It is winter at this Los Angeles airport and the snowstorms are causing no end of trouble. The manager in charge of the establishment's upkeep is Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), but he has been working for days without much of a break, and to make matters worse his wife, Cindy (Dana Wynter), is demanding he attend one of her dinner occasions just when the latest crisis occurs. What happens is that an airliner gets stuck on the only runway not clogged with snow, and there's already a plane wanting to use it to take off from, piloted by Bakersfeld's brother-in-law Captain Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin)...
As if the drama on the runway were not enough, there are personal issues to be taken into account as well in this blockbusting adaptation of Arthur Hailey's equally blockbusting novel, which played out as a big budget soap opera both in the skies and on the ground. It was a huge hit in its day, and still has a following decades later thanks to its all-star cast and efficient thrill sequences, although it does not look as if it was made in 1970, it looks about ten years older with its obvious sets, sitcom lighting and television-level staging. But that cast still has power to command attention, even all these years after their heyday.
Among those turning up were genuine megastars such as Lancaster and Martin, who both became even wealthier after making this and securing a share of the profits even if they didn't think much of the film artistically. For cult fans, the tragic Jean Seberg plays Bakersfeld's colleague and mistress Tanya Livingston, Jacqueline Bisset plays Demerest's pregnant mistress and stewardess (this movie doesn't say much for the faithfulness of air staff) and of course, George Kennedy appears as the chief engineer Joe Patroni - it was the Airport series that cemented his fans' appreciation of regular screen roles in stuff like this.
"Stuff like this" including disaster movies, because not only was Kennedy to show up in all the Airport movies as they sank into absurdity, but the success of this led to a run of such things throughout the decade where stars would revive their careers by being packed into plots where there were terrible fates awaiting their characters if they did not escape the fire/flood/earthquake/volcano/bees/et cetera. A lot of these efforts have an almost campy appeal now, particularly among the kind of fan who would like to watch old American T.V. shows of the seventies and eighties to check out who the guest stars were.
Fortunately for Airport, there is a self-awareness about it that proves its saving grace, with some nice moments of humour to leaven the T.V. movie-level tragedy. Van Heflin may have boarded Dean Martin's plane with a bomb in a suitcase (he'd never have got past the sliding doors of the airport with that nowadays), but there is always room for a laugh, such as the Oscar-winning Helen Hayes as the elderly stowaway who naturally winds up sitting beside him (she so enjoyed the role she insisted on grappling with Heflin herself instead of using a stunt double at the crucial moment). If that doesn't float your boat - or, er, fly your plane - then there are other nice moments, one of the best being when the know-it-all kid (Lou Wagner) notices the plane has been turned around, and to cover it up Demerest confounds him with jargon. There were airborne disaster movies before this one, but here is where the genre really took off; it set the parameters for imitators to this day, as well as all those spoofs. Music by Alfred Newman.