This is exactly the kind of cheese I look for from a television movie in the days before prestige TV. Cheap production values, a bad script, and an ‘all-star’ cast slumming it for an easy paycheck. Also, it helps to rip off a popular cinematic film series — in this case, the Airport franchise.
It was something of a minor industrial embarrassment for the United States that the only supersonic transport (SST) planes ever in passenger service were run by France and the UK. In this film’s fictional universe, that oversight has been rectified, in the form of the Cutlass Aircraft Maiden 1, an SST whose special effects miniature looks to have been cobbled together from two or three different Revell model kits (the effects in this flick are bad, bad, bad).
After a final shakedown flight, it is time to take passengers onboard, for a trip from New York to Paris that will only take a little over two hours. It’s a big day for Cutlass, as future purchase orders for the plane hinge on its performance during this flight. As such, Cutlass has entrusted the plane to a very serious pilot, in Captain Jim Walsh (a post-Brady Bunch Robert Reed, still rocking the perm).
Also aboard from Cutlass is Burgess Meredith as Willy Basset, Maiden 1’s chief designer; George Maharis as production supervisor and disgruntled employee Les Phillips; Tom Stewart as First Officer Eric Brent; Burbank veteran Robert Ito as Flight Engineer Roy Nakamura; and flight attendants Mae and David (post-Gilligan’s Island Tina Louise, and an up-and-coming comedian by the name of Billy Crystal). And that’s just the crew.
The passengers include Brock Peters as Dr. Ralph Therman, an epidemiologist who is transporting a box full of flu cultures to the Pasteur Institute in Paris; Bert Convy as PR man Tim Vernon; his main squeeze and booth babe Angela Garland, played by Misty Rowe; flailing couple Bob and Anne, played by a pre-Star Trek John de Lancie and Season Hubley; an executive businessman who comes between them in Paul Whitley, played by Peter Graves; former football star turned failed broadcaster Lyle Kingman, played by Martin Milner; and former aircraft pilot turned purchasing agent Hank Fairbanks, played to perfection by the one and only Doug McClure. Phew!
There are more characters, but potential viewers get the idea. There’s also Lorne Greene playing Cutlass exec Marshall Cole, who spends the entire film on the ground, so who gives a shit about him?
Remember how, way back near the beginning of this cast rundown, I wrote about a disgruntled employee? That’s where this flick’s drama comes from.
Having been passed over for promotion because he’s a dick, Les Phillips chooses to get his revenge on Cutlass by sabotaging the plane. He does this by adding corrosive detergent to the plane’s hydraulic fluid, which will cause the seals in the hydraulic system to fail, depriving the system of the pressure needed to manipulate control surfaces. In a fit of hubris the likes of which one will probably never see in film again, Les sabotages the plane, and then boards the flight. His thinking is that he will be the one to diagnose the problem, and convince Captain Walsh to turn back and make an emergency landing before the hydraulic system fails. Not only did he underestimate Walsh, he underestimated the folks back on the ground at Cutlass. Walsh and Cole make it clear to Les what they expect. This flight is crucial for the company, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to let any little hydraulic leak stop the flight. Of course, the seals fail, and the flight is put in jeopardy.
You don’t see this type of behavior out of corporate execs in film anymore. This flick hails from the time when America’s industrial might, though waning, was still a source of pride in this country. Industry was a place for men who got things done, no matter the circumstances or the risks. Gung ho, all the way, damn the torpedoes, work late, smoke endless cigarettes, never see one’s family, forced to retire at sixty-five, heart attack four years later. It was a fine time to be alive.
Meanwhile, the love triangle in coach isn’t the only personal drama onboard. Hank Fairbanks and Captain Walsh know each other. Hank lost his pilot’s license after making an unscheduled landing at a socked in airport after one of his passengers suffered a heart attack. Walsh was his first officer, and was the person who reported the danger of the incident to the FAA. Needless to say, the two are not fans of each other, so of course they will be forced to cooperate to save the day.
The plane goes up, it goes down, it goes back up, it goes back down. The principal characters solve one problem only for another to appear. Meanwhile, back in the passenger cabin, personal dramas stretch out the running time. The difference between what happens in the cockpit and what happens in the cabin are stark, to the point that it looks like director David Lowell Rich separated the production. One week he filmed cockpit scenes, the next week he filmed cabin scenes. As best I could tell, there was only one brief scene where a character from the cabin appeared in the cockpit. That was Martin Milner. Funny enough, his old co-star from Route 66, Maharis, was a cockpit character, but the two never shared a scene together in this entire film.
Reed, despite some professional competition in the cast, gives the best performance. There is no humor or lightheartedness in his deliveries at any point. He’s beyond dour, in fact — humorless to the point of absurdity. But, on reflection, his character, and the way he is portrayed, is exactly the kind of person I would want flying an airplane in which I am a passenger. No matter how stressful or hopeless the situation becomes, Captain Walsh is unflappable. He can lighten up after he’s got everyone safely on the ground.
Meredith, Graves, and Greene got their paychecks, and that was enough.
The other actor of note was McClure. There’s a reason he was half of the basis for The Simpsons character Troy McClure. When one needed a canned ham in their film, and William Shatner was otherwise engaged, McClure was a fine backup. He has all the suaveness, combined with awkwardness, one needs in a film like this. He’s a middle-aged swinging man of the 1970s, with hair and sideburns to boot. He’s the swagger to compliment Reed’s seriousness. He is the primetime shitty actor who drives this film.
SST: Death Flight is hilarious. It is films just like this that inspired Airplane, because of how silly and over-the-top it all is. I don’t think more than ten minutes ever passed before I was laughing. As such, this stupid movie has a decent showing in the Watchability Index, displacing Escape from the Bronx at #90. Not quite shitty gold, but still worth a watch for the shitty movie fan.
Two final notes. Keep an eye out for Regis Philbin in an airport scene. And, despite this being a TV movie, there is some gratuitous nudity. Producers had Misty Rowe show her boobs in one scene in a cut meant for foreign theatrical distribution. What a business, Hollywood.