Hall Bartlett’s Zero Hour! (1957) is remembered today as the movie that inspired Airplane! (1980), but I was more interested in seeing the film because, well, it was directed by Hall Bartlett. I’ve long been a champion of Bartlett, a filmmaker largely forgotten because many of his films were major critical and commercial misfires, often due to his sometimes-poor taste in screenplays. But Zero Hour! is the first important fictional film in Bartlett’s patchy, uneven career, and the filmmaker who later went on to (in my opinion) fashion a masterpiece out of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) could not have done so if he hadn’t made Zero Hour! first. If Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the film that finally allowed Bartlett to lift off and fly, then Zero Hour! is the film from which he first began to grow wings.
The story of Zero Hour! and its production begins with Arthur Hailey, a young English writer who had flown for the RAF during World War II and had written the teleplay for a TV movie, Flight Into Danger, in 1956. Hollywood beckoned, and a year later Hailey was remaking Flight Into Danger into Zero Hour! for the big screen while producer John C. Champion assisted him on the screenplay. Then, when searching for a director, Champion selected Hall Bartlett, who had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary: Feature for Navajo (1952) but was having trouble finding work in his attempts to launch a directing career in Hollywood. After Zero Hour! was released in 1957, Bartlett began getting recognized by the studios, and was able to find work directing more movies in successive genres while Hailey remained situated in the disaster movie genre. Not surprisingly, Hailey went on to write Airport (1970) and its three sequels; he had, essentially, established a successful screenwriting enterprise on remaking the same story five times.
In fact, it was thought for a long time that David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams were spoofing Hailey’s Airport movies when they set out to make Airplane! at the closing of the decade, but no: Abrahams and the Zucker Bros. had seen Zero Hour! on television late one night, loved the unintentional absurdities of the screenplay by Hailey, Champion and Bartlett, and sensed, correctly, that it was ripe for parody at the dawn of the 1980’s. If you watch Zero Hour! and Airplane!back-to-back, you’ll notice that the latter film steals heavily from the dialogue of the former film, from the discussions about the protagonist’s failures to handle “responsibility” to the conversations between the protagonist and his estranged loved one about “watching the sun come up”, and so on. Henceforth, some critics have suggested that Airplane! is more a literal remake of Zero Hour! than a mere parody of it, but this can hardly be the case when one takes into account that Abrahams and the Zucker Bros. didn’t embrace the material in the least—they made fun of it. The box office receipts of Airplane!, of course, rewarded their “fun”.
While Zero Hour! falls short of greatness, I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoyed almost every minute of it, not just because of my familiarity with Airplane! but also because I appreciated the directions Hall Bartlett took with the story. It’s relieving to see this material being used for the purposes of thrills instead of laughs, and this explains, in part, why I think Zero Hour! is actually a much better film than Airplane!, which is so limited in its ambitions that I have found it exceedingly less and less funny over the years. Not so with Zero Hour!, a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, celebrates the disaster-movie clichés of its narrative and offers sequences of effective, edge-of-your-seat suspense that still hold water with repeated viewings. But what makes Zero Hour! so worthwhile, above all, is the performance by Dana Andrews as a shell-shocked WWII veteran—right up there with Arthur Kennedy’s performance in Bright Victory, and Frank Sinatra’s performance in Some Came Running, as one of the finest portrayals of veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder in the decade immediately following the end of the war.
The Bartlett-Champion Picture begins with a shot of fighter planes taking off over the opening titles. They are units of the 22nd squadron of the Royal Air Force, led across Germany by Canadian squadron leader Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews); a corny narrator (an uncredited William Conrad) informs us that Striker had led a mission on April 10, 1945 to “penetrate enemy fighter cover and hold the formation intact for a vital, incendiary raid on the German supply despots of Vispa.” When Stryker’s force encounters the enemy fighters, Bartlett immerses us entirely in the battle, incorporating John P. Fulton and Norman O’Skeete’s visual effects with Lyle Figland and Charles Grenzbach’s explosive sound effects while John C. Fuller’s sharp editing presents the firefight from different angles—even going so far as to have enemy fighter planes shoot directly at the camera. It’s a glorious battle, but then things go wrong when Stryker leads his team into a thick layer of fog. Cries by his men of “We’re too low, Ted!” go unheard: his planes crash, six of his men die, and Stryker himself is faulted for recklessly pursuing the “vital target” of his mission and allowing his planes to fly so low.
