“…und hatte keinen Fisch zum Abendessen…”
[Translated title: Flight In Danger]
Director: Theo Metzger
Starring: Hanns Lothar, Ingmar Zeisberg, Günther Neutze, Benno Sterzenbach, Klaus Schwarzkopf, Wolfgang Stumpf, Willy Semmelrogge, Heinz Weiss, Günther Hoffmann, Rose-Renée Roth
Screenplay: Theo Metzger and Werner Sommer, based upon a translation by Irene Dodel and Horst van Diemen of a teleplay by Arthur Hailey
Foreword: This is Part 1 of a very silly project I’ve had in mind for some time, and which I’m now undertaking because I just gained access to my putative Part 2.
Though my colleague Will Laughlin has often bravely undertaken reviews of films unavailable in English-language versions, this is something I’ve generally steered clear of, beyond the occasional dabble in Et Al. It’s another aspect of my OCD that I’m not comfortable guessing.
However, two particular films have been knocking at the door for consideration despite the lack of a subtitled print; and I’ve finally worked myself up to giving it a try.
This won’t be an ordinary review, of course: rather, I’ll be offering my best interpretation of the visual material, supplemented by lots of screenshots. We’ll see how it goes.
In my review of Zero Hour!, I went into some detail about that film’s background: how it was based upon a teleplay by Arthur Hailey called Flight Into Danger, which was adapted for TV in Canada and the US before the rights to it were bought by independent producers, Hall Bartlett and John Champion, for adaptation to the big screen.
The original Canadian version of Flight Into Danger – which starred James Doohan – no longer seems to exist, though fragments of it were once available on YouTube. Nor, it seems, do the American adaptation from 1956, which starred Macdonald Carey; the British version from 1962, with Robert Arden; or an Australian one from 1966, with Ray Taylor.
What we do have, though, is a German version from 1964, entitled Flug in Gerfahr (Flight In Danger), which is available on YouTube…with German closed captioning (of a sort) but no English subtitles.
However, from what I have been able to gather, this version is a straight filming of the original teleplay, with the same Canadian setting and the same character names, and no tampering with the text to speak of. Between what I can find out online about this specific adaptation, and what I know from all the others (edited to add: including Terror In The Sky, which this is much closer to than to Zero Hour!) – plus a nudge or two from the online translator – we shouldn’t have too much trouble following the story.
It helps that, in theory at least, we pretty much already know that story word-for-word—or I do; and if you’re hanging out here, you should. So I’m not going to dwell on the unimportant linking details, merely note how the most important scenes play out.
At Winnipeg Airport, George Spencer (Hanns Lothar) tries to buy a ticket for an urgent journey to Vancouver, but finds that all the main commercial flights are sold out. The official at the ticket desk, with a slightly furtive air, informs Spencer that there is a possible alternative in the form of a charter flight. He points him in the direction of the ticket counter for Maple Leaf Air Charter, where Spencer purchases a seat on flight #714.
The plane is crowded, with several passengers already indulging from self-bought bottles, but Spencer eventually manages to find an aisle seat.
The ground crew complete their tasks as the pilot (Heinz Weiss) watches through his window. The flight’s hostess, Janet (Ingmar Zeisberg), comes hurrying across the tarmac and up the mobile stairs, closing the door after herself. The stairs too are removed, and the plane is ready for take-off.
As Janet moves up the aisle, Spencer – among other of the male passengers – leans sideways to get a better look at her rear view. The man next to Spencer smirks at him, and the two have a conversation in which the other reveals himself to be a doctor (“medizin”).
The doctor – Dr Frank Baird (Benno Sterzenbach) – expresses some nervousness as the plane builds power and revs its engines, and Spencer reassures him, giving away his knowledge of flying. He cuts the conversation short, however.
After take-off, the pilot broadcasts flight information to the passengers; while Janet moves down the aisle taking dinner orders. Most of the passengers, including Spencer and Baird, order lamb (“lamm”). The choice appears to be between that and halibut (“heilbutt”).
In the galley, Janet phones the cockpit to see what the pilots want for dinner. The senior pilot initially orders lamb, but then changes his mind; and the co-pilot (Günther Hoffmann) also orders fish (“fisch”).
We pan down the cabin as the passengers have dinner: most of them seem to be agreeing about how nice the food is. Janet carries one tray to the cockpit, and the co-pilot eats first, almost bolting his dinner down while Janet and the pilot make conversation (possibly about the flight’s replacement caterers, though I couldn’t catch any key-words here), before the former slips away to serve coffee (“kaffee”).
