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Zero Hour! 

     "I think you ought to know what are chances are: the life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing -- finding someone back there who not only can fly this plane, but didn't have fish for dinner."

--  Dr. Baird / Deadpan Doomsayer   

 

     

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Gonzoid Cinema

 

 

Buzzkillers!

It's the only way to fly.

 

Watch it!

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The Hell?!

Son ... Do you like Gladiator Movies?

 
Sights &
Sounds:
Zero Hour!
(1957)
 Carmel Productions /
 Paramount Pictures

Disasters
Just Waiting
to Happen:
Flying the
Unfriendly
Skies.

Zero Hour

Airport

Airport '75

Airport '77

Airport '79

Airplane: The Movie

Airplane II: The Sequel

 

We open knee-deep in World War II, winging our way toward Germany with the R.A.F.'s 72nd Fighter/Bomber Squadron. Under the command of Canadian pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews), their mission is to bomb a strategic supply depot. And after slugging through the German fighter umbrella, things get a little sticky when the group's objective is completely obscured by dense fog. Against the feelings of most of his squadron, Stryker doesn't abort the mission and leads his planes in on a low attack run that ends in a catastrophe. Relying on instruments and instincts only, the planes go in too low and six of them crash. Stryker survives the bombing run, but is badly wounded, and while recovering, the airman is crippled by survivor's guilt and haunted with severe flashbacks of the fatal attack. Taking full responsibility for the mission's failure, no formal charges are brought against him but Stryker is washed-up as a pilot. And when he receives his honorable discharge, the doctors warn the shell-shocked veteran to face his emotional trauma, and put it behind him, or heíll be running from it forever. For Stryker, the war is over, but a "more personal kind of war has just started for him."

Ten years later, Stryker is still running. Even now, desperately trying to land a menial factory job in Winnipeg, Stryker fears his war record will once again cost him a job. But the manager says itís his record after the war that concerns him more. Seems Stryker has gone through twelve jobs in ten years, and has moved just as often. Obviously, this constant state of flux has been a great strain on his family as well. Knowing he's at the breaking point with his wife, Stryker pleads for the opening to save his marriage. He makes his case and lands the job, but when he arrives home to celebrate, all he finds is a note in an empty house (-- and the ominous music cue clues us in to what it says.) Rushing to the airport, the desperate husband spies his estranged wife, Ellen (Linda Darnell), and their son, Joey (Raymond Ferrell), boarding Flight-714 for Vancouver. Quickly buying a ticket for himself, Stryker barely makes it on board before the flight departs. Now, it's been over ten years since the ex-pilot last left the ground, and after white-knuckling it through the take-off, he breaks into a cold sweat and quickly retreats into the bathroom where he has a major relapse, suffering an extreme anxiety attack, complete with violent flashbacks of his men crashing and burning...

Well, then: Does the plot of Zero Hour! sound kind of familiar to you? Does is it maybe trip off your dťjŗ-vu alarm just a little? It should. And thatís because the comedy Airplane basically spoofed Zero Hour! into the oblivion of terminal obscurity. Most people make the wrong assumption that the Airport movies were the main inspiration for Airplane -- but now you know better. That's right; it was this overshadowed and unheralded film that inspired Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers comedic masterpiece -- but to be honest, they didn't have to change all that much.

Famed author Arthur Hailey wrote the original CBC teleplay, Flight to Danger, that Zero Hour! was based on. Kind of a dry-run for his 1968 novel Airport, later adapted to the big screen itself in 1970, Hailey's seminal work triggered a whole franchise of calamitous and angst-ridden airliner pot-boilers. It's funny, but the man's entire writing career was nothing but love triangles, matrimonial humps, and airline disasters. Translating his script to the big screen, Hal Bartlett served as both producer and director. Bartlett's other big contribution to the world of gonzoidal cinema was adapting Richard D. Bach's New Age "Free to be Me" best-seller, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Here, together, the frothy melodrama they concoct comes on fast and thick with some unintended comedic results. Read on...

Along with the Stryker's crumbling marriage, there are several other subplots stuck on this plane ride as well. Head stewardess Janet Turner (Peggy King) is fighting with her long-time boyfriend, Tony (Jerry Paris), because she can't get a matrimonial commitment out of him. There are also several older gentlemen in first class, passing a bottle around, on their way to a football game in Vancouver. And, of course, everybody must choose which of the two entrees they'd like to have for dinner -- but we're getting ahead of ourselves just a bit.

