It’s a scenario that’s played out countless times before: a madman hijacks an airliner and threatens the crew and passengers with a bomb if his demands are not met. Skyjacked, released in 1972, takes this idea and runs with it by placing an all-star cast at the mercy of a crazed Vietnam veteran who has a bone to pick with the U.S. Army. The result is an entertaining and technically competent film that, despite some shortcomings I’ll discuss later, is sure to please genre fans. As our story opens…
A Global Airways 707 sits on the tarmac at Oakland International Airport. On the ground, Captain Hank O’Hara (Charlton Heston) and Flight Engineer John Bimonte (Ken Swofford) are completing their walk around inspection. Hank finds a broken cowling latch on one of the 707’s engines and gives John ten minutes to fix it before heading towards the terminal.
Inside, we see a cosmetic stand full of lipsticks. The cashier asks an unseen person if she can help him or her pick a colour. Could this be important? We don’t yet know. Hank runs into his First Officer Sam Allen (Mike Henry) and Stewardess Angie Thacher (Yvette Mimieux) in the airport’s lounge. Sam explains that Angie is a last-minute replacement for Head Stewardess Mary as the latter is sick. Angie and Hank share meaningful looks and he tells both her and Sam that he’ll see them onboard.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cabin crew have entered the terminal. One of them, Lovejoy (Leslie Uggams), asks the others about Angie. She is told that she is “[rawhide] tough”. The four stewardesses board the aircraft. Our attention is once again drawn to the lipstick stand.
In the 707’s cockpit, our flight crew are running through the pre-flight checks while the cabin crew ready the rest of the aircraft for the flight. In the terminal, we see the cashier at the cosmetic stand put a lipstick in a bag for someone we don’t see. The airport PA system announces that Global Airways Flight 502, nonstop to Minneapolis-St. Paul, is ready for boarding.
We see passengers getting ready to board, among them a U.S. Senator (Walter Pigeon), a rebellious young woman (Susan Dey) and a middle-aged couple (Ross Elliot and Jeanne Crain). We also see Mr. Brown (Roosevelt Grier), who has reserved an extra seat in first class for his beloved cello. And there’s that darn cosmetics stand again; except now, a red lipstick has been removed.
At the gate, a U.S. Army Sergeant (James Brolin) is arguing with the attendant. He explains that he has just enough time to attend his sister’s wedding before he has to rejoin his unit. The gate attendant is sympathetic but reminds the Sergeant that he is on standby and is therefore not guaranteed a seat.
Mr. Brown offers to give up his cello’s seat for the Sergeant, but the gate attendant insists that the Captain has to approve it. Just then, Hank arrives and agrees to the arrangement. The Sergeant, naturally, is very grateful.
Passengers continue to board the plane. We meet a few more passengers, all in first class, including a pregnant woman (Mariette Hartley) and the Senator’s son (Nicholas Hammond). We also learn the name of the rebellious young woman: Ms. Brewster. We also see the middle-aged woman from earlier applying red lipstick. Could she be our mystery shopper?
Global 502 taxies onto the runway. Hank lights a pipe, and Sam and John smile knowingly at each other (and I have flashbacks to that scene from Airplane! where Lorna Patterson sings “River of Jordan”). The tower clears the 707 for departure. After a smooth takeoff roll and initial climb out the 707 levels off. The cabin crew serves breakfast and in the cockpit the autopilot is set. There’s a message for the Senator, but it’s nothing that affects the flight.
Now that the seatbelt signs have been turned off, Ms. Brewster goes to the lavatory. Almost immediately she comes out, visibly shaken, and pulls Angie aside. She says, “Miss, in there…there’s lipstick in the john.” Angie is sceptical, thinking it’s some sort of joke, but Ms. Brewster is adamant, “On the mirror. Go and see for yourself.”
Angie tells her to wait and enters the lavatory. We don’t see what she or Ms. Brewster has seen, but Angie comes out and asks Lovejoy to fetch Captain O’Hara. Tellingly, Ms Brewster says, “I never thought about dying before…” Hank comes from the cockpit and enters the lavatory. It’s here we see the message for the first time, scrawled in red lipstick: “BOMB ON PLANE. DIVERT TO ANCHORAGE ALASKA. NO JOKE NO TRICKS DEATH.”