Before long, most of the passengers have their lights out. However, one elderly lady (Rose-Renée Roth) towards the front of the cabin is ill—ill enough for Janet to alert the pilot. The lady tells him that she is not just sick, but in pain (“schmerz”) and feeling dizzy (“schwindelig”). Janet brings her medication of some kind, but it does not help; and her companion, who may be her son, asks for further assistance. The pilot in turn asks Janet to find out if there’s a doctor onboard. She moves down the aisle speaking, in the first instance, to the passengers who are still awake.
Spencer overhears her, and tells her that Baird is a doctor. Woken up, Baird gives Spencer a rueful “no rest for the wicked” look and follows Janet to his patient. He examines her, including palpating her abdomen and checking her eyes. Her pain has obviously increased.
Turning to Janet, Baird tells her quietly that they need to get the lady to a hospital (“krakenhaus”). She tells him that another passenger is complaining of symptoms: he goes to help, questioning the man about what he has had to eat. He replies in full, including what he had at the airport (“flughafen”) and his dinner (“abendessen”) on the plane.
Janet has passed Baird’s opinion on to the pilot, who takes him aside and tells him that they are now passing over the Rocky Mountains, that the weather is closing in, and there is no closer airport than Vancouver, their original destination.
Suddenly, an alarm goes off. The pilot hurries down the aisle towards the cockpit as, we notice, the plane tilts in flight. He and Baird arrive to find the co-pilot, too, succumbing to pain. The pilot takes over the controls as Baird and Janet carry the co-pilot to one of the bunks. Baird examines him, finding the same symptoms: abdominal pain and dilated pupils. Finally he asks Janet what he had for dinner?
“Fisch,” she replies worriedly. Baird sends her to find out what the other sick passengers had. She comes with the expected news soon enough, and Baird asks the pilot to radio ahead and to have ambulances standing by in Vancouver. In the middle of this, the pilot reveals that he, too, had fish for dinner; though he insists that he feels perfectly fine. And anyway, he has to be fine, as he’s the only one who can fly the plane.
While the pilot radios Vancouver, Baird, with the help of a couple of the passengers, retrieves his professional case from the baggage-hold, which is a compartment under the cabin floor.
By now matters have reached a stage where Baird simply makes a general announcement, telling the passengers what he knows (that damned heilbutt!! – and its associated bakterien) and what arrangements are being made.
He then continues to go amongst the sick people wrapping them up in blankets and dispensing what medication he has, with the help of one of the non-pescatarian passengers (played by Willy Semmelrogge, I think, though his character is never named), and the son of the man who is the second person to be taken ill.
The alarm goes off again, and Baird and Janet hurry from the galley to the cockpit, where they find the pilot unable to continue; he puts the plane on autopilot before collapsing.
The other two take a moment to absorb the appalling situation; with Baird commenting quietly that their only chance is if one of the passengers can fly the plane…and didn’t have fish for dinner…
He sends Janet out to seek help, armed with a modified story about needing someone to help with the radio. George Spencer responds—and sees soon enough what the true situation is:
Baird: “Can you fly this plane—and land it?”
Spencer explains impatiently that he did fly in the war, but not since, and nothing like a plane such as this. Baird points out pragmatically that if he can’t do it, no-one else can—so he might as well try.
So he does. On the whole, the instrument panel is familiar enough, and so are most of the controls. The flight plan is clear enough; though he’ll need a landing checklist.
He also needs someone to work the radio for him, so that his hands are free; and Janet gets that job. She sits reluctantly in the co-pilot’s seat, while Baird fades discreetly out of the picture with a quiet, “Good luck.”
Spencer starts by sending out a mayday, and gets a response from Calgary: he is instructed how to contact Vancouver. The airport was contacted earlier regarding arrangements for getting the sick passengers to hospital, but now Spencer updates them about the worsening situation, the loss of the pilots, the plane’s flight conditions, and his own experience – or lack thereof. The officials are understandably taken aback, and ask for a few minutes to consider the situation.
Their conclusion is to put out a call for Captain Treleaven (Günther Neutze) of Cross Canada Airlines, a senior pilot with extensive experience with the relevant model of plane (it’s a DC-4). When he arrives, the Vancouver officials, including operations manager Harry Burdick (Klaus Schwarzkopf), explain the situation to him. Treleaven reacts sardonically to the suggestion that he should “just talk down” a stand-in pilot, but agrees they haven’t much choice but to try it.
Treleaven gets on the radio, introduces himself, and asks about Spencer’s experience: he replies that he flew Spitfires during the war. (I think he also says “Thunderbirds”, which, if so, would be the more relevant background.) Though his demeanour is apprehensive, Treleaven responds encouragingly, calling his new student “George” in a friendly way, and instructing him on his instruments and the desired height and speed of the flight.
