The ensemble disaster flick about airplane passengers is nearly as old as commercial aviation: Paramount released 13 Hours by Air in 1936. But the genre really took off (sorry) with 1970’s Airport, which was a huge hit and even pulled in some Oscar nominations.
The 70s saw a bumper crop of disaster films: 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, 1974’s The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, 1977’s Black Sunday, and so forth. Perhaps the public’s taste for disaster movies stemmed from the societal upheavals of the late 60s. Or maybe when your daily life is full of mustard-colored suits, wood-grained plastic appliances, and Starland Vocal Band albums, your brain subconsciously cries out to see people die.
The 70s also saw the made-for-TV movie reach maturity. The concept—a ninety-minute or two-hour self-contained television special, usually featuring high-profile actors and large budgets—originated in the 1960s. The debut of the ABC Movie of the Week in 1969 and the NBC Mystery Movie in 1971 led to the golden age of the medium, with films such as Duel, That Certain Summer, Brian’s Song, and Trilogy of Terror winning critical and popular acclaim for ABC, and NBC TV-film stars like Columbo, McCloud, and Quincy, M.E. becoming household names.
Naturally, some of these made-for-TV films capitalized on the disaster craze, including the subject of my review today, 1976’s Mayday at 40,000 Feet! (The exclamation point is in the title.) And much like a “real” disaster movie, this one features an all-star cast. Airport featured megastars Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, plus well-respected actors like Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, and Helen Hayes, who won an Oscar for her role. Of course, “all-star cast” on a TV budget is a relative term, so in this case, we’ll be getting David Janssen from The Fugitive, former NFL quarterback “Dandy” Don Meredith (you may remember Hank Hill kicking his ass for failing to throw a football into a giant beer can), a past-his-prime Ray Milland from The Lost Weekend and Dial M for Murder, and child-evangelist-turned-Starcrash-star Marjoe Gortner.
Our flight crew, from left to right: Christopher George as co-pilot Stan, Don Meredith as engineer Mike, and David Janssen as pilot Pete. (Christopher George was a real-life flight engineer in the Marine Corps before he took up acting.)
The film opens on a tight zoom on the control tower at LAX with pilot chatter and high-tension strings to let you know that we should already be nervous, which relaxes into a minor-key ballad over the credits as we see planes land. Our flight crew consists of Stan, the no-nonsense copilot; Mike, the flight engineer who’s somehow mounted a cowboy hat on the cockpit wall and who is looking forward to having sex with the stewardesses (if you wonder why movies in the 70s treated stewardesses as loose women, go watch my review of The Naughty Stewardesses), and Pete, the pilot who squints and winces a lot but doesn’t want to talk about it.
Their small talk is interrupted by the lead stewardess, Terry, who’s not amused by Mike’s attempts to objectify her crew.
TERRY: If you weren’t sitting down, I’d give you a swift kick in your brains.
I don’t think the line was “brains” in the script.
Our editor displays the first of his clever tricks with a match cut from Captain Pete looking at his watch to another guy doing the same thing. This other guy is a heavyset older man in a fedora who’s a police officer. He’s going to be taking this flight to Salt Lake City, where he’s going to pick up a prisoner named Greco. He grimaces, grabs his chest, and complains about his “second bowl of chili.” If you don’t care much for subtlety in your foreshadowing, it looks like this might be the movie for you.
In Salt Lake City, Greco is in a prison cell for murder, and he’s going to be flying out of here to another location tomorrow. Now, if a 0 is completely soporific and a 10 is Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Marjoe Gortner is playing Greco at about an 8. He’s going all-out crazy eyes and is about to call the cop a “lousy—“ when we cut suddenly back to the plane landing.
Upon arrival, we learn that the next flight is Terry’s last; that the flight crew gets a sweet off-white overcoat; that Captain Pete has a message from his wife in New York, but he can’t return the call because all the circuits are busy (yes, this was a thing in the 70s); and someone who’s very clearly Stan’s ex-girlfriend is at the airport.
Stan and Susan get coffee in front of the world’s most ineffective gate.