Hank comes out of the lavatory and tells Angie to ask John to lock it off. He then speaks to Ms Brewster and asks her not to mention it to the other passengers. Hank goes back to the cockpit and shows the rest of the flight crew what he found in the lavatory’s bin. It’s a detonator, albeit non-functioning. Hank thinks the bomber left it there deliberately to show them he or she wasn’t fooling.
Sam and John think it’s all a joke but Hank is having none of it. He says they’re diverting to Anchorage. He gets on the horn and notifies Salt Lake Center of their situation. Salt Lake says that they’re notifying the FBI. Stanley Morris is assigned FBI Special Agent in Charge and leaves for Anchorage on the assumption that the threat is real.
Angie thinks that the hijacker has to be first class as they’re the only people allowed to use the front lavatories. The Senator is brought to the cockpit and informed of the threat by Hank. We see that Sam the FO is now in a relationship with Angie, but that she still has feelings for Hank. Realising that the passengers are getting restless, Hank decides he has no other choice but to inform them of the situation.
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Brown asks to see the Captain. At first Angie and Hank think that he’s the hijacker, but he confides in them that he’s sure the bomber is his seatmate – the U.S. Army Sergeant who was on standby at the gate. He’s been drinking a lot and taking pills and Mr. Brown is convinced that the story about the wedding and the sister is made up.
In spite of bad weather and a near miss with a light aircraft (remember, this film came out two years before Airport 1975), the 707 lands in Alaska. Armed men surround the aircraft as it comes to a stop on the tarmac. Stanley, our FBI Special Agent, informs the flight crew over the radio that our bomber is Sergeant Jerome Weber and that he’s awaiting discharge from the mental section of the U.S. Army.
Seeing men outside the plane with guns, Sgt. Weber wigs out. There’s a scuffle where Mr. Brown tries to get Weber’s duffle bag off of him, resulting in the latter holding a live grenade. “All right you heroes,” Weber barks, “Come and get it!” Angie comes in at the wrong moment, and becomes a hostage. Armed with a gun, a grenade and a bag presumably containing the bomb, our deranged ex-soldier begins to move towards the cockpit with Angie in tow…
Skyjacked is a good movie but not a great one. Unlike the Airport series (The Concorde … Airport ’79 included), there isn’t a whole lot of suspense to be had. You know that Sgt. Weber will lose in the end and that Hank will get back together with Angie. You know that the pregnant woman will have her baby at the worst possible time and that the Senator’s son and Ms. Brewster will grow closer as the film progresses.
It wallows in predictability and stereotype that, while fun to watch, don’t really elevate it above the standard made-for-TV fare of the time. Thanks mostly to the presence of Charlton Heston and Josh Brolin and some great air-to-air footage of a World Airways 707, Skyjacked gets a 6 out of 10 from me. It’s not a must-see, but it’s definitely an entertaining piece for the time. You won’t be blown away but you won’t be disappointed either.
Things To Notice
Skyjacked is accurate in most respects
- A World Airways Boeing 707-373C, N734WA (c/n 18583) is used throughout the film. The same aircraft made a very brief cameo in Magnum Force starring Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. In Skyjacked its painted in the fictional colours of Global Airways
- All the ground scenes (including those purported to take place in Anchorage and Moscow) were filmed at Oakland International Airport, World Airways’ hub in the 1970s
- There’s a lot of great air-to-air footage of N734WA, though some of the day-for-night filming is pretty obvious
- The Soviet Air Force jets that are scrambled to intercept Flight 509 are actually North American F-100 Super Sabres. The aircraft’s distinctive squashed jet intakes give them away
- During the above scene, there are several cuts where the 707 alternates between gear up and gear down configurations
Global Airways flight 509 is a Boeing 707-373C flying from Oakland International Airport (OAK) to Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), with unscheduled stopovers in Anchorage and the former Soviet Union.
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U.S.A., 1972, Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Walter Seltzer Productions, Inc. Directed by John Guillermin. Starring Charlton Heston, Yvette Mimieux, Josh Brolin. Rated PG. Also known as Alerte à la bombe (French) and Endstation Hölle (German).