Storm hedged its bets by building around a flight from London to New York, and by having its airline passengers a mix of English and American. However, in spite of this manoeuvre, ultimately the film does feel like a British production—even though an American co-wrote it and sat in the director’s chair.
Which brings us to another bit of grim history.
In 1951, Cy Endfield was blacklisted after being named as a Communist before the HUAC hearings. In fact, he had never actually been a member of the Communist Party; but in protest against the Committee’s proceedings, he wouldn’t say so even to save himself. After refusing to testify, Endfield left the United States for Great Britain. For several years he was compelled to work behind a “front”, then under various pseudonyms; while he received no screen credit at all for his work on Night Of The Demon.
However, from 1956 onwards things began to get better for Cy Endfield. The turning point in his career was the drama Child In The House, which was the film that introduced him to Stanley Baker.
There’s been a lot written over the years about various director-actor partnerships, but not much attention seems to have been paid to that between Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker; not as much as should have been, perhaps, given that it culminated in Zulu. Baker was an active Socialist, but while he and Endfield may have come together over their politics it is evident from their work that they were professionally comfortable with one another, too. The pair made six films together between 1956 and 1965, of which Jet Storm was the fourth; and although Baker plays the closest thing the film has to a hero, it’s a subdued performance set amongst an ensemble cast.
I’ve discussed previously, in my reviews of The High And The Mighty and Zero Hour!, the ludicrous rapidity with which the clichés of the aeroplane-based disaster movie became set in stone, and in this respect Jet Storm is a textbook example.
Indeed, the clichés come so thick and fast here at the beginning that before we were quite through the opening sequence, I was in hysterics.
In fact, let’s start by doing a cliché count, shall we? – although to be fair, in the first instance Jet Storm creates rather than reproduces a cliché. The High And The Mighty won an Academy Award for its score, and its dual musical motifs were released as singles, to great popularity; but Jet Storm goes its predecessor one better by introducing The Disaster Movie Theme Song—in this case, “Jet Stream”, with lyrics by Cy Endfield; the film’s original title, before someone decided it wasn’t dramatic enough.
(“We thought that we’d be so happy / That we’d never part / Now I’ve gone a-flyin’ / And lost my own true heart / Jet stream, oh jet stream…”)
The first aspect of Jet Storm that really presents its disaster movie credentials is its ridiculously good cast, which rolls on for screen after screen in alphabetical order; which conveniently enough allows it to be headed by Richard Attenborough and Stanley Baker. (Bit rough on Mai Zetterling, but there you go…) As with so many disaster movies, you sit there going “Oh!” and “Oh!” as various names flash by—like Paul Eddington in his first non-TV part; old troupers Megs Jenkins, Sybil Thorndike and Hermione Baddeley; Harry Secombe (another Welshman, of course) in a rare film appearance; a very young and still-brunette Diane Cilento; and an on-the-verge-of-singing-stardom Marty Wilde (or as he tends to be known in these parts, Kim’s dad), who sings the theme song, worked on the film’s score, and gets an “—INTRODUCING—” credit.
As for the screenplay— Behind the scenes at Heathrow, co-pilot Gil Gilbert introduces Rookie Stewardess (1) Pam Leyton to the rest of the flight crew of the plane known as the “Atlantic Queen”. As the first boarding-call sounds for Flight #101, we watch the Tracers, a youngish married couple with An Adorable Young Son (2), check in. The airport is awash with reporters, as on the same flight will be Billy Forrester, A Celebrity (3). Forrester has his wife, Clara, with him: they are Newlyweds (4). Meanwhile, Ernest Tilley, who has been Acting Suspiciously (5) since he got to the airport, begins to speak Mournfully In The Past Tense (6). As Billy and Clara Forrester pose for photographs, Faded Star (7) Binky Meadows looks on unrecognised. Couple On The Verge Of Divorce (8) Otis and Edwina Randolf climb on board; Otis is Drunk (9). Meanwhile, the bespectacled, accented, pacifist Dr Jacob Bergstein and ex-US Army Colonel John Coe introduce themselves and discover that they are Philosophically Opposed (10); while new widow Mrs Sattlerly, though swathed in furs and jewels, is clearly Rich But Unhappy (11).