Susan will be going to New York. (The flight is scheduled to go from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City to Chicago to New York: in the days before airline deregulation, the modern hub-and-spoke system didn’t exist.) She’s recently divorced, and Stan is single, and, well, they’ve got needs. The actors are leaning way the hell in when they talk to each other, and Stan is talking at the very bottom of his vocal range.
Elsewhere in the airport, Mike (who a stewardess describes as a “cowboy Casanova” and a “nighttime heavyweight”) strikes out with the first stewardess he wanted to date, so he immediately asks another one out.
MIKE: You’re my last hope… If you say no, I’ll kill myself!
That’s the first time I’ve heard that phrase spoken by a man who wasn’t wearing a dragon shirt and wielding a mall katana. A guy named Harry who works for the airline gives Stan the scoop: Pete’s wife is going in for surgery very soon. When Pete finally gets through to New York, his wife Kitty assures him that, yes, she’s in the hospital, and yes, everything’s fine. She gives no additional details, and we head to the first commercial break.
Back from the commercial break, Mike’s got a lady on his arm as he strides through the airport wearing his cowboy hat. Note that real cowboys don’t wear their hats indoors—John Wayne made a point of it in “The Searchers.” Anyhow, Old Cop drops in on the pharmacy to buy some pain medicine as I wonder if there are any less subtle signs that this guy is doomed. Perhaps he could pull out a family tree showing that his parents and grandparents all died of heart attacks. Meanwhile, Stan and Susan head off to a soft-focus waterfront to catch up.
STAN: Darnit, maybe my head was screwed on wrong? Wuncha gimme a chance?
SUSAN (with a tone that says “You’re sure you want to paint the kitchen in Packers colors?”) Okay… but let’s not take off too fast.
How… romantic? I guess? They head off to a hotel room that is wonderfully, gloriously, entirely mustard-colored, where they start to make out.
SUSAN: There’s one thing about hotel rooms, they’re not subtle, are they? I mean, here’s the darn bed, right out in the middle of the room.
If you have any better ideas on where to put the bed, I’m open to suggestions. I wonder if this is supposed to be the A-plot.
A guy named Harry who works for the airline gets some bad news about the weather: snowstorms all over the country. Harry, who treats everything with the sort of grim determination displayed by Edward James Olmos on “Miami Vice,” starts calling up passengers at 1am to cancel flights. Just as the weather guy says it’s snowing in Salt Lake City, we get a smash cut to Greco in his cell in Salt Lake City, watching the snow fall. He doesn’t do anything except get a funny look on his face, like the snow is somehow inspiring him to escape. I hope he tries to toboggan his way to freedom.
This flight isn’t getting canceled, though (it would be a real short movie if it was), and as the plane’s cargo loads, the soundtrack fills with the kind of dissonant brass and flutes that they used in Airplane! Back at the gate, a Wacky Ethnic Ticket Agent manages to get Susan on the flight to New York. There’s also an angry Ray Milland doing a sort of W.C. Fields impression, demanding a non-stop flight to New York, which he can’t get.
Tom Drake, in the foreground, is a full 13 years older than David Janssen, in the background. Hard living will age you.
Harry and Captain Pete have an amazing scratchy-voice competition as they grouse about trying to get into SLC. And it’s quite hard to out-scratch David Janssen: if you read his IMDB page and his Wikipedia page, you can tell that they’re desperately trying to say that Janssen was an alcoholic, but they’re afraid the family will sue them if they do. Pete wants to skip landing in SLC if the weather gets bad. Now, I have a lot of complaints about airlines these days, but I’ve never had the pilot tell me that he change his mind about landing at my destination. They talk about how Pete is anxious to get home, and another airport guy says, “Who the heck isn’t anxious to get home?” Cut to Greco in jail. Oh, how clever. Too bad they couldn’t come up with anything for Greco to do during this scene.
