Before author Arthur Hailey wrote his bestseller novel Airport, which was later turned into the movie of the same name, he had penned a teleplay for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Flight into Danger — starring James “Scotty” Doohan — that Hailey then adapted into the screenplay for Paramount Pictures under the title Zero Hour! and this film can easily be considered the granddaddy of the airline disaster genre.
The movie opens with Canadian pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) leading a squadron of Spitfires during the closing days of WWII, and it’s during this raid that tragedy strikes when Stryker makes a command decision that results in six of his squadron perishing due to bad visibility causing them to fly into the ground. A guilt-stricken Stryker cannot forget the lives lost that day, even though most everyone else has moved on, and due to this, he hasn’t been able to hold down a job, which has caused his wife, Ellen Stryker (Linda Darnell), to lose respect for her husband. Unable to find work, a marriage on the brink of ruin, and constantly plagued with visions brought on by his Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), things are not looking good for our pal Ted.
When Stryker arrives home one night to find his wife has left him, and taken their little boy, he rushes to the airport where he is able to board their plane just before take-off, which as events unfold, will turn out to be a very lucky thing indeed, for the lives of all aboard the fateful flight 714 are soon to be in Stryker’s hands. Turns out that when stewardess Janet Turner (Peggy King) begins the meal service, she is unknowingly jeopardizing the lives off all thirty-eight passengers, because those who chose the fish option become seriously ill. Doctor Baird (Geoffrey Toone) quickly comes to the conclusion that there must have been something wrong with the fish, and that if they don’t get to a hospital quickly, people are going to die, and just to make matters worse, it turns out that both the pilot and co-pilot, Captain Bill Wilson (Elroy ‘Crazylegs’ Hirsch) and the First Officer Walt Stewart (Steve London), had the fish. A quick and quiet check of the passengers reveals that there is only one other person on board this flight with any flying experience, Ted Stryker.
Helen is brought up to the cockpit to handle the radio, to basically work as his co-pilot, and the film gives us some bullshit excuse about the stewardess being needed to handle passengers, but this, of course, is so that when things get bad, Stryker managing to hold things together will regain her respect and save their marriage — the survival of the other passengers is just a bonus. With every airport east of Calgary socked in by fog, poor flight 714 must cross the Rocky Mountains, all while fighting heavy winds and rain (not to mention dealing with hysterical passengers that need a good slapping), and hoping to land in time to save the sick and dying passengers. It’s here where the film really takes off, and both Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell give fantastic performances, as with this material it would be so easy to drift into melodrama and over-acting.
Now a stalwart wife is not the only aid Stryker gets to help bring these people to safety, aside from her and the ever-helpful doctor, we have on the ground — at a Vancouver airport — Stryker’s old Airforce commander Captain Treleaven (Sterling Hayden). The problem here is the fact that he doesn’t think Stryker will be able to pull off landing a four-engine plane; having only piloted single-engine fighters, and the whole issue of his last disastrous command decision during the war ending in disaster, has Treleavan believing that the stress of this situation will cause Stryker to once again fall to pieces.
If the plot of Zero Hour! seems a little familiar it’s probably because you’ve seen the Jim Abraham and Zucker Brothers air disaster spoof Airplane! which starred Robert Hays as Ted Stryker and Lloyd Bridges as the harried old boss trying to talk him down. Being that Paramount owned Zero Hour! this allowed the writers of Airplane! to use some of the dialogue word-for-word, so if you are a fan of Airplane! some of the dramatic tension of Zero Hour! will be broken when these moments pop up, such as Dr. Baird stoically saying, “Our survival hinges on one thing — finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn’t have fish for dinner,” as we instantly think of Leslie Nielsen saying that exact same line.
Zero Hour! is a fantastic little drama, with director Hall Bartlett never letting up on the tension as the film rockets towards its nail-biting conclusion, and the entire cast provide solid performances that now only look a little silly if you’ve seen the later parody, and Sterling Hayden is especially fun to watch as he slowly loses his cool throughout the film. So if you are a fan of Airplane! you seriously need to see this movie, as it brings a whole extra level of entertainment to the viewing of Zucker and Abraham’s comedy, “I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.”
Zero Hour! (1957)
Zero Hour! may have since been eclipsed by the film made famous lampooning the genre, but it really is a cinematic gem that is worth remembering, and if you’ve seen Airplane! it really does add to the enjoyment.