Starring: Dana Andrews, Stirling Hayden, Linda Darnell, Peggy King
By Alan Bacchus
Ted Stryker is a shamed WWII pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after failing his squadron and taking the blame for their deaths in battle. In the present he’s a wreck, as his wife recently walked out on him with their young boy. When he learns about her location and gets a seat on a flight across the country, he’s suddenly thrust into another traumatic situation. With half of the passengers, including both pilots, sick from food poisoning, Stryker has a chance to redeem himself by flying the plane to safety – if his nerves don’t knock him down first.
No, this is not the summary for Airplane!, the wild Zucker/Abrams/Zucker comedy from 1980. But Zero Hour! was their main influence – a disaster film, which, looking back, serves as a near carbon copy of their film, right down to the exclamation mark at the end of the title!
I know Airplane! intimately. It’s one of the greatest and most influential comedies ever made. And yes, I know the film was intended as a satire disaster film. And yes, I even know Zero Hour!, made years before the genre trend in the ‘70s, was a plotting influence. This would be considered blatant theft, but the filmmakers had such reverence for the material they outright purchased Arthur Hailey’s screenplay rights (originally broadcast for television on the CBC!) to remake the movie as a comedy.
Remarkably, both films line up perfectly side by side. Even the character names are the same. Dana Andrews as Ted Stryker in Zero Hour! is just like Robert Hays – a sweaty, twitching shell of a man ruined by his war experiences. The opening flashback sequences to 'the War’ resemble Airplane!’s Vietnam sequences right down to the superimposed images of Stryker’s anguished face over the battle footage. Once on the plane, even the compositions and mise-en-scene are the same.
Geoffrey Toone, playing the doctor character, chews the scenery so marvellously, rendering Leslie Nielsen’s over-the-top serious recreation of the character even funnier. And like the comedic version, as we see the tense decisions made on the plane we also get to see the cigarette-smoking air traffic controllers sweating buckets on land. Midway through, Sterling Hayden enters the picture playing Stryker’s former Captain charged with guiding Stryker to safety. Like Robert Stack’s egotistical Capt. Kramer, his bravura presence and cigar-chomping, no-bullshit attitude trumps even Toone’s authoritarian presence. And early on, Joey, Stryker’s wide-eyed boy, is introduced to the pilot in the flight deck. Watching that scene play out knowing how deliriously naughty Peter Graves plays it is difficult to take out of one’s mind.
So how can I even judge Zero Hour! on its own merits? It’s impossible. But, looking back on my old review of Airplane! I have to quote myself:
“Airplane! is rooted in a real story, which, if told in another genre, could actually work. Although the filmmakers try their best to score every gag, not everything hits the mark for everybody. But in between the lewd, rude and crude behaviour, there’s engaging and likeable characters. So when you’re not laughing, it’s not a chore to actually watch the film."
The fact is, Zero Hour!, however overdramatized, is a lean, mean tense thriller. At 90 minutes, it’s a white knuckle action film. There’s almost no inter-character conflict, and it is suspense cinema stripped down to its essential elements – all the chaff is stripped away. The fact that both versions are supremely watchable on their own and are enhanced by the presence of the other is a testament to the words originally put onto paper by its creator, Arthur Hailey.