Now comes the obligatory cockpit tours. Susan gets the first look at the cockpit, followed by the old cop, whose name is Marcel. He tells the crew that he’s got a prisoner to pick up, and shows them that he’s carrying a pistol. At this point, I was absolutely convinced that this was going to turn into a movie about a hijacking, as hijackings were absolutely endemic during the 70s. After Marcel leaves, Pete zones out during the preflight check and makes grumpy faces as they pull out of the gate.
Cut to… Pete’s wife on the operating table? Really? We already know that this surgery could be dangerous. Why are they bothering to show it to us when they could be using this time to further develop our rather large cast of characters? Anyhow, the plane takes off and we hit commercial break #2.
Back from the break and we get a two-pack of labored breathing: Captain Pete looks to be in physical pain as he freaks out about his wife’s operation during the mandatory “component? Check” scene, and Marcel thumping his chest complete with descending minor-key arpeggios to tell you that maybe, just maybe, all the scenes involving Marcel so far have been leading up to something.
The police in Salt Lake City give Greco an ankle weight that will allegedly prevent him from escaping. Of course, Greco doesn’t limp after it’s affixed, so perhaps he’s used to wearing ankle weights. When he’s led to the police car, he manages to slip his cuffs in front of him, kick the officers, and try to make a break for it. Going where, I don’t know, but if he’d been good at planning he probably wouldn’t be in jail. The best part of the fight scene is that when one of the cops hits the ground, it’s accompanied by the sound effect that they used when Wile E. Coyote got a load of bricks dumped on him. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Back on the plane, we’re briefly introduced to three passengers: a baby, a soldier, and angry Ray Milland. Angry Ray isn’t interested in the in-flight meal, which they’re serving oddly soon after take-off:
ANGRY RAY: No, no, please. How long it teg t’edda drink around here?
Will one of these passengers have to land the plane? I hope it’s the baby.
If you’re not going to fly drunk, you might as well not fly at all.
Susan gazes dreamily out the window when a stewardess stops by to chat with her. You know, like stewardesses do. Susan is nervous about Stan, but the stewardess reassures Susan that Stan is a “loner” and isn’t seeing other women on the side.
Meanwhile, back in the cockpit, Captain Pete notices a plane reach his altitude and keep climbing, which reminds him to check the altitude. He’s at 27,000 feet, not 37,000 feet like he’s supposed to be at. Oops. (Note that pilots would call this “flight level 370” instead of “37,000 feet.”) Now, this seems like the sort of thing that the copilot—or the control tower, for that matter—would keep an eye on, but it was the 70s and nobody cared.
Soon, Captain Pete make the announcement that they’re about to land in Salt Lake City. If I were on a plane and I heard the captain speaking with a voice like David Janssen’s, I would immediately question the airline’s hiring policy. Angry Ray is also mad, but it‘s because (surprise!) he wants to drink while landing. Will Angry Ray have to land the plane, possibly with the baby as his co-pilot?
The plane comes down amidst cross-cuts between the cockpit and the cabin, and this is the first place I noticed that we can hear the plane’s engines when we’re in the cockpit, but not when we’re in the cabin. Captain Pete heads inside to lobby the airline to continue to fly to Chicago, despite the snow, and Marcel is introduced to his charge, Greco.
MARJOE: You don’t have to push me, old man.
MARCEL: See this? It’s a 357 magnum. It’ll open you like a busted watermelon.
CHEAPSKATE: And it might also tear a hole in the bulkhead and depressurize the cabin.
And then it’s a cut to New York for a full minute of surgery scenes. I said they were a waste of time before, and I stand by my assessment. Angry Ray is also angry about the surgery scenes, or perhaps just about not getting enough booze. He calls the stewardess a “waitress,” which, for him, I suppose she is. As the plane leaves SLC, we get commercial break #3.
The seriously ill police officer, who carries a gun, accompanies the spry young crazy man on an airplane. Nothing can go wrong.
When we return from commercial, we get another shot of Angry Ray, and he’s doing the crossword on the in-flight magazine. No, just kidding. He’s continuing to holler at the stewardesses about booze. I’m genuinely amused by this guy, and by any other character whose only defining trait is anger. Does that mean I’m a broken person? I think it means I’m a broken person. Susan watches the whole scene from the galley. I’ve never seen airline passengers hang out in the plane’s galley before, but maybe Susan was sitting in an exit row and the stewardesses instructed her to help serve coffee. (It’s a federal law to disobey them, y’know!)
