The film is about an airport manager trying to keep his airport open during a snowstorm, while a suicidal bomber plots to blow up a Boeing 707 airliner in flight. It takes place at fictional Lincoln International Airport near Chicago, Illinois. The film was a commercial success and surpassed Spartacus as Universal Pictures' biggest moneymaker. The movie won Helen Hayes an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as an elderly stowaway and was nominated for nine other Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design for designer Edith Head.
With attention paid to the detail of day-to-day airport and airline operations, the plot concerns the response to a paralyzing snowstorm, environmental concerns over noise pollution, and an attempt to blow up an airliner. The film is characterized by personal stories intertwining while decisions are made minute-by-minute by the airport and airline staffs, operations and maintenance crews, flight crews, and Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers.
Ernest Laszlo photographed it in 70 mm Todd-AO. It is the last film scored by Alfred Newman and the last film roles for Van Heflin and Jessie Royce Landis.
Chicago is paralyzed by a snowstorm affecting Lincoln International Airport. A Trans Global Airlines (TGA) Boeing 707 flight crew misjudge their turn from Runway 29 onto the taxiway, becoming stuck in the snow and closing that runway. Airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is forced to work overtime, causing tension with his wife, Cindy (Dana Wynter). A divorce seems imminent as he nurtures a closer relationship with a co-worker, TGA customer relations agent Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg).
Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) is a TGA captain scheduled to be the checkride captain for the airline to evaluate Captain Anson Harris (Barry Nelson) during its Flight 2 to Rome. TGA's flagship international service, named The Golden Argosy, is being operated with a Boeing 707. Although Demerest is married to Bakersfeld's sister, Sarah (Barbara Hale), he is secretly having an affair with Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset), chief stewardess on the flight, who informs him before takeoff that she is pregnant with his child.
Bakersfeld borrows TWA mechanic Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) to assist with moving TGA's disabled plane blocking Runway 29. Bakersfeld and Livingston also deal with Mrs. Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), an elderly lady from San Diego who is a habitual stowaway on various airlines.
Demolition expert D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), down on his luck and with a history of mental illness, buys both a one-way TGA ticket aboard The Golden Argosy and a large life insurance policy with the intent of committing suicide by blowing up the plane. He plans to set off a bomb in an attaché case while over the Atlantic Ocean so that his wife, Inez (Maureen Stapleton), will collect the insurance money of $225,000. His erratic behavior at the airport, including using his last cash to buy the insurance policy and mistaking a U.S. Customs officer for an airline ramp agent, attracts airport officials' attention. Guerrero's wife finds a Special Delivery envelope from a travel agency and, realizing her husband might be doing something desperate, goes to the airport to try to dissuade him. She informs airport officials that he had been fired from a construction job for "misplacing" explosives and that the family's financial situation was desperate.
Mrs. Quonsett manages to evade the TGA employee assigned the task of putting her on a flight back to San Diego, talks her way past the gate agent (passenger security screening did not yet exist), boards Flight 2, and happens to sit next to Guerrero. When the Golden Argosy crew is made aware of Guerrero's presence and possible intentions, they turn the plane back toward Chicago without informing the passengers. Once Quonsett is discovered, her help is enlisted by the crew to get to Guerrero's briefcase, but the ploy fails when a would-be helpful male passenger unwittingly returns the case to Guerrero.
Captain Demerest goes back into the passenger cabin and tries to persuade Guerrero not to trigger the bomb, informing him that his insurance policy will be useless. Guerrero briefly considers giving Demerest the bomb, but just then another passenger exits the lavatory at the rear of the aircraft, and the same would-be helpful passenger yells out that Guerrero has a bomb. Guerrero runs into the lavatory, locks it, and sets off the device. Guerrero dies instantly and is sucked out through the hole blown in the fuselage by the explosion. Gwen, just outside the door, is injured in the explosion and subsequent explosive decompression, but the pilots retain control of the airplane.
With all airports east of Chicago unusable due to bad weather, they return to Lincoln International for an emergency landing. Due to the bomb damage, Captain Demerest demands the airport's longest runway—Runway 29, which is still closed due to the stuck airliner. Eventually Bakersfeld orders the plane to be pushed off the runway by snowplows, despite the costly damage they would do to it. Patroni, who is "taxi-qualified" on Boeing 707s, has been trying to move the stuck aircraft in time for Demerest's damaged aircraft to land. By exceeding the Boeing 707's engine operating parameters, Patroni frees the stuck jet without damage, allowing Runway 29 to be reopened just in time for the crippled Golden Argosy to land.
