The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story (Movie review)

Uli (Lindsay Wagner), threatened by a hijacker (Eli Danker)

“Ladies and gentlemen, the plane is being hijacked. The Captain has agreed to cooperate with the hijackers and take them wherever they wish to go. So please, for the sake of everyone’s safety, just do exactly as you are told.” How did this happen, and so quickly? How did the lead flight attendant cope with the threat of two terrorists with automatic weapons and hand grenades? And most importantly, how did she manage to keep all but one of her passengers alive? The answers to all these questions are in a made-for-TV movie about the hijack of TWA flight 847 simply called The Flight when released on video, or The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story when broadcast on TV.

Plot summary

Uli Derickson (Lindsay Wagner), a chief flight attendant – or purser – for TWA, is getting ready for work in her quiet house in New Jersey. As she finishes packing for a quick layover in Athens, her husband Russell (Jim McMullan) is worried about her flying into that area. The TV is showing images of civil war in Lebanon and Greece seems somewhat too close to the Middle East for once. The mention of her mother coming from Munich to visit her grandson Matthew (Brandon Bluhm), her mild accent when speaking in English, and her “Reisepass” hidden under one of Matthew’s toy spiders show us Uli’s heritage. It will play a major role just a couple of days later.

Flash forward to the morning of June 14, 1985, at Athens’ Hellenikon Airport, back to an era where US airlines would have hub operations in Europe with smaller-range aircraft. TWA flight 847 from Cairo has just landed. A freshly rested crew will board the Boeing 727-200 for the continuation to Rome and London. Uli is joined by two fellow flight attendants, Audrey (Leslie Easterbrook) and Jane (Laurie Walters). Once on board, she meets, for the first time, Captain John Testrake (Sandy McPeak), commenting on how the flight is completely booked all the way to London. This is also the first time he is flying with First Officer Phil Maresca (Ray Wise). Also in the flight deck is Flight Engineer Ben Zimmermann (Barry Jenner), with whom he has flown many times before.

Capt. Testrake and F/O Maresca (Sandy McPeak and Ray Wise)

Walk-around complete and cabin prepared, flight 847 is ready for boarding. We see three Navy divers, two newlyweds on their way home from Israel, a young woman and her little daughter, a pregnant woman and her husband… and of course, only two Arab-looking passengers, Saiid (Joseph Nasser) and “Castro” (Eli Danker). With the suspenseful music in the background, the viewer simply deduces they must be the terrorists! The one with the sweater and slightly long hair, Saiid, is concerned about a third one (Emile Beaucard) not being there. As the airstairs are pulled out and the plane is presumably leaving its remote parking area, he shows up at the departure lounge. Ridiculously, he struggles to catch his plane and is arrested. He is later revealed to be notorious terrorist Ali Atwa.

Flight 847 leaves Athens at around 10 AM. As it climbs to its cruising altitude, Uli is in the galley, helping her colleague Audrey prepare the glasses of champagne for the First Class passengers. Suddenly, she is distracted by screaming. Two voices are chanting: “Death to Americans! American people dead!” Saiid is holding hand grenades and races towards Uli. He gives her a kick on her chest, throwing her on the floor of the First Class cabin. Castro picks her up and points an automatic weapon at her, forcing her to the flight deck door. This is the first minute into the hijack and Uli’s in a state of panic, like everyone else in the cabin.

Uli (Lindsay Wagner) translating orders from a hijacker (Eli Danker)

Saiid removes the pin from one of his grenades and starts banging on the flight deck door as Castro screams “Open! Open!” These hijackers obviously don’t speak much English. He suddenly slips a phrase in German, “Ich sprenge Sie in der Luft!” (“I blow you up!”) Uli exclaims herself: “Sie sprechen Deutsch?! Ich bin aus Deutschland!” (“You speak German?! I’m from Germany!”) This moment of disbelief for Castro is the starting point of Uli’s role in this whole ordeal. For a moment, he forgets about his aim of entering the flight deck to take control of the aircraft, until she pleads: “Shießen Sie nicht! Sprengen Sie das Flugzeug nicht in der Luft!” (“Don’t shoot! Don’t blow up the plane!”)

Flight engineer Zimmermann didn’t open the flight deck door in a timely fashion. Captain Testrake wanted to set up an instrument first – presumably the transponder, to the international frequency indicating a hijack: 7500. This resulted in Castro repeatedly hitting Ben on the nape of the neck with his gun. Uli will do most of the translating: no talking, either on the radio or among themselves, or we will blow up the plane. We are here to die.

Their first demand is to be taken to Algiers, but because the 727 was only refueled for the short hop to Rome, there is only enough fuel to land in war-torn Beirut. The passengers in First Class are quickly moved to the already crowded Economy cabin. Uli translates Castro’s orders: “Anyone found talking will be shot!” Passengers are ordered to keep their heads down at all times, a position that will be later nicknamed the “847 position.”

Saiid (Joseph Nasser) with a hand grenade by the cockpit door

Uli is not only an order-follower, but stands up for herself and her passengers in the best way she can. When asked to collect passports, she explains that the Navy divers have identity cards instead of passports, simply because they are government employees, and nothing more. “Vielleicht ist er ein Arbeiter bei der Regierung. Nicht besonderes!” When the plane lands in Beirut and the ground crews refuse to refuel the plane, one of the Marines, Robert Stethem (Steven Eckholdt) is beaten and severely wounded. She pleads for the hijackers to stop hurting him and arranges for Castro to release several old women and children, before the 727 takes off again for Algiers. She slowly earns the terrorists’ trust, up to the point where Castro asks her to stay with her throughout the ordeal. “Just don’t hurt anyone else.” is her reply.