Not bad for under ten minutes, hey? But then, apparently having set itself up to be the most predictable film ever made, Jet Storm manages to surprise us at almost every turn, chiefly via the simple expedient of being so—well, so terribly British.
Also in this opening stretch, we get an amusing bit that can’t possibly be a coincidence, but is, rather, evidence that Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield were already in the planning stages of their great joint-enterprise. As the crew checks over the passenger list, Pam Leyton is puzzled by Gil Gilbert’s inquiry as to whether there are any Zulu chiefs on board. She learns that this is a reference to a real incident: that the worst flight Bardow and Gilbert ever experienced together happened to be one where they did in fact have two Zulu chiefs amongst the passengers. “And since then,” explains Bardow, “everybody knows that one Zulu chief equals one bad motor.”
We then spend some time setting up the film’s various conflicts, and separating the sheep from the goats.
The first major theme to emerge is that of unhappy wives and untrustworthy men: Mrs Tracer looks on, silent but hurt, as her husband ogles every other attractive woman in the vicinity (and stares straight down the front of Clara Forrester’s dress); Canadian businessman Alan Mulliner puts the moves on society girl Inez Barrington, in spite of her obvious disinterest and eventual changing of seats; a pursuit in which he is joined by Victor Tracer and George Towers, who is in turn pursued by Mrs Satterly. Meanwhile, James Brock tries to force drinks on Angelica Como, as his wife looks on, silent but hurt, and as Angelica edges away in discomfort.
Two of the unhappy wives fall into a special category. First there’s Carol Tilley, who it is revealed was Ernest’s nurse while he was recovering – or not – from his nervous breakdown. The implication is clear enough: that, seeing him as her last chance for marriage, she has snatched at the vulnerable man, and is about to be made to regret it.
And then there’s sad-sack Rose Brock, the kind of desperate wife who doesn’t care that her husband has run over and killed a small child, but who does care that at the time of the accident, he was in company with “a blonde”…and who manages to blame the whole incident on her. Poor James was just an innocent lamb led astray, you understand…
Meanwhile, the first real indication that this film isn’t going to pan out as we might expect comes with a close-up look at the Randolfs, our Couple On The Verge Of Divorce, who instead of sniping bitterly at one another, or having flashbacks to their marriage, settle down to an amicable and lengthy game of gin-rummy—by which means they are divvying up their possessions.
(And in fact there are no flashbacks here, something that puts Jet Storm well towards the “drama” end of the Disaster Movie spectrum.)
Carol Tilley wakes from a comfortable sleep to find Ernest, as he so often is, lost in his own thoughts. Her comment that they’ll soon be in New York prompts a grim smile from her husband – “We’re not there yet” – and her protest against the morbid implication of this remark turns the conversation in an even more morbid direction, as Ernest asks Carol quietly if she’s really so afraid of dying?
He then berates, “This senseless, this heartless world”, causing Carol to defend it as not so heartless. Ernest throws a contemptuous glance over his fellow-travellers. “If they should get just one hint of disaster, how they’d panic,” he sneers. “Then you’d see how much heart they have for each other. Heartless…”
And then Ernest turns and stares over his shoulder at the oblivious James Brock—and Carol gasps, as the penny drops. Still staring, Ernest says softly that James Brock is going to die—and that he might not be the only one…
…muttered words that each the ears of Binky Meadows and Emma Morgan, who report them discreetly to Pam Leyton. She in turn carries them to Captain Bardow, and he has Carol brought down to the lounge.
There, Carol explains about Ernest’s past: the death of his daughter, and his subsequent pursuit of the guilty party; that the wealthy and connected Brock pulled some strings, and got away scot-free. Ernest subsequently went “mad with grief”—although Carol continues to insist desperately that he is not mentally ill.
Upstairs, Ernest makes his move, denouncing James Brock – who protests his innocence – before all the other passengers, and telling him bluntly that he is going to die. Shortly afterwards, Pam takes Ernest downstairs too. Bardow confronts him, telling him that while he sympathises with his situation and his feelings, he cannot allow him to take any action. Bardow is puzzled when his search of Ernest, who has become silent and withdrawn, reveals no weapon.
