Originally created 03/14/03

Air-disaster flicks almost never crash at movie theaters



Statistically speaking, odds of death by rogue lightning strike are far better (or worse, depending on how you look at it) than odds of dying in an air disaster. The same goes for the bathtub fall, a crosswalk collision and, I suspect, the martini olive-choking mishap.

But, lets face it, none of those things make for good movies.

An airplane plummeting from the sky, or at least threatening to, on the other hand, is the sort of hyper-dramatic event that the cinema feeds on. Audiences respond to the helplessness passengers feel strapped into a sick bird, the heroism of pilots struggling to remain airborne and the stoic dedication of flight attendants, who manage to coffee-tea-or-milk their way through the whole scenario. And while many of these movies may throw reason to the wind, they maintain the sense of conflict and drama that makes the cinema swell. Here are some notable air-disaster flicks:

AIRPORT (1970): A movie that never met a melodramatic plot device it didn't like, Airport ushered in the all-star disaster films that dominated the early 1970s. The film stars silent-film icon Helen Hayes as a stowaway, Burt Lancaster as a harried airport administrator and a vaguely intoxicated-looking Dean Martin as the pilot of a bomb-bearing passenger jet. With a cast like that, you don't need a story, just sequels.

THE CROWDED SKY (1960): Using a midair collision as the disaster du jour, this well-aged high-flyer uses an odd assortment of art-house flourishes to tell a story. But for viewers willing to go with the grab bag of voice-overs, flashbacks and extreme close-ups, Crowded Sky (what a great title) offers some interesting dramatic moments.

FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965): There are worse places than a remote corner of the Sahara to crash an airplane, but not many. An early template for movies such as Airport, Phoenix features an all-star cast, most notably Jimmy Stewart, trying to survive under impossible conditions while struggling to rebuild a workable aircraft from salvaged parts. This film has become a cable television staple of late, but should really be watched in all its wide-screen glory.

THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954): The granddaddy of all air-disaster movies, High provided the rules that every subsequent addition to the genre would follow. There's an ensemble cast, a stoic hero (John Wayne) and a starring role for Robert Stack, whose career was built on movies like this. Of course, with Wayne at the stick the High cast had little to fear, but taut direction by William Wellman and an excellent score go a long way toward making the viewer forget that.

AIRPLANE! (1980): If The High and the Mighty represents the beginnings of the air-disaster genre, then this spoof represents the logical end. Willfully silly, this tongue-in-cheek spoof has become something of a classic for its sketch-comedy approach to filmmaking and a seemingly unending supply of quotable lines.

But don't call it Shirley.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.