A stewardess muses about the fate of Angry Ray:
BLONDIE: They get on the plane, they’re running away from their troubles, and lo and behold, their troubles are still with them, so they try and drown them in booze. And I’ll bet that’s where our friend Mannheim is at right now.
Susan recognizes him, though. He’s Doctor Mannheim, who recently screwed up some sort of high-profile operation. He says Californians prefer to let people die than to help. Well, yeah, that’s just good practice. You don’t want to get in the way of medical professionals who are supposed to know what they’re doing. Anyhow, the drunk doctor who’s forced to get his act together in a time of crisis comes right out of John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” Sadly, this means he’s probably not going to have to land the plane. I’m still hoping for the baby. Susan offers to bring him coffee, and Doc is too drunk to notice that she isn’t really a stewardess.
Hooray for liquor!
Stan leaves the cockpit—he must be on break or something—and pays Susan a visit. As they talk, there’s a quick zoom in on Stan, and he proposes marriage. Susan is (rightfully) dumbfounded.
SUSAN: Oh, Stan, this is perfect. You, proposing to me, in an airplane, forty thousand feet in the sky.
We get a sort of symphonic version of the Incredible Hulk closing theme as Susan tells Stan to chill out—for a bit. “Ask me when we get to New York.” Stan returns to the cockpit with an optimistic spin on events.
STAN: Yes! She said yes! I think.
Uh, yeah. When you’re asking someone to marry you, you should treat it like you’re negotiating with a Japanese businessman: any answer that isn’t an unequivocal “yes” is a “no.” Mike responds with the weakest Bogart impression I’ve ever heard and starts singing “When Time Goes By,” which is utterly inappropriate considering how Casablanca actually ended. Also, Dandy Don Meredith’s attempts at impressions are inappropriate for any occasion.
Captain Pete goes on break next. He heads back to the galley to get some tea (man, the galley is where all the cool kids hang out) and talks to Terry, the retiring stewardess (remember her?). They chat about Pete’s wife in grim tones, and they talk about “the odds” in such a way as to show off their northeastern accents: “cansuh,” “favuh.” Pete fears the worst.
PETE: Sometimes I think there are only two things in my life I care about. One’s my wife and the other’s flying.
All right, all right. Workaholic characters are a bit of lazy writing if you ask me: instead of establishing a well-defined character with motives and interest, you just say “he has a job and he works hard” and skip the whole business. It’s forgivable here, though. In a TV movie with an ensemble cast, you’re not going to get time to show us anything other than flying or his wife anyway.
Just as Pete starts walking around the cabin, the Thing We’ve Been Foreshadowing finally takes place. Yes, Marcel has his heart attack, and Greco struggles with him for the gun. This happens for a good six seconds without anyone noticing. (One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five, one thousand six.) Once Greco gets the gun, he fires off an errant shot, which causes the plane to… bleed?
The airplane is haunted!
Yes, the plane is bleeding, which causes it to go out of control, and now Greco has the gun trained on Captain Pete. Pete’s not mad, though, he’s just disappointed. He says, “Don’t shoot, you need me.” And with that we go to commercial.
Upon our return, Mike is the first one to check on the health of the passengers, because navigating and medicine are basically the same thing. One woman is dead, and Susan’s been injured. (Marcel disappears from the movie entirely.) Meanwhile, Greco shoots Pete, non-lethally of course, and when the baby starts crying, Mike knocks Greco out and grabs the gun. I bet you didn’t think Mike would be the hero, did you? He gives it to the soldier, who says he’s never fired a pistol before because he’s “in computers.” Nonsense. Every good IT guy should pack heat.
A roll of medical tape rolls under Doc’s seat, and when Terry the retiring stewardess sees that his bag identifies him as a doctor, she asks him to pitch in. He won’t because he “just can’t help you.” I suppose the fact that he’s quite drunk right now would also be disqualifying. But after much hectoring and badgering, he finally gives in and takes over Susan’s care, mainly by having her lie down and by yelling at the stewardesses for not knowing anything about first aid.
