The airborne drama Skyjacked came out in 1972 and, though it isn’t a disaster movie in the sense that the plane isn’t crashing, it still belongs in the same basic family due to its all-star format and in-flight setting. Starring (who else?!) Charlton Heston as the pilot, it concerns a passenger jet, which someone onboard has decided to blow up if the crew doesn’t change its course to the destination desired. (I deliberately passed this film up in the somewhat chronological order I’ve been musing about disaster movies in, lest someone might think this is strictly a Heston blog, he was in so many of these types of movies in the 1970s!)
Some posters for the film used the popular (and oft-mentioned here) scheme of boxes with faces of the stars. This one tweaked it a bit by arranging them differently rather than in a row at the bottom. It also strove to project a “whodunit” aspect to the film and, though the movie does indeed take pains to shroud the identity of the hijacker for a fairly significant amount of time, the back of the DVD case gives the mystery away completely! So take care if you wish to be surprised when watching and ignore that until later.
During the 70s, feature films and TV movies continually focused on mid-air crises of all kinds. The Airport series featured its own mad bomber along with a collision with a small private craft, a crash beneath the waters of the Bermuda Triangle and finally a skirmish with heat-seeking missiles (clearly most of the ideas had run out by that time!) Various TV-films dealt with ghosts, crashes into the Everglades, murderers and even one in which a plane flies into a skyscraper! Then there’s the loopy Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land (released to video as Starflight One) about a state of the art craft that gets flung into outer space! Check out the old VHS cover here. (Click to enlarge.)
Here, Heston and Co. are on board a passenger jet for Minneapolis when suddenly there are lipstick-written messages (the first one on a mirror in the lavatory!) demanding that the flight plan be rerouted to Anchorage instead or else a bomb will be detonated. Not only does Heston have to contend with a hijacker/bomber, but also he doesn't even know who the culprit is, just that he or she is likely a member of first class. Meanwhile, the camera keeps finding ways to land on various tubes of red lipstick!
This makes the first 30 minutes of the film a bit of a mystery. It also makes for some serious tedium, as the script can't allow viewers to know much about the people on board, lest it become obvious who is or is not the passenger with a screw loose. So the various stars have to maintain a certain level of suspicion about them while also striving to deliver facets of themselves that would make the audience give a care about them. For the most part, they aren’t too successful with this, though the script is probably the main culprit.
Heston was a master at playing these types of square-jawed authority figures and he does well here, even showing some shades of vulnerability at times. Check out the mushroom cloud of smoke he has coming out of his pipe in the cockpit! Hunky former Tarzan Mike Henry plays his co-pilot and the two are in the midst of a love triangle over attractive chief stewardess Yvette Mimieux. Henry is her current lover, though she used to be with Heston. Their past love affair is displayed in some loony, “arty” flashbacks, the kind Airplane! would later make fun of.
Football star-turned-actor Rosey Grier plays a nervous musician who carries a big cello case with him. He’s seated next to clean cut soldier James Brolin, on hiatus from his regular role as Dr. Steven Kiley on Marcus Welby, M.D.”
Confrontational hippie Susan Dey (also on hiatus from her own series The Partridge Family) manages to find time to flirt with sweet Nicholas Hammond. We all remember Hammond, of course, from his appearance as Friedrich Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. He’s on board the flight with his U.S. senator father Walter Pidgeon. Pidgeon attempts in vain to inject weight into his paper-thin part.
Ross Elliott and Jeanne Crain as a married couple are so much furniture, their roles are so un-fleshed-out. (Crain, who lived for three more decades afterwards, never stepped before a movie camera again after this.) At least Mariette Hartley gets a chance to fret some in her clichéd role of the panicky pregnant woman (and orders a Bloody Mary to drink! Take that PC people.) Claude Akins appears in a role George Kennedy would likely have played if he hadn't been stretched so thin in virtually every other disaster film of the decade. Leslie Uggams, in her film debut, plays a confident stewardess whose final line is amusing if a bit unlikely.
People keep misunderstanding each other's intentions and motives in an effort to build some mystery about the bomber. Sadly, this just isn't handled well enough to work to the film's advantage. When the hijacker is revealed, things take on a more tense feeling, but there are really very few times when anyone in this movie acts like a real person. The passengers react to the news of a hijacking the way they might react to finding that the plane is out of smokehouse almonds. At least in Airport, the star-studded cast members each got a chance to shine, even if some of the stories were silly. Here, the characters are almost strictly cardboard props.
What's neat about the film are its serene production design and color scheme, its aerial photography, its unusual music score, its generally serious tone and its eclectic cast of familiar faces. I live for those cool, cadet blue stewardess uniforms that once were the norm, though movies always seemed to contain even more sharp ones than real life.
Unfortunately, the script has to count as a debit as it fails to generate any characters of particular interest or depth. The editing and continuity on the film is also poor. Chunks of activity seem to have been left out such as Henry bandaging Mimieux's cut. Also, Mimieux's hair goes from loose to pulled-back to loose within moments.
Though the film is not nearly campy enough to be funny throughout (despite being released by Warner Brothers as a "Cult Camp Classic"), there are a couple of giggles along the way such as when one passenger is nearly frozen and has a hair full of frost or when busy character actor John Fiedler has his voice hilariously and ludicrously over- dubbed. There's a lack of urgency to the movie, typified by (the still-lovely) Crain when she has a chance to get off the plane and decides to smooth out the suede in her hat instead. It's doubtful that anyone but die-hard buffs will find this anything much beyond tiresome, but at least it isn't an over-the-top mess like so many of today's movies.