The disaster film genre had been around for quite some time before it hit its peak in the 1970s. Long before former RAF pilot Arthur Hailey wrote Airport and its three sequels that ran throughout the decade, he had written a teleplay for a 1956 TV movie called Flight Into Danger.
One year later Hailey was remaking his screenplay with director Hall Bartlett for the Hollywood big screen this time calling it Zero Hour! Hailey essentially created a successful career writing about planes falling from the sky and passengers in peril.
Dana Andrews is Ted Stryker a WWII pilot who is suffering from post-traumatic stress. He was leading a mission which resulted in the deaths of six men in his command. The blame falls on Stryker who hasn’t forgiven himself since and is haunted by the battle.
His guilt from his war experiences has prevented him from having a stable live as we learn he’s had twelve jobs in the past ten years. This has pushed his marriage to Ellen (Linda Darnell) to the ‘breaking point’ as Ted learns she is taking their son and leaving for Vancouver.
For the first time in ten years Ted boards a plane in order to convince Ellen to come back to him. While Ted tries to smooth out his marital woes half the passengers, including the two pilots and his son have eaten contaminated food which threaten their lives.
Now the plane is drifting through foggy skies without having anyone to fly or land it. Ted is the only passenger with any flight experience and has to fight his demons, be able to work with his old captain from the war (Sterling Hayden) to help him land this plane and save everyone onboard.
This all sounds pretty familiar huh? Ok, Zero Hour! was used as the basis for the 1980 comedy classic Airplane!. It’s basically a blueprint to that film.
General audiences pinpoint Hailey’s Airport films as being Airplane’s target, but watching Zero Hour! it’s clear where all of the comedic inspiration came from. While watching it I did have a tough time distancing myself from all the gags that directors Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker created for their comedy spoof.
It’s actually pretty surprising how much Airplane! follows Zero Hour!. I’m not just talking about the general story or the lead characters name, but literally entire scenes, lines of dialogue, it’s all done nearly verbatim. Airplane! is practically a zany remake of it.
Once getting past the comedic heritage it inspired, Zero Hour! is a decent thrilling story all on its own. Andrews is quite good as the shell-shocked ex-pilot who is desperately trying to pull himself and his family together. Some of the old flashback scenes from the war might feel a bit cliche watching it now, but it doesn’t diminish a very good performance that he gives.
Hayden is at his tough guy best as the pilot who’s tasked with guiding Stryker through the maze of instruments and fog to land this plane in one piece. He doesn’t hide his lack of confidence with how he thinks all this will end either. With his gruff voice and attitude Hayden literally looks like a guy who could eat nails for breakfast.
The rest of the cast are all effective, but it’s really Andrews and Hayden’s show. Director Bartlett keeps the tension on the characters at all times. There’s some great use of out of control aerial shots that amp up the suspense and constantly remind us of the jeopardy these people are facing.
It may be a familiar story, but there’s something awfully entertaining about it when it’s presented right and is filled with sincere performances to get us invested in the drama, and Zero Hour does a very good job of that.
The trailer for Zero Hour