It is indicative of how early in the game this story is set / this film was made that no-one on board twigs to what Ernest is actually up to: they all think he has a gun. (Airport security? – never heard of it.) Thwarted, Bardow tries to get Ernest to open up. He starts a conversation in front of him with Carol, in which we learn more details of Ernest’s life…including the fact that he’s a scientist.
Oh, but—but—but—but—but— He’s a chemist! He’s a chemist, okay? Stop looking at me like that!!
But Ernest’s speciality we do not discover until after Bardow, obviously hoping that he’s found a way in, asks whether Ernest is a psychologist, or anything of that nature? It is Carol who explains that he is, “Quite a famous researcher”. Ernest stirs, and reveals his line of work: unstable compounds.
“Explosives?” says Bardow sharply.
And here, a horrified Carol remembers that little metal box she saw Ernest putting in his briefcase…
This conversation is overheard by the harridan Mrs Satterly, who carries it upstairs to the other passengers. There’s already been some worried chat up there, as you might imagine, although everyone is basically calm—except Brock, who’s a sweaty mess.
It is Clara Forrester who raises the question of what would happen if a bullet went through the body of the plane, prompting an explanation of decompression from her husband, and the consoling thought, offered by the passenger sitting in front of her, that all planes now carry oxygen masks.
Meanwhile, carrying on with their card game, the Randolfs have a loud and pointed conversation about how hit-and-run drivers are lowest form of life.
So things stand when Mrs Satterly arrives with news that the threat isn’t a gun at all: it’s a bomb…
It is at this point that Jet Storm takes an unexpected, and frankly rather heartening, turn as the passengers come to grips with the reality of their danger and begin to debate what should be done about it—or if anything can be done about it. As you’d expect, they divide up into opposing factions; as you might not, the party that wants to resort to violence, and the sooner the better, is significantly outnumbered by that which thinks the correct thing to do is sit down, shut up, and keep a stiff upper lip—and which looks with scorn at those willing to cross the moral line in the face of danger.
And in this, there’s something comforting about Jet Storm. After all, it is – or it should be – during a crisis when what we really believe becomes most important, rather than treated as an inconvenience to be tossed aside for the duration.
Not surprisingly, it is those individuals who have already demonstrated a degree of moral lack who band together and threaten to take matters into their own hands; although we note a certain reluctance on their part to say frankly what it is they intend, as they begin resorting instead to the euphemism, “Do whatever has to be done”. It is Dr Bergstein, firmly of the sit-down-and-shut-up party, who uses the word torture.
On the other hand, not all of the divisions are so obvious. Billy Forrester begins to drift towards the whatever-it-takes party, to the horror of his wife; while conversely, Colonel Coe sits unmoved as Mullinar – who wants something done, but doesn’t want to get his own hands dirty – insists that, as a military man, it is his duty to take action. Coe responds coolly that as a military man, he believes in the chain of command, and that the responsibility for action, if any, lies with Captain Bardow; at which Mullinar stalks off in disgust, sneering, “I thought the US army these days produced something better than blind obedience.”
Of course, there’s a deeper significance in all of this. Finally goaded into speech by Bardow, Ernest Tilley proclaims hysterically his hatred of people generally; that if he could, he’d blow up the whole world—but failing that, he’s more than willing to blow up a plane. Ironically, this misanthropy, this nihilism, aligns Ernest with the very people who want to resolve the situation by beating information out of him—or worse.
As for Bardow, his response is a mixture of high-mindedness and pragmatism. Repeatedly intervening to quell disturbances, taking a hard-line stand against those who want violent action, Bardow’s predominant attitude is one of, It just isn’t done, dammit! Beyond that, however, there is also a rueful recognition of the fact that they just don’t know where the bomb is or what might detonate it—but that, given Ernest’s proclaimed loathing of humanity, there’s a fairly good chance that laying violent hands on him would do the trick.
Gathering his admirably composed crew, Bardow sets a search in motion, including of the cargo bays, these being the days when they were directly accessible from the cabin. He then heads out to quell the growing agitation of the passengers.
Bardow first sends Ernest back down to the lounge, then confronts the rest, pointing out that they don’t actually know that there’s a bomb on board—but adding that if there is, the crew will find it.