I assume Bartlett cast Dana Andrews in the part of Stryker because of the actor’s familiarity with such roles. In William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Andrews had played a fighter pilot who eventually comes home to a wife who has decided to leave him; he’s desperately looking for a job during the final scenes of that movie, and finds one only at the last minute. Similarily, at the start of Zero Hour!, we learn that Andrews’ Ted Stryker has been through no less than twelve jobs in 10 years; in the present year of 1956, he applies for a position in the Jet Research Winnipeg Division at the Mid-Canadian Aircraft Corporation, but the employer (Roy Gordon) looks at his past record and doubts he’s still capable of holding a job. Stryker tries to win his sympathies by confessing that he and his wife are “right at the breaking point”, insisting that, this time, he won’t let his memories of the war be a distraction and that he’ll make good on his commitment to his work. It seems like he’ll end up getting the job, but when Stryker returns home he finds a note from his wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell), stating that she’s boarding a plane to Vancouver and taking their son with her.
“Don’t you feel anything for me anymore?” he asks Ellen when confronting her on the plane. “There’s so many things to make love last,” she replies. “Most of all, it takes respect. I can’t live with a man I don’t respect.” This dialogue was made infamous by Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty in Airplane!, but I like the way it’s delivered by Andrews and Darnell so much more. Yes, the dialogue is soapy, but remember: Arthur Hailey wrote it during the Eisenhower era, when it was actually more acceptable to write American films stressing the strength of the nuclear family and not the other way around. The broken marriage between Ted and Ellen is contrasted with the younger romance between the plane’s stewardess, Janet (Peggy King), and her boyfriend, Tony (Jerry Paris), who is seated next to Stryker. Janet vows to the pilots that someday she’ll take Tony to the alter “if I have to drag him every inch of the way—after all, remember? I’ve been trained for every kind of emergency!” Yet when Stryker approaches Janet while she’s in the middle of an argument with Tony, she immediately starts addressing Tony as “Mr. Decker”; she’s embarrassed to flaunt her relationship with him. Tony has a charm of his own in a sock puppet named “Paddy”, which can go from kid-friendly (when it’s entertaining the Strykers’ young son) to horny (when it’s asking Janet for kisses). As Tony explains of Paddy, “He’s got a one-track mind, just like me.”
Then, disaster strikes. Passengers begin suffering from food poisoning. By an amazing coincidence, there just so happens to be a doctor, Dr. Baird (Geoffrey Toone), onboard, and he deduces that the passengers who ordered grilled halibut for their evening meal are the ones being stricken; Bartlett goes for a hilarious close-up on the horrified face of the pilot, Captain Wilson (former pro-football player Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch), when he overhears the doctor’s diagnosis and shrieks, “Doctor, I just remembered something: I ate fish, too!” Once both of the pilots have passed out, Baird utters the line made notorious by Airplane! (“The life of everybody onboard depends on just one thing: finding someone back there not only who can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner,”), and skillfully diverts a panic by asking individual passengers only for assistance at the radio. Once Ted Stryker is brought back to the cockpit, however, he realizes the truth: both pilots are down!