There is a lot more action in this movie than one can describe in such a short article. How far will Uli go to keep the save the remaining hostages’ lives, while saving her own? Get this movie when you can!

Appreciation

This movie deserved its five Emmy nominations, including “Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special.” Lindsay Wagner is amazing and there aren’t enough words to describe her performance. Eli Danker is not just your average cruel terrorist, but also a human being who can be touched, like when he feeds the pregnant passenger (Bridget Hoffman) or asks Uli to sing for him. The passengers are also very good and are not just there to fill seats. I actually related and cared for their survival. Gil Melle provided the chilling, suspenseful music, which you can hear on the very first seconds of the movie.

I give this movie 9 out of 10. The Flight will make you cry, will make you laugh, will keep you restless, but will definitely not leave you indifferent.

Things to notice

Technically speaking, The Flight is accurate in many aspects. Uli Derickson herself was a consultant. However, the alert viewer will notice the following goofs:

Capt. Testrake (Sandy McPeak), pleading with a controller for refueling

  • The aircraft is accurately depicted as a Boeing 727, however there is one major continuity error. The aircraft is depicted from the outside as a Boeing 727-200 series, but the inside, with its mid-cabin galley, is from a -100 series.
  • The cover of Uli’s German passport says “Bundesrepublic (sic) Deutschland,” which means “Federal Republic of Germany.” The first word should be spelled “Bundesrepublik.”
  • Mr. and Mrs. Panos (Edwin Gerard and Bridget Hoffman) are said to be assigned seats 14B and 14C, which are on the port (left) side. However, as they board the plane, they sit by the aisle, on the starboard (right) side, in what would normally be the D and E seats. What’s more, they are only one row behind the woman who, moments ago, was said to be in seat 5C (accurately depicted, exactly the fifth row starting from the three rows of First Class, and the single row of Economy).
  • The second landing scene in Algiers only shows the landing gear of the plane touching down on the runway, obviously not from a Boeing 727.

Movies based on true stories being what they are, some details are not always 100% accurate, mostly for dramatic purposes. Here are the things to notice:

Uli (Lindsay Wagner) as the terrorists storm the passenger cabin

  • Lindsay Wagner’s German pronunciation and grammar range from credible to unacceptable depending on her scenes, notably when she sings “Bakke bakke Kuchen”. She sounds like: “Bakke bakke Kruchen (sic) / Der Bäkker hat gerüfen (sic)” (it should be “gerufen”, with no umlaut)
  • In the beginning of the crisis, Castro speaks only German and a very broken English. No subtitles are used at all for the German lines. Later on, Uli and him continuously speak good English. This is presumably done because of the complexity of the dialog, to avoid having to subtitle them, even though it is unrealistic that a character would learn English so quickly!
  • During the first stopover in Beirut, 17 hostages were said to be released. In the movie, only 9 are seen escaping down the evacuation slide.
  • When asked for her name in one scene, Uli says it’s Olga. Her name is actually a diminutive for Ulrike, unless she meant not to reveal her true identity.
  • It takes a lot more than a poster of the Parthenon and some odd-looking Greek-language placards to make the alert viewer believe this is actually Athens’ old Hellenikon Airport.

The plane

TWA flight 847 is a Boeing 727-200, flying a Cairo – Athens – Rome – London (CAI-ATH-FCO-LHR) route. It is hijacked on the ATH-FCO leg and rerouted to Beirut (BEY) and Algiers (ALG) for several times.

Movie links

Specifications

U.S.A. 1988. Produced by Columbia Pictures Television. Directed by Paul Wendkos. Starring Lindsay Wagner, Eli Danker, Sandy McPeak, Ray Wise, Leslie Easterbrook, Laurie Walters, Joseph Nasser. Also known as Le détournement du vol 847 (French), 847 – Flug des Schreckens (German).

In memory of Ulrike “Uli” Patzelt Derickson (1944-2005)
John Leigh Testrake (1927-1996)
and Robert Dean Stethem (1961-1985).

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2 comments on “The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story (Movie review)
  1. B.C.Zimmermann says:

    The movie deliberately sets out to make the 5th Flight Attendant the hero and totally ignores the bravery of the other four, as observed by the flight-deck crew. It also totally ignores all that took place after she was released and the hijacking continued until another crew member actually ended the pressurized flight phase (5-trips between Algiers and Beirut), which was most dangerous to the lives of all on board, because of the grenades. Even after the airplane was grounded at the safest location, all three pilots and many passengers were held hostage for another seventeen days. Ms.Derickson was released early, after the first day. Several Hezbollah guards, added after the second landing in Beirut, spoke good English.

    • Sergio Ortega says:

      @B.C. Zimmerman: Thank you very much for your input. It’s an honor to have you comment on my post and I apologize if you took offense. I’ll reword the part where I say the movie is “quite accurate”. I meant to say “technically speaking”, considering some movies substitute the aircraft type, including between scenes. If you happen to know of other movies or re-enactments of flight 847, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’d be glad to take a look. If you prefer, you may write me in private via the contact form at http://airodyssey.net/contact/ . Best, Sergio.

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