With their third installment in their Airport franchise, Universal Studios had the dilemma of coming up with another airline disaster, having already done a mad bomber and a midair collision, so combining hijacking with a heist film must have seemed like the next logical projection, then throw in the added disaster element of the plane ending up submerged in the Bermuda Triangle, and you’ve got yourself a helluva picture.
Billionaire philanthropist Philip Stevens (James Stewart) is having his massive art collection transported to his new museum in Palm Beach, and the valuable cargo is aboard a prototype Boeing 747 captained by Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon). However, also aboard is something even more valuable to Stevens: his estranged daughter Lisa (Pamela Bellwood) and grandson Benjy (Anthony Battaglia). This touching reunion is put in jeopardy when three men pull off a daring hijacking, one that entails putting the passengers to sleep with knock-out gas, and piloting the plane below the radar into the Bermuda Triangle where they would then land on a small island to have its cargo unloaded — or so they had planned. Things go fine right up until the point when the co-pilot (Robert Foxworth), who was one of the hijacking co-conspirators, clips the derrick of a large offshore drilling platform with the plane’s wing.
Note: This was due to them flying at such a low altitude so as to avoid radar, but this part of the plan makes very little sense because the co-pilot could have simply turned off the transponder, making it impossible for the ATC (Air Traffic Control) to track the plane, and thus have been in no danger of running into anything.
Science Note: We see the Boeing 747 bounce off the surface of the ocean a couple of times during its water landing, travelling at great speeds. This would most definitely have broken up the plane on impact. In fact, the impact of the plane into the drilling platform would have practically tore the wing off, yet we see absolutely no damage post-impact at all, but of course, if any of those things had occurred we wouldn’t have a movie.
There is always a certain amount of “suspension of belief” that one is expected to undertake when watching this type of film — though this ability will be greatly put to the test with the fourth film in the series, The Concorde … Airport ’79 — but if the action is thrilling enough, and the characters are engaging, we as an audience can forgive a lot. With Airport ’77, we get exciting, if implausible, hijacking that leads to some truly thrilling moments — the plane sinking to an underwater ocean shelf, the slow flooding of the doomed aircraft, and a daring underwater rescue, all while the onboard air supply diminishes — and for most of the film’s running time, director Jerry Jameson manages to keep the suspense at fever pitch.
Now it’s not a proper disaster movie if the story isn’t laden down with extraneous characters, whose sole purpose is to be put in peril and scream, and Airport ’77 is simply loaded with them. We have Captain Gallagher trying to get his girlfriend (Brenda Vaccaro) to agree to marry him, and there’s the plane’s head designer (Darren McGavin), who even with a broken arm can lend a hand in saving the day, we also have a blind piano bar player (Tom Sullivan) who is in love with a girl named Julie (Kathleen Quinlan) — he dies early so that romance is a no-go as is any real character development between this pair — and onboard to help with the injured is Dr. Williams (M. Emmet Walsh), who has to keep the fact that he’s actually a veterinarian on the down-low. Then there is Emily Livingston (Olivia de Havilland) a philanthropist and poker player who runs into an old flame (Joseph Cotten), and to top it all off, we have Karen Wallace (Lee Grant), an alcoholic shrew who is cheating on her husband Martin (Christopher Lee) with his associate Frank Powers (Gil Gerard). I found Lee Grant’s performance particularly entertaining, at times it looked like she was auditioning for Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and seeing Christopher Lee playing the kind and suffering cuckold across from her was certainly a departure from many of the kinds of characters we are used to seeing him play.
Airport ’77 was certainly no critical darling — it was just too overpopulated with extraneous characters attached to a rather thin plot — but it still managed to be one of Universal’s most successful pictures that year, and as overburdened as the film was, the cast as a whole put in excellent performances. The cinematography and special effects were also nothing to sneeze at — the Navy rescue sequence was simply quite thrilling and will keep you on the edge of your seat — and though parts may seem ridiculous at times, it still never fails to entertain. There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours, and you really can’t knock any film that has Jack Lemmon and Christopher Lee teaming up to save the day.
As disaster films go Airport ’77 is high on thrills if low on plot, but it is also the last of the “decent” Airport films as the fourth entry is just laughably bad.