It’s true, the plot of Zero Hour! is ridiculous. It would not be invalid to suggest that by not celebrating the campiness of the material, Bartlett might have deprived it of some of its entertainment value; this criticism would certainly be adopted by Airplane! fans. But once I sensed how fiercely committed Bartlett was in making Zero Hour! into a slam-bang, sweat-inducing thriller, I went ahead and enjoyed the ride. There’s a good level of added suspense when the Strykers’ son falls ill and Ellen finds herself joining her husband in the cockpit, assisting him at the radio. To land the plane together might not only save the lives of their fellow passengers, but of their son as well—it may even save their marriage. When Stryker’s old nemesis, Captain Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden in one of his best roles), is brought to the Vancouver Air Control to guide Stryker down to the airstrip, he makes no secret of his skepticism: “I may be wrong—I hope I am—but my feeling is that when the going gets rough upstairs tonight, Ted Stryker’s gonna fold up.” But once Stryker shoots back that he’s sick of Treleaven ordering him about how to handle the flying gear (which, of course, is “sluggish... like a wet sponge,”), we realize that Stryker, while determined to do things his own way, is not considering quitting. He’ll land the plane whatever the cost, and won’t make the same mistake again.
Here and there, the movie has compromising flaws. The story requires suspension of disbelief, obviously, but I was surprised at how tolerant the passengers on the plane are of the situation at hand. A minor subplot involving Captain Wilson’s wife (Patricia Tiernan) arriving at the air control inquiring about her husband’s condition is boring, and should have been cut out. Aside from those glaring issues, the movie turns out rather decently, and Airplane! devotees will find themselves recognizing many of the lines in Hailey’s script. Take, for example, when the Strykers’ son visits the cockpit and chats with Captain Wilson; the exchange between the captain and the boy about “have you ever been in a cockpit before?”, sans the pedophilia gags, is all here. As is the scene of Janet and Tony slapping a hysterical female passenger silly in order to calm her down. And Treleaven’s muttering that “I picked the wrong week the quit smoking.” And Dr. Baird’s final words to Stryker and his wife: “I just want to tell you both good luck. I’ll keep your son with me.” Not as epic a catchphrase as Leslie Nielsen’s “I just want to tell you both good luck—we’re all counting on you,” but, oh... it’ll do.
The film’s greatest aspect, however, is Dana Andrews’ tortured performance as Ted Stryker, which requires him to walk through the film’s scenes in a state of constant self-loathing, much of which is thoroughly made clear in his anguished facial expressions. Watch the way he reacts with embarrassment when his son, whose name is Joey, tells the pilots in the cockpit about how his father “shot down a lot of planes” during the war. Joey (Raymond Ferrell) idolizes his father and wants to grow up to be a pilot just like him; he asks him why he didn’t fly jets during the war (“There were no jets back then”, his father patiently reminds him). He asks him if he can teach him how to fly someday. “I just don’t seem to have the time anymore, Joey,” Stryker tells his son. “You never have time for anything!” Joey complains, which prompts his father to concede, “I know.” Fans of Airplane! might find themselves laughing unintentionally when Ellen turns to her husband at the end and says, “Ted, I just wanted you to know, now, I’m very proud,” but by that point in the movie I was so wrapped up in their relationship that I found myself smiling at the moment, not laughing.
What makes Zero Hour! a better film than Airplane!, I think, is just how much more superior it is in terms of filmmaking. Hall Bartlett went on to pursue an artistic career through a series of hit-and-miss films; David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams chose, instead, to stick comfortably with empty, mainstream crowd pleasers. Airplane! understands the concept of stupid parody without acting on witty satire; Zero Hour!, however, comments bravely on the downfall of the 50’s nuclear family through a supercharged thriller, and delivers the goods in the process. As Zero Hour! glides towards its conclusion, Ted Stryker and his wife are frantically flying the plane through fog, searching for the lights of the Vancouver landing strip while they are awaited down below by ambulances, police cars and firefighters stroking a pet collie. The eventual landing of the plane is terrifying, and very nearly ends in horror, but Stryker faces his fears—and saves the day. “Ted, that was probably the lousiest land in the history of this airport,” says Treleaven over the radio. “But there’s some of us here, particularly me, who’d like to buy you a drink and shake your hand.” Surely a great filmmaker couldn’t possibly take this material seriously. But Hall Bartlett does, and that’s just one of the many reasons why Zero Hour! deserves to be seen.