Warning that no-one will be allowed to take matters into their own hands, he also cautions the other passengers not to let panic get the better of them, but rather to sit down quietly and do their best to stay calm—offering up a form of assistance that his bosses may or may not approve of:
Bardow: “You’re all invited to enjoy our fine vintage wines and champagnes—compliments of the Atlantic Queen.”
Ohhhh, that settles it: if ever I’m involved in an airline emergency, I want Stanley Baker in charge. Or Karen Black. Or Stanley Baker and Karen Black…
What? Oh. Right. Sorry.
Philosophically, Jet Storm is a fascinating contradiction in the career of Cy Endfield, whose American films were notable for their sharp social criticism and their profound cynicism—to a degree that made him very unpopular in some quarters, where he was denounced as “un-American”. It is probably no coincidence that he came to the attention of HUAC shortly after the release of his scathing kidnapping / lynching drama, The Sound Of Fury.
It is a curious thing, then, that after suffering blacklisting and exile, Endfield should have become less cynical, more willing to express faith in human nature—as on the whole he does in Jet Storm. Perhaps finding unexpected friends during this time of adversity, including certain individuals who allowed him to “borrow” and use their names in spite of the risk to their own careers, had the effect of softening his opinions.
So— Pam Leyton starts serving champagne with the help of Angelica Como; Otis and Edwina Randolf begin to remember why they fell in love in the first place (oh, yes, it’s The Couple Reunited By A Crisis – Cliché #12 – but lightly and rather charmingly done); Binky Meadows and Emma Morgan follow their martinis with sherry, and their sherry with champagne (Binky dropping a few pills into the latter), quelling their fears with black humour; Colonel Coe contemptuously gives Mullinar the brush; and Mrs Satterly mouths off about the situation to anyone who will listen to her, which as it turns out is almost no-one.
A feud that has very little to do with a bomb then develops between Mrs Satterly and Angelica, the former calling the latter, “You little slut”, and the latter responding coolly with, “A woman of your age”—a taunt that provokes the older woman into a violent outburst that has to be physically quelled by Pam and George Towers, and which moves Bardow, just passing by, to gentle remonstrance: “Ladies, is this really necessary?”
Bardow then has a considerably less gentle word with Mullinar, warning him to stop stirring up trouble. Mullinar completes his strike-out by being comprehensively told off by Inez Barrington, who sums him up as having everything in life a man could want—except class. It is, I may say, not quite clear that Inez means what she says here; but she knows what will hurt Mullinar the most.
Meanwhile, James Brock has progressed from, “You’ve got the wrong man” to, “It wasn’t my fault, it was an accident”. He will, before much longer, make it all the way to, “So what if I’m guilty? If I die, you all die, too.” Rose Brock doesn’t much care about any of this. She’s too busy trying to find out if “the blonde” in question was one Sandra Williamson, an “evil influence” on every man she ever knew, Rose declares. “She’s the one who should be punished, not you.”
Rose furthers consoles her husband by arguing that it’s probably all just an empty threat, meant only to scare; that if there was a bomb on board, the searching crew would surely have found it. Comforted by this argument, Brock sits back and allows himself to relax a little.
It is at this point that we get a rare shot outside the plane, showing us an object attached to the underside of one wing…
And indeed, Bardow and his people are baffled by their lack of success; although unlike Brock, they don’t kid themselves about the reality of the danger. One of the searchers, Bentley, has a brainwave: he leaves the internal phone in the lounge off the hook, so that by this means they will be able to listen in on the conversations between the Tilleys, and hopefully overhear something useful. They do hear, but get no comfort. Ernest continues to express his loathing of the world – now including himself and his work in his condemnation – while Carol, her desperate pleas unavailing, loses her head and slaps her husband’s face. Ernest is unmoved by this, simply telling her that, “It will be soon…”
Pam brings to the cockpit a piece of cardboard packaging found in the men’s room. Bardow orders one of the crew to get on the line and try and find out what it might have contained. When the answer comes, it is hardly comforting: the box contained some sort of battery device.
It is Bardow’s gut-instinct that Ernest will wait to set off his device until they reach the coast, so as to have an audience. Consequently, he demands calculations of how fast they can arrive and land if they go full power from this point on—hoping that if the bomb is on a timer, they will be able to set the plane down before it goes off. Told that they have enough fuel to make it – just – maybe – he orders top speed.
