Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Here’s what blockbusters looked like half a century ago

Illustration for article titled Here’s what blockbusters looked like half a century ago

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With both Gone Girl and Left Behind opening in theaters, we look back on other adaptations of books that went to No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list.


Airport (1970)

Arthur Hailey was a critical punching bag for his entire career, and it’s tough to defend his novels strictly on the basis of literary merit. Arguably, though, fans were less interested in his plots or characters than in the excuse they provided him to explore a given milieu in painstaking detail. Just as Martin Scorsese’s Casino functions, at its best, as a fictional documentary about the inner workings of a casino, Hailey’s 1968 bestseller Airport isn’t so much about the multiple crises created by a snowstorm and a blocked runway as it is about the moment-to-moment operations of the airport itself. Elegant prose would have been nice, and complex personalities more than welcome, but neither was strictly necessary—the behind-the-scenes authenticity, which Hailey extensively researched for each project, is plenty compelling on its own.

Thankfully, a fair bit of that approach made it into the 1970 film adaptation, which remains one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, adjusted for inflation. (In 2014 dollars, it grossed about $550 million, which is about $150 million more than The Hunger Games managed. Just to put it in perspective.) The storylines remain pretty soapy: Airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) juggles his wife (Dana Wynter); his flirtatious relationship with one airline’s passenger-relations manager (Jean Seberg); the struggles of maintenance head Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) to clear the blocked runway; and a flight on which a desperate demolitions expert (Van Heflin) is threatening to detonate a bomb so that his wife (Maureen Stapleton) can collect on his life insurance policy. Even in its dopier interludes, though—and you can definitely see where Airplane! got some of its gags; Hailey also wrote the TV-movie that became Zero Hour!, Airplane’s primary inspiration—Airport remains grounded, so to speak, in plausible particulars.

What’s more, while the contemporaneous reviews uniformly treat the film as beneath contempt, one has to wonder what those critics would think if they could see what today’s equivalent looks like. For a big dumb event movie, Airport is almost surreally adult by current standards, albeit in a shallow sort of way; even Heflin’s ostensible “villain” has an utterly banal, real-world motivation for his behavior, never coming across as anything more than a terrified, desperate loser. Nor would any mass audience today tolerate this film’s slow, patient, methodical buildup. And let’s be honest: It’s often preposterously entertaining. When the little-old-lady stowaway (Helen Hayes) gets seated next to the mad bomber, it’s hard not to get giddy anticipating where that development must be headed, and equally hard not to be surprised by the abrupt, weirdly sadistic, ultimately forlorn way it actually plays out. If nothing else, Airport is a fascinating window into what audiences of nearly a half-century ago found thrilling. Savor the nostalgia.

Availability: Airport is available on Blu-ray and DVD, the latter of which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library. The film can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.