Back in the cockpit, Stan seems to have everything under control. The stuff that looked like blood was the airplane equivalent of power steering fluid, so he’s going to have to really shove the controls around to get them to work. But once he learns that Susan was hit, he loses it and the plane goes all wonky for a few seconds or so. It’s starting to look like Stan’s going to land this plane, which is not nearly as fun as having a passenger do it—we’ve already established that Stan is an expert, after all.
The radar, as it appears shortly before Lone Star jams it.
Cut to the ATC tower. Or possibly the ATC cavern. The place is barely lit and looks like it was recently used as a set on Space: 1999, complete with dry ice fog and blinkenlights. The plane is over Nebraska, and rather than land at Omaha, ATC recommends that they continue to Chicago because Chicago hasn’t had much snow. As someone who has flown through Chicago many times, I call horse hockey on this assertion. (And if they just turned south, they could probably get to Kansas City or Oklahoma City faster than Chicago, neither of which is known for copious snowfall.)
In the cabin, Doc is back in his seat, and there are two women sitting next to him who weren’t there before. I guess they wanted the prestige of sitting next to a doctor. Doc is checking in on Susan, but he’s not too keen on helping Greco with the wounds he sustained in the scuffle with Mike:
DOC: Don’t talk to me about that animal! The only trouble with his wound is it wasn’t serious enough!
Pete’s nearly unconscious, but he’s heading back to the cockpit against medical advice. Cindy is, well, still useless. (I wish this whole movie had been about the rookie stewardess who panics in an emergency and tries to cope with it.) The plane is flying steady, the engine noise is low, and everyone is calm. Emergency solved, then?
The press charges in to the airport for live updates, and the ATC guys are getting ready as we hit the next commercial break. But there’s still about thirty minutes left, and really, where do we go from here? Do we get another twenty minutes of trying to fly steady when crisis has largely passed? Do we get an extremely slow motion landing sequence? Does Greco get out again? Does someone take a turn for the worse? Does a bird hit an engine, requiring them to land in the Mississippi River? Does the baby hijack the plane to Cuba? Do I stop watching the movie?
The New Crisis upon return from commercial is that Susan and Pete have both been diagnosed with “lots of blood gone,” and they need transfusions within the hour or they’re worm food. Doc reports this to Stan, who flips out again and nearly throws down with Mike. I don’t think I would’ve responded the way Mike did:
MIKE: When we get on the ground, you can have all of me you want.
During this whole scene, the camera shakes when it’s pointed at Stan, but not when it’s pointed at anyone else. I didn’t know turbulence could be so localized. Anyhow, Susan’s survival will depend on “how strong she is.”
You can tell this press conference is serious by the way he takes his glasses off.
At O’Hare, the airline is holding its press conference. The guy in charge hasn’t learned the basics of spin: he’s treating this like the catastrophe it is, rather than as a minor malfunction that’s totally under control as any good PR flak ought to do. He explains that with the hydraulics out, flying the plane is like “flying a tank” (which didn’t work out so well for the Soviets). He also says that the landing gear “has to be done by hand,” which gave me the mental image of people leaning out of the bottom of the plane and trying to land by grabbing hold of the ground. He signs off as such:
AIRLINE GUY: Off the record… to be perfectly truthful with you, no matter who’s at the controls, he’s gonna have to have a whole lotta luck to bring her in.
“Off the record” is newspaper-speak for “this is your headline.” Cripes. This is the worst PR guy I’ve ever seen.
Squealing Strings of Danger back at the cockpit, where Terry is freaking out over the unconscious Pete. Then we cut to New York, where Pete’s wife is watching the news at the hospital in a too-long scene that starts with about thirty seconds of explanation that the Commerce Department’s economic forecasts look good. Glad to hear it. Essential knowledge. Would’ve been stumped without it. Her biopsy was negative, so everything’s fine, and the doctor is weirdly attentive, like she’s a child or something. You know, “how’s my faaaaavorite patient?” and all that. When the news finally—finally!—stops talking about the economy and starts talking about the plane, Pete’s wife is understandably distressed.
