Airport ’77 (Movie review)

Boeing 747 underwater

Most people I have spoken to agree to say that from all four Airport movies, Airport ’77 is the best one, with most action and excitement. Find out more in this amazing story of a private Boeing 747 crashing in the Bermuda triangle. On board, many distinguished guests, a great art collection… and crooks after it, no matter what the cost.

Plot summary

The movie starts with Philip Stevens (James Stewart), millionaire art collector, arriving by helicopter at his estate (soon-to-be museum) in Palm Beach, and welcomed by a huddle of reporters. They ask about the museum indeed, but also about Stevens’ new luxury new aircraft that will be flying all of his distinguished entourage for the vernissage. Questions that are left unanswered to the reporters, but immediately to the viewer, as the plane, a private 747 flown by Captain Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon) flies just past the Capitol and lands at Dulles International Airport in Washington.

Once on the ground, and as the artwork is being loaded under police supervision, Gallagher asks Stan Buchek (Darren McGavin), who coordinated this 747 project: “I wonder which is worth more: the cargo or the plane?”, to which his answer is: “Well, at this point it’s a toss-up.” Gallagher later meets his girlfriend and colleague, Eve Clayton (Brenda Vaccaro). She is one of the flight attendants on the Stevens flight. They discuss marriage, after living together for such a long time.

Eve and Gallagher (Brenda Vaccaro and Jack Lemmon)

Meanwhile, Banker (Monte Markham) walks through the terminal, dressed as an airline pilot, and stops by a newspaper store for a sneaky briefcase switch, and then dramatically changes his appearance (with pieces of chalk in his mouth, a toupee and a fake mustache) to become a ramp employee, helping to load the precious cargo. Once in the cargo hold, he is joined by a fellow soon-to-be hijacker. They sabotage the oxygen supply system in the cabin and connect it with military gas.

Later that evening, the VIP guests arrive, most of them are either Stevens’ family and friends, such as his daughter Lisa (Pamela Bellwood) and grandson Benjy (Anthony Battaglia). They are last-minute guests, as one later finds out in the movie. Other guests are people involved with arts, such as philanthropist Emily Livingston (Olivia de Havilland) and her aide Dorothy (Maidie Norman). There is also Mrs. Stern (Arlene Golonka) and her young daughter Bonnie (Elizabeth Cheshire), whose drawing was selected to be part of the gallery. The plane taxies for take-off, as the veteran flight attendant, Anne (Monica Lewis) plays on a Laserdisc a welcoming message from Stevens himself. This is one of the technological advances for the 1970s, just like Pong, the game the children play later with Dorothy.

The passengers settle for an elegant cocktail in the skies. Mrs. Livingston reunites on board with an old flame, Nicholas St. Downs III (Joseph Cotten). Mr. and Mrs. Wallace (Christopher Lee and Lee Grant) politely argue. Mrs. Wallace is depicted as a drunk lady who cheats on her husband with his associate, Frank Powers (Gil Gerard). Julie, a Stevens Corporation employee (Kathleen Quinlan), amorously watches Steve (Tom Sullivan), a blind pianist, sing “Love Is In The Eyes of the Beholder” (which he wrote himself.) And the two steward-hijackers are brainstorming about what to do about the security guard (Tom Rosqui).

Eventually, their whole scheme to take over the plane unfolds. Gallagher is called by Banker, pretexting there is an ill passenger. This leaves Chambers (Robert Foxworth), the co-pilot and third hijacker, alone in the cockpit with the flight engineer, who he fatally pistol-whips. The same thing happens with the security guard. Gallagher is knocked cold as well, but he isn’t dead. The rest of the passengers and crew suddenly lose consciousness, as the gas is released in the ventilation system.

Julie and Mrs. Livingston (Kathleen Quinlan and Olivia De Havilland)

This leaves Chambers free to change course and lose altitude, in order to avoid radar coverage. He is unaware that fog is building up ahead, and that he will never reach St. George’s Island in Florida and take the artwork with the two others to South America. Flight 23 Sierra indeed vanishes from the radar scope at Palm Beach ATC, which leads the Navy to start looking for the aircraft near the point where it disappeared and near the course it was supposed to follow. In other words: the rescue planes are looking for the 747 in the wrong place, and will continue to for a while.

The 747 is approaching the island when suddenly, an unexpected obstacle appears in the distance just seconds away from impact: an oil rig! Chambers tries to turn the plane away from it, but the right wing hits the rig and two engines are damaged. Like a wounded bird, the 747 struggles and its right wing cuts through the water a few times before bouncing and impacting water. One of the cargo containers slides and punctures a portion of the fuselage, flooding an airtight compartment and sinking the plane. It’s a brutal awakening, as bottles of liquor, dishes, lamps, tables… and passengers are thrown around.

Then… silence for a few seconds, until panic starts kicking in. Passengers, some of them critically injured, realize that even though the plane seems to still be in one piece, it is now underwater. They don’t have much time for people to rescue them before air runs out. What’s more, Gallagher finds out from Chambers (the only surviving hijacker) that they went down out of radar range and off-course. Which means that they might be on their own for a very long time…

Appreciation

Like the trailer said, it is indeed more exciting than Airport 1975. The crash scene is terrifying and one does really get restless wondering how those passengers will be saved on their aerial Titanic. The Navy rescue attempt has to be seen to be believed. The ending credits claim it is very real (even when the story is fictitious.) Jack Lemmon shines as the self-proclaimed “pilot, symbol of strength and security”, and so does the rest of the all-star cast… even Lee Grant as the official drunken passenger!

Airport ’77, a high-quality production, deserves 9.5 out of 10. Short of a perfect grade for just one thing: if only this had been a commercial airliner like the other Airport movies…

Things to notice

Here are the goofs and trivia for Airport ’77.

Cabin filling with water

  • The television version of this movie, which you can see on TBS in the United States, runs for nearly four hours and features several extra scenes: trainee flight attendants practising an evacuation in a mock cabin, Capt. Gallagher in a flight simulator, flashbacks of the lives of some characters, the crooks stealing the military gas, etc.
  • When the 747 lands in Washington, the first pictures (even if they are frontal and rear views) show it is bearing the Northwest Orient colors. All the other pictures show the basic American Airlines colors.
  • The scenes inside what is supposed to be the terminal at the Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) were actually shot at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), more specifically Terminal 3 (TWA).
  • The take-off scene, as seen from outside, is the same as in Airport 1975.
  • When the engine fires occur, there is a discrepancy at one point between engine #3 being on fire, and Chambers activating the engine #4 emergency cut-off controls.
  • As the plane is impacting water, a steward crashes through a glass panel facing the staircase. The next shot shows Captain Gallagher landing next to the staircase. This is most likely a continuity error.

The aircraft

It is a private Boeing 747-100 owned by the Stevens Corporation, bearing the American Airlines basic colors, registration N23S, callsign “Flight 23 Sierra”. It is flying from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Palm Beach (PBI)

Movie links

Specifications

U.S.A. 1977, Produced by Universal Pictures. Directed by Jerry Jameson. Starring Jack Lemmon, Lee Grant, Brenda Vaccaro, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, James Stewart, George Kennedy. Rated PG. Also known as Les Naufragés du 747 (French), Airport ’77 – Verschollen im Bermuda-Dreieck (German).

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One comment on “Airport ’77 (Movie review)
  1. Graham says:

    Sergio,

    Footage from Airport’77 is reused in a Made-for-TV film called Submerged (2000) with rapper Coolio as a Navy SEAL.

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