Spencer then hands the radio duties off to Janet, turns off the automatic pilot and begins getting the feel of the plane. He is heavy-handed as he tries some turns, with the plane tilting sharply and the passengers being tossed from side to side; and he continues to struggle with control. After a fight to maintain the correct altitude, Spencer gives Janet the task of keeping her eye on the altimeter, and also of working the flaps, when the moment comes. However, the increased complexity of the multiple tasks sees Spencer begin to panic a little for the first time.
People are plenty nervous down on the ground, too: lots of smoking, no apparent suggestion that anyone should quit.
Spencer and Janet work their way through the tricky combination of flaps, landing-gear and air-speed as they approach Vancouver. Janet reports in, and Treleaven doesn’t entirely like what he’s hearing: he suggests that he and Spencer have one more round of practice before the latter attempts a landing.
At this, Spencer loses his temper—both on his own behalf, and that of the sick passengers: “Are you crazy? (“wahnsinnig”) I don’t think so!”
Meanwhile, the other officials are preparing the runway—and for a possible crash-landing. By now the media has arrived: photographers look on in barely concealed hope.
Spencer takes the radio back, insisting upon an immediate landing and barking down the line Baird’s instructions regarding what is needed on-site for the passengers. His emotionality makes the officials fear that he is not up for the challenge, but Treleaven speaks up for him: it’s his decision, they need to support it. He lets Spencer know that he and the others are moving to the tower.
From the air, Spencer and Janet catch their first glimpse of the lit-up runway. Tersely, Treleaven delivers information about conditions on the ground, and instructions for the approach, which requires considerable manoeuvring in the air and adjustments to speed and altitude as the landing-gear goes down for real. Treleaven can see for himself that Spencer is coming in too fast, and snaps at him to adjust. Finally he tries again to dissuade Spencer from the landing, pointing out that he has enough fuel for another hour’s flying.
Spencer, however, retorts that the passengers don’t have an hour—and insists upon going ahead. He orders Janet to forget about the radio and concentrate on the instruments. Treleaven keeps transmitting height and speed guidance, but neither of them responds verbally.
Still too hot, and wavering uncertainly in flight, the plane dips towards the tarmac. The tyres touch – bounce – touch again – and skid, as Spencer cries to Janet to cut the engines, and he himself throws his weight onto the brakes. The tyres squeal – the plane swerves, spins – and stops.
There is a moment’s silence, while Spencer and Janet simply look at each other. Then she springs into action, leaving the cockpit to help in the cabin. Spencer, meanwhile, slumps back in his seat—and receives another message from Treleaven:
“That was probably the most miserable landing since this airport existed, and I got hired here as a pilot. But there are some people who would like to shake your hand…”
Afterword: It’s funny watching Flug in Gefahr after the (now) more familiar, disaster-movie-ish reworkings of the material. This is indeed a very low-key version of the story, as per Arthur Hailey’s original story, missing what we now think of as its “tropes”: a pilot with a traumatic background, a dangerously antagonistic relationship between him and the man talking him down, panicky idiots out in the cabin…and flashbacks, of course. The weather prevents them turning back when trouble strikes, but otherwise nothing is made of it.
Interestingly, if anyone panics here, it’s Treleaven—perhaps because he best understands the situation. Spencer, though a sweaty mess by the end, only has a couple of moments when he loses control; while Janet, though she too ends up looking the worse for wear, never does. (She has one quaver earlier on, but that’s because there’s something between her and the co-pilot). The passengers on the whole remain calm. There is some understandable alarm when Baird first explains the situation, and one passenger (female, alas) who has a minor outbreak or two, but these are easily quelled.
Still, there is more going on in this adaptation of the story than I made mention of on the way through: there are cutaways to Baird and his two self-appointed assistants, doing sterling work out in the cabin; but of that material, I think there’s only one detail that we need to note—one point at which Flug in Gefahr separates itself from its fellows:
We’ve seen the beginning of the process before; but this is the first time we’ve ever seen anyone collecting the used barf-bags. We even – very briefly – see someone using one.
And what of my silly project? Well—this was a very easy dry run indeed; perhaps too easy. There are some scenes here, particularly the rapid dialogue amongst the officials and Treleaven, where I had not even a guess what they were saying; however in this context it wasn’t important.
But in the case of the film I really want to tackle—I’m not familiar with the story, I don’t speak a word of the language, and I don’t think even rough-and-ready online translation is going to help.
But on the other hand…I’ve been eyeing this thing for some considerable time now, and I just can’t bring myself to let it go…
Fun fact #1: my research into Flug in Gefahr reveals that Flying High! (aka Airplane!) was released in Germany as The Incredible Journey In A Mad Plane.
Fun fact #2: there was obviously a re-release of a German-language version of the novel, Flight Into Danger, after this was broadcast, because I can find lots of copies with tie-in covers…although no actual advertising art for the film as such.
Fun fact #3: Apparently Flug in Gefahr was originally broadcast in colour: