Posts Tagged ‘Sterling Hayden’

Is there anybody aboard who knows how to fly a plane?



Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Zero Hour! (1957). Directed by Hall Bartlett. Written by Arthur Hailey. Starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. 81 minutes. **

Airplane! (1980). Written and Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (with substantial lifts from 1957 screenplay). Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack. 87 minutes. ***

Other Known Versions: Flight Into Danger (Canadian TV-movie, 1956), Flug in Gefahr (German, 1964), Terror In the Sky (TV-movie, 1971).

Not much in the way of analysis this time. Not much to analyze.

See, this one’s a key reason why we started this blog. The truism “Remakes Always Suck” is not only demonstrably untrue, but also ignorant of the many, many times where the remakes are, by far, better known than the original films that inspired them. In this particular case, the movie that everybody remembers, that hit the pop culture zeitgeist like a lightning bolt, that established some careers and brilliantly revived others, and that continues to be imitated today –  for the most part really, really badly – is not just a remake, but the fifth incarnation of a story filmed and pretty much forgotten four times before. Taking most of its inspiration from the second incarnation, which was written by one of the founding lights of the disaster-movie genre, it may mock that film relentlessly, but also uses its structure and much of its dialogue, verbatim; and before you ask, yes, the makers did pay the copyright holders for the use of the material, though they did their best in the publicity materials to ignore its very existence. So, yes, damn it, it is a remake.

We’re talking about Airplane!,  the perverse Abrahams/Zucker Brothers take on disaster movies, which was written with exacting, intimate knowledge of a prior melodrama meant to be taken entirely seriously. The fidelity to Zero Hour!  is so exact that there are some jokes in Airplane! you won’t completely get until you see moments of unintentional silliness from the earlier film. Light will dawn, and you will mutter, “Oh. So that’s where that came from.” For instance, there is one gag in Airplane! driven entirely by the recognition that a minor supporting actress from the original film, playing the worried wife of a pilot felled by food poisoning, overacts her silent reactions to off-screen events in a scene where she’s supposed to be a wordless, barely noticed presence beside the expert trying to talk down the passenger who has taken the controls of her husband’s plane. In the original, she remains unnoticed, because the man beside her is a powerful presence played by Sterling Hayden, and what he’s saying happens to be important. But if you actually trouble yourself to look at her you will see her hyperventilating like a horse who just completed a five mile run,  in a desperate and failed attempt to steal some of the scene’s attention for herself. In Zero Hour! she gives up after a few seconds,  closes her damn mouth, and lets Hayden do his job. In Airplane!, where she’s standing beside Robert Stack, she erupts into full-scale sexual arousal and – without quite realizing what she’s doing — begins to run her passionate hands over Stack’s chest, until Stack turns toward her in confusion, and she backs off, chastened back into her intended role as the silent worried wife.

Then there’s Johnny, a character from the original who exists only so that the more important players can repeatedly ask him to go get coffee. Abrahams and the Zucker brothers no doubt felt deep sympathy for this put-upon soul when they created their own version of Johnny, a manic zany who leaps in and out of scenes infecting everything around him with his personal brand of insanity.

For someone who had seen Zero Hour! and even read the Arthur Hailey novelization Runway Zero Eight when Airplane! was released in 1980, the parody film played at a higher level; the stunned recognition of the once seriously-intended story, and the lines of dialogue that remain unchanged (but now became wildly funny) when placed in a context of nonstop zaniness, represented one of the movie’s unalloyed pleasures. For someone completely unaware of the prior film who saw Airplane!  enough times to know it by heart, and who only belatedly discovered the film that presented it with most of its source material, the pleasure of discovery is reversed, as a parade of laugh lines are revealed as dialogue lines once seriously-intended. It is a primal case of artistic feedback; each film now enhances the other.

Both films introduce us to one Ted Stryker, a hotshot fighter pilot during the war who made the command decision not to abort a raid when the ground conditions were obscured by heavy fog, and got six members of his squadron killed. Now it’s years later, and the post-traumatic stress of that fateful day have left him a shattered man, drifting from job to job, unable to handle any lasting responsibility. In both cases he has returned home early to find a note from the woman he loves, to the effect that she’s leaving him; in both cases he exhibits prime stalkerish behavior by buying a ticket on the same flight, in the hopes of talking her into returning. (In Zero Hour! she’s his wife, and has taken his son as well; in Airplane! she’s just a long-suffering and scatterbrained girlfriend.) In both cases the airline offers passengers a choice of dinners; in both cases a serious case of food contamination awaits passengers unlucky enough to choose fish for dinner. In both cases, a doctor is in board to treat the afflicted (though he somehow never thinks to induce vomiting). In both cases the flight crew is felled and in both cases Stryker must take his place in the cockpit, fighting his own inexperience at this kind of aircraft while the woman intent on leaving him sits in the co-pilot’s chair, operating the radio and thus getting to see him rise to the occasion. In both cases the chief voice from the ground is an unfriendly acquaintance from his military days and in both cases it is Stryker who decides to try for an immediate landing in open defiance of his old enemy’s advice that he continue circling for another couple of hours.  Each film features a hysterical woman passenger, an old crone self-righteously offended by a seatmate who offers her a drink, and a young boy whose trip to the cockpit brings him into close contact with a pilot whose intentions toward him seem more pedophiliac than paternal.

A look at the dialogue from Zero Hour! reveals how extensively it was quoted (in some of these cases just closely paraphrased) in the later parody. This is by no means a complete list, but it includes many of the moments that viewers of Airplane! took as just part of the silliness.

Little Joey gets to see the cockpit

CAPTAIN  [takes out a toy DC-4] Joey, here’s something we give our special visitors.  Would you like to have it?

JOEY: Thank you!  Thanks a lot?

CAPTAIN: You ever been in a cockpit before?

JOEY: No, sir!  I’ve never been up in a plane before!

Stryker’s Domestic Woes


STRYKER: I know things haven’t been right for a long time, Ellen.  But it’ll be different.  Like it was in the beginning, remember?

ELLEN: I remember everything.  It’s all I’ve ever had to go on.  Mostly, I remember … the nights when we were together.  I remember how you used to hold me.  Then afterwards, how we’d … watch until the sun finally came up.  When it did, it was almost like … like each new day was created … only for us.


STRYKER: Don’t you feel anything for me at all anymore?

ELLEN: It takes so many things to make love last.  Most of all, it takes respect.  I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.


The First Signs of Trouble

JANET: Captain, one of the woman passengers is very sick.

CAPTAIN: Airsick?

JANET: I think so, but I’ve never seen it so acute.

CAPTAIN: Find out if there’s a doctor on board, as quietly as you can.

The Introduction of the Doctor

WOMAN: I think the man next to me is a doctor.

JANET: Oh, thank you.  Sir?  Excuse me, sir.  I’m sorry to have to wake you.  Are you a doctor?

DR. BAIRD:That’s right.

JANET: We have a passenger who’s very sick, could you come take a look at her?

DR. BAIRD: Yes, yes, of course.

The Diagnosis

PASSENGER: Oh, stewardess, my wife is very sick, can you do something please?

JANET: Oh, well, the doctor will be with you in just a moment.  One thing … do you know what she had for dinner?

PASSENGER: Oh, yes, of course, we both had fish.  Why?

JANET: Oh, it’s nothing to be alarmed about.  We’ll get back to you very quickly.


DR. BAIRD: Well, Janet, you’re a member of this crew.  Can you face some unpleasant facts?

JANET: I think so.

DR. BAIRD: All right.  Unless I can get all these people to a hospital quickly, I can’t even be sure of saving their lives. {…} I think you ought to know what our chances are.  The life of everybody aboard depends on just one thing: Finding someone back there who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.

Stryker has Greatness Thrust Upon Him

STRYKER: Both pilots?!

DR. BAIRD: Can you fly this airplane and land it?

STRYKER: No.  Not a chance.

JANET: Doctor, I’ve asked everyone.  Mister Stryker’s the only one.

DR. BAIRD: What flying experience have you had?

STRYKER: Well, I was a fighter pilot in the war, but I flew little combat planes with only one engine.  This has four.  There’s no comparison.  The flying characteristics are completely different.  It’s a different kind of flying, altogether.  Besides, I haven’t touched any kind of a plane in ten years.

DR. BAIRD: Mister Stryker, I know nothing about flying.  All I know is this.  You’re the only person on this plane who can possibly fly it.  You’re the only chance we’ve got.

An Editorial Comment from Air Traffic Control

This guy doing the flying’s had no airline experience at all.  He’ll be a menace to himself and everything else in the air.

Taking Stryker’s Measure

TRELEAVEN: All right, Harry, let’s face a few facts.  As you know, I flew with this man Stryker during the war.  What you don’t know is, that doesn’t make my job any easier here tonight.  Frankly, I think you’d be a lot better off if you got somebody else who doesn’t know him at all.

BURDICK: I don’t think that has anything to do with it.

TRELEAVEN: It has everything to do with it.  In the first place, I think it’s a mistake if he knows that I’m the man who’s talkin’ ‘im in.  He’ll have a million things on his mind without being reminded of those days when … well, when things weren’t so good.

BURDICK: Right now, things aren’t so good.  And while we’re talking, there are 38 lives waiting on us for a decision.

TRELEAVEN: Let me tell you something.  Ted Stryker was a crack flight leader up to a point, but he was one of those men who … well, let’s just say he felt too much inside.  Maybe you know the kind. {…} Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smokin’. [lights up]

How’s It Flyin’?

STRYKER: Sluggish, like a wet sponge.

ELLEN [on radio]: Sluggish, like a wet sponge.

Stryker Grows Back His Balls, Gets The Girl Back

VANCOUVER RADAR CONTROLLER: Captain, he’s below seven hundred now, and he’s still going down!

TRELEAVEN: Stryker, you can’t come straight in, you’ve got enough fuel left for two hours’ flying.  You’ve got to stay up there ’til we get a break in the weather!

STRYKER: I’ll take it, Ellen.  [to radio] Listen, Treleaven, I’m coming in, do you hear me?  I’m coming in right now.  We have people up here including my own son who’ll die in less than one hour, never mind two.  I may bend your precious airplane, but I’ll bring it down.  Now get on with the landing check!  I’m putting the gear down now.



ELLEN: I just wanted you to know, now, I’m very proud.

STRYKER: Tell them the gear is down, and we’re ready to land.

ELLEN [to radio]: The gear is now down, and we’re ready to land.

After the Landing

TRELEAVEN: Ted, Ted, that was probably the lousiest landing in the history of this airport.  But there’s some of us here, particularly me, who’d like to buy you a drink and shake your hand.


Oddly, given the willingness of the makers of Airplane! to pick up on and amplify the uncomfortable intimations of pederasty that went along with the little boy’s visit to the cockpit, the remake completely ignores the incident that looks creepiest to our modern eyes, which is to say the nightclub performer who entertains Ted’s little boy with a sock puppet. A modern father would dropkick that guy away from his kid at first sight, and it’s almost unthinkable that the Zucker/Abrahams trio would let this particular opportunity go.  (Maybe it would have been too much of a sick thing). Another element that Airplane! fails to mock sufficiently is the original’s inconsistent model work: the make of airplane seen in the exterior shots is not always the same, and indeed the plane even changes its number of engines.

Instead, Airplane! fills out the rest of its running time with bits quoting from Jaws, From Here to Eternity, and Saturday Night Fever, among others. I used to know the name of the World War II melodrama extensively quoted in the scene where a young soldier says goodbye to his girlfriend – again, the dialogue here is almost exact – but that has faded into the mists of memory.  (Maybe a reader will provide it.)

In recent years the Airplane! template has led to a mini-industry of films that ape its attitude and techniques without one-tenth of its wit: Epic Movie, Date Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, etc. About all that can be said of these is that they don’t comment on the narrative, as Airplane! did, but limit themselves to the idiot movie references and scatological jokes that it only used as a spice. They have become their own formula, and unlike Airplane!, are more dirges than comedies. The guy who comes up with the response to the response, i.e., Half-Assed Bad Parody Movie,  achieves comedy gold.

The Flight Log

Zero Hour!, a well-meaning melodrama that now seems about as sluggish as a wet sponge. Airplane!, a still-funny laugh machine, the twin that keeps this particular pair of conjoined siblings breathing.

And now, the wife readies for takeoff…


Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Zero Hour! (1957). Directed by Hall Bartlett. Written by Arthur Hailey. Starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch. 81 minutes.  *

Airplane! (1980). Written and Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (with substantial lifts from 1957 screenplay). Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack. 87 minutes. ***1/2

Other Known Versions: Flight Into Danger (Canadian TV-movie, 1956), Flug in Gefahr (German, 1964), Terror In the Sky (TV-movie, 1971).

When Adam suggested Airplane! for this blog I asked when it had been remade. Instead of going into a detailed explanation (as is his wont), he quickly told me that it was based on a film called Zero Hour and we could get it from Netflix. I agreed and put it into the upcoming work queue of  my mind.

Three weeks later, we are back from a short weekend away, the film has arrived and I agree to give Zero Hour! the time it needs to permeate frontal lobe.  I couldn’t figure out why Adam kept one eye on the screen and the other watching me.  Then the film began.

OMG!!!!!  I’m watching a film I know by heart, but it’s not the film I love.  This is the bad older sibling of the comedic young clone.  I had to physically stop the disc more times than I can count to catch my breath.  I sat watching the film in stunned disbelief.  How can so mediocre a movie have become such a comedic masterpiece of my teen years?  Scene by scene, the quotes are there.  Airplane!, which I hadn’t seen in at least 10 years (but could still quote verbatim), was being viewed by me in black and white without the cast I loved and none of the intentional/unintentional humor, and yet there it was in Zero Hour!.  I sat with disc controller in hand and liberally used the pause and rewind buttons .  It took us nearly 2 1/2 hours to get through the old girl because of me.

Is Zero Hour! a great film?  Hell no!  It’s barely an O.K. one, unless you are a true fan of the remake that began a genre of its own.

Oh, hey, in a little aside, if you are ever in a casino, ask if they have the Airplane slot machine.  Its fun and has some great audio clips from the film.