Bardow then has Angelica brought to the cockpit, where he asks her to keep her eyes and ears open for signs of trouble. She, in turns, reveals that, like Binky, she’s carrying enough tranquilisers to take down a herd of elephants, and offers to spike the drink of everyone on board, if it will help. Bardows concludes – with a certain reluctance, it must be said – that he can’t officially sanction this; but, on the other hand, if Miss Como wanted to help anyone through their ordeal…
The next person summoned to the cockpit is Bergstein, who disclaims being able to help, but finally gives in to Bardow’s argument that he’s the only one on board with any medical training and agrees to talk to Ernest. Ultimately, however, the conversation reveals a great deal more about Bergstein. Ernest sits unresponsive as the doctor talks about his own daughters and their differing personalities…finally revealing that they died in a concentration camp. Bergstein admits that, yes, there was a time when he felt and thought like Ernest, when be believed that the world did not deserve to be saved. Ernest responds to this—but shrinks back into himself when Bergstein goes on to explain that he was brought back from the brink by contemplating what his daughters would have thought of him, if he had given in to his hatred. Ernest is shaken by this, but not broken.
Upstairs, the whatever-it-takes party is having a meeting. Ah! – no, I beg your pardon: they’re now the urge-him-to-talk party. Victor Tracer, who has been drinking steadily since he got on the plane, breaks the unspoken rules here by using the T-word—and then withdraws from the circle, pleading nausea.
That leaves Mullinar, Mrs Satterly, George Towers, Billy Forrester and another passenger called Gelderen. Mullinar sets Mrs Satterly to draw away the steward who is guarding the staircase to the lounge. He and Towers then rush downstairs to confront Ernest, attacking and beating Bergstein when he tries to intervene. Cornered, Ernest declares wildly that if they try anything, it will all be over the next instant. As Mullinar and Towers hesitate, Victor Tracer arrives, followed by Bardow, who roughly propels the assailants back upstairs.
As Bergstein sadly contemplates his broken glasses, Bardow straightens his cuffs and wonders aloud if they’re not crazy, trying to save Ernest’s skin? Ernest, however, only glowers, insisting that they’ve done nothing more than buy themselves a few extra minutes…
Meanwhile, Mrs Satterly is once more trying to hector the other passengers into action, working herself up into a rage in the process—and then having a breakdown. We already know that, when little more than a girl, Mrs Satterly married a man twice her age for his money; that she hated him, and was miserable; and that with his death, she has for the first time in almost thirty years her own, independent life to lead – and she doesn’t want to die – not now, not now! The others, embarrassed and moved, respond to this outburst with tentative sympathy, but this only provokes more violence—followed by hysteria and tears. Remarkably, this scene is the one point in the film when we even begin to approach a beloved Disaster Movie cliché hitherto conspicuous by its absence: the Helpless Whimpering Female.
(A little later on, Pam does have a moment’s weakness, but mostly because Gil offers her such a comforting shoulder.)
As Mrs Satterly sobs, Angelica Como slips her one of her spiked drinks…and that’s the last we hear from her.
While this is going on, up the back of the plane Victor Tracer has reached the maudlin-drunk stage, and is busy saying the kind of things to his wife that, when remembered in the cold light of sobriety, will probably make him wish the bomb had gone off. At the same time, up the front, Billy Forrester – also swigging from a hip-flask – is reacting badly to his bride’s evident disillusionment. And between these unhappy couples sit the philosophical Randolfs, still calmly playing cards and hashing over the failure of their marriage.
More important events are transpiring in the middle of the plane, where Mullinar, after suffering another dose of well-bred contempt from Inez, rebuffs Brock so roughly that a new terror takes hold of his mind: that his death might be enough to placate Ernest Tilley.
As it happens, Brock has read Mullinar’s mood with great accuracy: the next meeting of the we’ll-be-heroes party – now down to Mullinar, Forrester and Gelderen – decides that disposing of Brock would be their best way of proceeding. The three separate after making their plans, before, at Mullinar’s signal, “casually” converging on Brock. Their intended victim is on the alert for such a move, however, and leaps from his seat, grabbing the emergency door release and threatening to use it if they come one step closer.