In a brief epilogue, Ada Quonsett is enjoying her reward of free first-class travel on TGA. But as she arrives at the gate, she laments that it was "much more fun the other way."Burt Lancaster as Mel Bakersfeld, airport manager at Lincoln International Airport in nearby Chicago, Illinois
Dean Martin as Vernon Demerest, checkride captain (only for Flight Two) for Trans Global Airlines (TGA)
Jean Seberg as Tanya Livingston, customer relations agent for TGA
Jacqueline Bisset as Gwen Meighen, chief stewardess for TGA's Golden Argosy
George Kennedy as Joseph "Joe" Patroni, chief mechanic for Trans World Airlines at Lincoln International, on loan to TGA
Helen Hayes as Mrs. Ada Quonsett, stowaway
Van Heflin as D. O. Guerrero, failed contractor, and bomber of The Golden Argosy (Heflin's final film role)
Maureen Stapleton as Inez Guerrero, wife of D.O. Guerrero
Barry Nelson as Anson Harris, TGA line captain
Dana Wynter as Cindy Bakersfeld, wife of Mel Bakersfeld
Lloyd Nolan as Standish, head of the U.S. Customs Service at the airport
Barbara Hale as Sarah Demerest (sister of Mel Bakersfeld, wife of Vernon Demerest)
Gary Collins as Cy Jordan, second officer/flight engineer
Larry Gates as Commissioner Ackerman
Jessie Royce Landis as Mrs. Mossman
Whit Bissell as Mr. Davidson (seat neighbor of Mrs. Quonsett - passenger)
Virginia Grey as Mrs. Schultz (mother of Schuyler Schultz - passenger)
Dort Clark as Dr. Henry Bron (Bron, M.D. - passenger)
Eve McVeagh as Mrs. Henry Bron (wife of Bron, M.D. - passenger)
Jodean Russo as Marie Patroni, wife of Joe Patroni
Lou Wagner as Schuyler Schultz (brainy child passenger)
Janis Hansen as Sister Katherine Grace
Airport was released on March 5, 1970. It made $100,489,151, and adjusted for inflation this was equivalent to $558 million in 2010, the 42nd highest-grossing film of all time.
Variety magazine wrote: "Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, over-produced by Ross Hunter with a cast of stars as long as a jet runway, and adapted and directed by George Seaton in a glossy, slick style, Airport is a handsome, often dramatically involving $10 million epitaph to a bygone brand of filmmaking" but added that the film "does not create suspense because the audience knows how it's going to end."
Film critic Pauline Kael gave Airport one of its worst contemporaneous reviews, scornfully dismissing it as "bland entertainment of the old school." "There's no electricity in it," she wrote; "every stereotyped action is followed by a stereotyped reaction."
Some modern critics have been similarly negative, including Roger Ebert, with the most generous reviews complimenting the film's influence on the disaster genre and its "camp value." Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 80%, based on 15 reviews.Academy Awards
Best Supporting Actress: Helen Hayes
Golden Globe Awards (1971):
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture: Maureen Stapleton (Tied with Karen Black for Five Easy Pieces)
Laurel Awards (1971)
Golden Laurel – Best Supporting Female Performance: Helen Hayes
Motion Picture Sound Editors (1971):
Golden Reel Award – Best Sound Editing
Grammy Awards (1971):
Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media: Alfred Newman
Golden Globe Awards (1971):
Best Motion Picture – Drama
Best Original Score: Alfred Newman
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture: George Kennedy
Academy Awards (1971):Best Supporting Actress: Maureen Stapleton
Best Art Direction: Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen and E. Preston Ames; Set Decoration: Jack D. Moore and Mickey S. Michaels
Best Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Best Costume Design: Edith Head
Best Film Editing: Stuart Gilmore
Best Original Score: Alfred Newman
Best Picture: Ross Hunter
Best Sound: Ronald Pierce and David H. Moriarty
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: George Seaton
American Cinema Editors Awards (1971):
Eddie Award – Best Edited Feature Film: Stuart Gilmore
British Academy Film Awards (1971):
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Maureen Stapleton
Laurel Awards (1971):
Golden Laurel – Best Composer: Alfred Newman
Golden Laurel – Best Supporting Male Performance: George Kennedy
Golden Laurel – Best Picture
Writers Guild of America Awards (1971):
WGA Screen Award – Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium: George Seaton
This film was the final project for composer Alfred Newman. His health was failing and he was unable to conduct the sessions for his music's recording. The job was handled by Stanley Wilson, although the cover of the 1993 Varèse Sarabande CD issue credits Newman. Newman did conduct the music heard in the film. He died before the film's release. Newman received his 45th Academy Award nomination posthumously for this film, the most received by a composer at that time.From the soundtrack, the instrumental, "Airport Love Theme" by Vincent Bell peaked at number thirty-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number two for three weeks on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
Soundtrack album listing:
- Airport (Main Title) (3:11)
- Airport Love Theme (3:30)
- Inez' Theme (1:29)
- Guerrero's Goodbye (2:37)
- Ada Quonsett, Stowaway (1:26)
- Mel And Tanya (2:27)
- Airport Love Theme #2 (2:40)
- Joe Patroni Plane Or Plows? (2:22)
- Triangle! (3:50)
- Inez-Lost Forever (1:45)
- Emergency Landing! (1:38)
- Airport (End Title) (2:36)
Airport had three sequels, the first two of which were hits in the Airport film series.Airport 1975
The Concorde ... Airport '79 (titled Airport '80: The Concorde in the U.K.)
The only actor to appear in all four films is George Kennedy as Joe Patroni. Patroni's character evolves and he goes from a chief mechanic in Airport to a vice president of operations in Airport 1975, a consultant in Airport '77, and an experienced pilot in The Concorde ... Airport '79.