When Stryker finally extracts himself from the john, he bumps into the pilot in the galley. (What the pilot is doing in there, I donít know -- and whose flying the plane is another mystery.) Captain Smith (Elroy "Crazylegs" Hisrch -- and his unearthly chiseled chin --) comments on his passenger's haggard appearance. Asked if he needs some Dramamine to settle his stomach, Stryker declines, and moves up the aisle to try and talk to his wife. Ellen isnít really happy to see him, but Joey sure is. Wanting to speak with her privately, Stryker asks the stewardess if his son can see the cockpit. After Janet takes them both forward, recognizing him, Smith asks Stryker if he's feeling any better, then asks Joey if theyíve ever been in a cockpit before. (And no, he doesnít ask if he likes gladiator movies -- or ever seen a grown man naked.) Joey proudly offers his dad used to fly fighter-planes in the war, and proclaims he wants to be a pilot, too, someday -- just like his old man. Before she leaves, Janet asks the flight crew which they'd rather have for dinner: fish or lamb. (Uh-oh.) Smith, the co-pilot, and Joey all want fish, while Stryker opts for the lamb. When his dad says it's time to go, Joey is offered a chance to stick around for awhile if he likes. He does. And as Stryker leaves, we overhear an ominous weather report that states several airports are closing, completely swamped in by bad fog.

Returning to his wife, Stryker throws himself on her mercy and begs for another chance. But Ellen confronts him with the facts: the decision to leave was made for Joey's benefit, not hers, because theyíve been on the move since the end of the war, never settling down. She says itís nothing heís done, but what he hasnít done. Though the husband promises to do better, his promises are no good anymore. And then the wife drops the bomb on him ... she canít live with a man she no longer respects. (Ouch.)

Back in the cockpit, Janet brings the pilots their food and sends Joey back to his seat to eat. When the boy finds his dad not sitting with his mom. When asked why, Dad handles it delicately but the kid knows the score; and letís give Joey a little credit here for being wise beyond his years. Then things settle down for awhile as all 38 passengers are served a meal. They eat, and time quietly passes -- until one of the travelers becomes violently ill. And when the Dramamine Janet administers has no affect on her worsening stomach pains, fearing they may need to make an emergency landing to get the sick woman to a hospital, the attendant reports the incident to Smith. Unfortunately, with all the airports closed due to the inclement weather -- except for Vancouver, still five hours away -- all he can do is hold course and see if there is a doctor on board. As Janet leaves to do just that, we notice that the co-pilot is starting to get sick.

Luckily, Janet finds a Dr. Baird (Geoffrey Toone), who is happy to help. But after examining the patient, he doesnít like what he sees in the symptoms -- acute stomach pains, chills, and profuse sweating. Meanwhile, more passengers are getting sick, including Joey. When Baird examines him, he asks Ellen what the boy has had to eat that day. She goes through the list, up to the fish he ate an hour ago. With that, Baird then asks to see the pilot. Cornering Smith in the galley, the doctor insists that they must land immediately, But before Smith can tell him about the impassable weather, the plane abruptly goes into a nosedive!

Rushing into the cockpit, they find the co-pilot slumped over the controls. And while Smith gets the plane back under control, Baird asks Janet what the sick man had for dinner. Told he also had the fish, and feeling for sure that food-poisoning must be the key, the doctor tells her to find out who all had the same meal on the flight. First on that list is Smith, who dangerously points out that he had the fish, too.

As the passengers start to grow wary that something's wrong, Smith radios Vancouver to have them prepare for an emergency landing, with medical help standing by. That done, Baird gives him a shot of morphine to help fight off the sickness. (Giving morphine to the pilot? Is that really wise?) The doctor also gives everyone else who had the tainted meat an ipecac. (Man, What are they gonna do with all the air-sickness bags?) But it comes too little too late as more passengers fall victim to this mysterious malady. And when Janet hears the intercom buzzing, no one in the cockpit responds to her answer -- which can mean only one thing! With Baird right behind her, she rushes forward and finds Smith keeled over in his seat, barely conscious; but at least he managed to turn the auto-pilot on, so they're safe for the moment -- well, at least until they run out of gas or plow into a mountain or something.

Since she managed to find a doctor amongst the passengers, Baird sends Janet out again; this time to hopefully find a pilot. To prevent a panic, they create a ruse that Captain Smith just needs help with the radio. Turns out Stryker is the only one with any kind of flight experience and offers to help. But then, to his horror, he enters the cockpit and finds both pilot seats empty! Immediately, Stryker tries to back-pedal out of it until Baird gives him the score: unless he can get the plane down, everyone, including his family, will surely die. With no real pilots left, Stryker worries about panicked passengers, but Baird assures him that he and Janet can handle them -- all he needs to worry about is flying the plane. With his hands full of unfamiliar controls, Stryker will need help with the radio so Baird promotes Ellen to co-pilot. When Ellen is brought up front and takes in the scene, she can't help but fearfully express her husband's short-comings as a pilot. (Read between the lines, here, folks.) But Baird insists this is their only chance, with no time for doubts, and as Ellen buckles in, Stryker contacts Vancouver and radios in the dire situation. 