As the three would-be killers hesitate – debating amongst themselves whether it is in fact possible to open the emergency door while in flight – Brock starts shouting for help. Some of the others intervene; poor Bergstein takes another pounding; and Brock manages to arm himself with a small fire-extinguisher, swinging it at his assailants as he backs away from them.
The situation resolves itself when, misjudging his position, Brock takes a leetle too much back-swing with the extinguisher—and shatters the window behind him.
Hmm. Well. Turns out the oxygen masks do drop when the plane decompresses…
Brock is the only casualty, however. The other passengers scream and struggle, but manage to hold onto the furnishings and each other. Gil, his mask firmly in place, succeeds after a fight in bringing the plane back under control at a much lower altitude. The good news is, they find oxygen down there; the bad news is, it’s mixed in with a violent thunderstorm. Naturally. (Cliche #13.)
Angelica reports to Bardow that Ernest Tilley has escaped the near-disaster with nothing more than a cut on his forehead, and that she has left to Bardow himself the task of breaking the news about Brock’s gruesome death.
Bardow has real hopes here that disaster may be averted, but unfortunately it turns out that Ernest has reached the Angel-Of-Death stage of his psychosis. Bardow tries to convince him that the Brocks of the world are a minority, that he’s punishing the wrong people; but Ernest is too caught up in his justifying vision of himself as a “purger of sin”. Shrugging off Bardow’s contention that he’s playing God, Ernest mutters that it will happen—before the hour is out.
It is, at this juncture, twenty minutes to seven.
With time running dangerously short, Bardow briefly contemplates ditching the plane into the sea, but knows that in such a violent storm they’ll have little more chance of survival than if the bomb goes off. Driven at last to desperation, he begins to contemplate the unthinkable: that Mullinar’s way might, after all, be the only way…
Even as Bardow tries to steel himself for what must follow, he is cornered by Angelica, who cries out in horror at what he proposes. Bardow agrees with her, but asks what alternative there is? Angelica thinks she has one. There is, she points out, one person on board who hasn’t yet confronted Ernest Tilley; the one person of all of them who might have a real chance of getting through to him…
Jet Storm is, finally, far from a morally simplistic work. Although it takes its stance clearly enough, it is also prepared to admit that “Mullinar’s way” sometimes is the only way—but only as a last resort, never as the first; never as the only way.
And while the screenplay is firm on that point, we nevertheless notice something curious about how its philosophy plays out. Bardow, in his efforts not to go to the final extreme, is absolutely right in everything he does, and every choice he makes. He is right about Ernest wanting to set the bomb off over land, in order to have a better “audience”; and he is also right in his judgement that, had they rushed Ernest, he would have set the bomb off instantaneously. Ernest himself is clear on both points. Yet Bardow never knows that he was right; only the omniscient audience is in a position to appreciate it.
Of course, the fact that the film has a philosophy at all makes it an unusual kind of disaster move. Its makers’ approach here is rather like that of the Japanese, who tend to make disaster movies that are ninety minutes of the standard stuff plus sixty minutes of serious social commentary. However, for those of you who didn’t come here for reflections on the human condition and a moral debate, there’s plenty of the usual melodramatics and angst on display as well, albeit in a lower key than usual.
Jet Storm certainly closes with a flurry of the sorts of activities that tend to constitute a happy ending in a disaster movie. Both Jane Tracer and Clara Forrester end up comforting repentant husbands; Billy, having been forced to face up to himself as an attempted murderer, suffers reaction, turning sick and white and collapsing into his bride’s welcoming arms. Meanwhile, the Randolfs grimace at the thought of what their friends will say, when they hear that the divorce is off; Colonel Coe and Dr Bergstein exchange a smile and a satisfied handshake; while Binky Meadows and Emma Morgan share one last laugh.
Up in the cockpit, Gil and Pam contemplate a life together; while there is even the promise of a new love for the widowed Captain Bardow—so we gather from Gil’s grinning remarks about “the red stuff” all over his mouth, and Bardow’s embarrassed reaction.
Just as well he took a moment in the middle of the crisis to confirm that it is Miss Como…
And then those glowing, cross-like landing lights loom up out of the darkness – although not nearly so blatantly cross-like here as previously – so that we know it really is The End.