On the plane again, a previously-unseen guy helps move Susan to a prone position. I wonder if this is one of the duties that comes with sitting in an exit row. Anyhow, this plane has a seatbelt that runs crosswise for the benefit of people who are stretched out over several seats. As someone who’s 6’0” and flies coach a lot: how can I convince United to install these things? Doc says that Susan will be OK, so long as she gets her transfusion upon landing, and so long as the plane doesn’t catch fire. He pledges to haul her out of the burning plane if he has to, although maybe this should be entrusted to someone who isn’t old and drunk.
Everyone’s preparing for crash positions, which is going to be a problem for Greco as he’s not cuffed into that position at the moment. The soldier (who is black) eventually uncuffs Greco—while still pointing the gun at him—and cuffs him into another position. During their exchange of words, Greco throws the N-bomb at him. I guess you could say that on prime-time TV in the 70s. Mike, who’s back here for some reason, displays his mastery of simile.
SOLDIER: Looks a little uncomfortable, doesn’t he?
MIKE: Yeah, my heart bleeds for ya like a potato.
He then charges back to the cockpit to handle the manual landing gear. Pete, who was lying down in the cockpit last we saw him, isn’t here any more. Maybe he had to take a whizz. The manual landing gear involves opening a panel and turning a crank, which is actually how you manually deploy landing gear on a 727. Stan complains that the gear will cause extra drag on the plane, but it’s not reflected in the bumpiness of the camera. We don’t even get that distinctive thump-hiss that you hear when the gear goes down on a real plane. Pete, who’s suddenly reappeared, needs a new bandage, and now Mike has to choose between lowering the flaps or changing the bandage (or, you know, paging someone else to change the bandage). This is the last crisis before the commercial break.
Now we watch an impressive roll-out sequence as the men and women of ARFF (Airport Rescue Firefighting) launch into action, sliding down their fire poles (I don’t know if ARFF facilities actually have fire poles—the ones at my nearest airport don’t—but it’s visual shorthand for firefighting) and driving their fire trucks and ambulances to the runway in formation. The whole scene is accomplished without any background music, which I found odd. I expected the Tension Strings, or possibly the Snare Drums of Official Business.
Stan and Mike are sweating like crazy as they close in on the runway. They’re coming in too fast, the baby is crying, Greco may get another chance to escape, and the music, well, the music is at an oddly slow tempo.
If the baby gets buckled in like this, then he’s never going to get the chance to land the plane!
As usual, I won’t spoil the ending, but I will note that the last character to get their story wrapped up isn’t one who had a major story arc, so it feels oddly unsatisfying.
The thing about movies about disasters on airplanes (or ships, or trains, or other forms of transit) is that the vehicles are really just metaphors. The people on the vehicles are traveling because they’re trying to get away from their problems, and after the disaster is resolved, they’ll be in a new place in their lives. Most of the major characters in this story were running from problems. Stan and Susan were running from failed romances, Pete was running from the tension of his wife’s illness, Doc was running from his alcoholism, and Greco was running from whatever crime he committed. Sadly, this movie spends too much time with characters who weren’t really running from anything, and who didn’t finish the film in an appreciably different position from the one in which they began it. That said, it checks all the boxes for a 70s disaster film, and does so on a TV budget, so you might find it at least moderately enjoyable.
• Pacing is generally strong, building the tension as commercial breaks approach.
• I found myself pulling for several characters, like Stan the awkward co-pilot and the non-gun-using soldier.
• Mike’s character is well written to disguise Don Meredith’s lack of acting ability.
• Too much time spent on the surgery scenes.
• Inconsistent effects ruin the illusion that the cast is actually aboard an airplane.
• Plenty of competent scenes, but few truly memorable scenes.
Watch It If:
Your favorite part of police procedurals is watching people keep cool in emergencies. You absolutely love cinematic portrayals of grouches.