On the ground, Burdick (Charles Quinlaven) makes emergency preparations, including getting a hold of Captain Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), the best man to talk Stryker down. But there's a problem: the two have a troubled history, dating back to the war, and Treleaven also has no doubt that Stryker will crack under the pressure. Again, Burdick stresses that Stryker is the only chance they have, so Treleaven puts on the kid gloves when he contacts the plane. When Stryker recognizes him, they congenially decide to cut the crap and get through it. With that, Ellen takes over the radio and Treleaven starts running him through the controls and landing procedures.

Meanwhile, despite Janet's best efforts, the passengers are starting to panic. One woman in particular even tries to open the emergency door, cutting her hand on some broken glass. As Tony helps to get her under control, he sees that Janet isnít holding up very well and promises to marry her as soon as they land to perk her up. (Not much of a commitment, really; once you consider all the circumstances.) On the ground, Treleaven wants to practice some more, but Stryker says there isnít enough time. Then, as the plane approaches the Rockies, they run into a bad thunderstorm. Making it worse, the lightning triggers more flashbacks -- and Stryker kinda freezes up, then zones-out, causing the plane to go into another terminal nosedive! Luckily, Ellen manages to snap him out of it, but during the mayhem, the radio was knocked off the airportís frequency.

As the ground-crew in Vancouver sits in an uneasy silence, the radio-op keeps calling for Flight-714, but gets no answer. On the plane, Stryker sweats some more and tinkers with the radio. Eventually, with Ellen's help, he manages to tune Vancouver back in. Alas, the flight's erratic course has allowed the bad weather to catch up with them, and now Vancouver is swamped in by fog, too. Telling them they have enough fuel to last another two hours, Treleaven wants the plane to circle the airport until the weather breaks. But Stryker radios back that the sick passengers are out of time and heís coming in -- fog or no fog. Treleaven concedes and wishes him luck. 

Taking the plane down into the soup, Stryker puts Ellen in charge of the engine kill switches after they land. And as they swing around for the final approach, Ellen looks her husband in the eye and says that sheís very proud of him. Eyes front, they manage to faintly make out the runway through the fog and head in. Ellen sounds the alarm, warning the passengers to assume crash positions, and as Treleaven bellows at him the whole way down -- they come in too fast, burn out the brakes, and destroy the landing gear -- the plane comes to screeching halt mostly intact. (As the old saying goes, any landing you can walk away fromÖ)

When things settle, Baird informs the couple theyíve landed in time to save the sick. Over the radio, and the approaching sirens, Treleaven says it was the ugliest landing heís ever witnessed, but would still like to buy them all a drink.

The End

 

See what I mean? Exactly: the comedy of Airplane is lifted almost verbatim from Zero Hour!. Itís all there: from the insipid dialogue to the overblown melodrama -- so much so, that while watching Zero Hour! you will crack-up at the most inopportune times. Seriously, it's very, very hard to watch this film with a straight face if youíve already been corrupted by Airplane. And from the deadpan doctor, to the cranky air-traffic controller, to the sweaty hero, and from the plucky stewardess, to the long suffering wife, to the very panicky passenger, the characters are also virtually identical. Itís also the originator of the "Picked the wrong day to quit smoking gag" taken to the hilt by Lloyd Bridges in the later film.

There is one scene that seems strangely missing in Airplane: a bizarre vignette between Joey and Tony, where Tony has a sock-puppet that talks in an Irish brogue. Using it to entertain the sickly boy, it comes off as really creepy and seems more than ripe for the Zucker and Abrahams treatment, and left me scratching my head, pondering its omission.

Dana Andrews and Sterling Hayden do turn in solid performances, as does Linda Darnell as the long-suffering Ellen who isn't afraid to pull any more punches as far as her husband is concerned. I enjoy all of these actors immensely. In Airplane, Robert Hayes needed help from the F/X department to produce the gallons and gallons of sweat. Here, Andrews didnít need any help. (Man that guy can produce the juice.) And is it me, or does Hayden always seem to be having trouble breathing? (Also watch for John Ashley doing a bad Elvis impersonation on the TV.)

In the end, itís not that hard to see this plane ride as a metaphor for the Strykerís failing marriage. And how they have to put their differences and doubts aside and work together to get through this crisis and save Joey. And with a little help from Treleaven -- the marriage counselor from hell, they manage to successfully land the plane, thus saving the marriage. And to be honest, Zero Hour! stands up fairly well on its own as a dramatic piece, but I will warn you all one last time that if you've already seen Airplane, it makes Zero Hour! one of the funniest damned unintentional comedies ever made.

Zero Hour (1957) Carmel Productions :: Paramount Pictures / P: John C. Champion / D: Hall Bartlett / W: Arthur Hailey, John C. Champion, Hall Bartlett / C: John F. Warren / E: John C. Fuller / M: Ted Dale / S: Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, Sterling Hayden, Geoffrey Toone, Jerry Paris, Peggy King, Charles Quinlivan
Originally Posted: 12/14/00 :: Rehashed: 04/24/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.

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