The Concorde… Airport ’79

The Concorde… Airport ’79

Director: David Lowell Rich
Tagline: At twice the speed of sound, can the Concorde evade attack? 
Plot:  Once upon a time, way back in 1970, Universal Pictures made a movie called Airport. Based on a novel by Arthur Hailey, it told the story of an airport struggling to operate in spite of a horrible blizzard, a mad bomber, and a variety of melodramatic romantic entanglements. Corny but effective, and jam-packed with professionals capable of turning in performances just the right side of camp, the movie won awards and made a ton of money, landing as the highest-grossing picture of the year. Its popularity and open-ended concept meant a sequel wasn’t a complete surprise. Airport 1975 followed four years later, and Airport ’77 three years after that. Each subsequent entry featured the same commitment to star-studded casts and ridiculous theatrics; the diminishing returns were inevitable, but, as ’77 featured Jack Lemmon and Jimmy Stewart, not nearly as bad as they might’ve been.

Which brings us to the final entry in the series, The Concorde… Airport ’79, an ocean-hopping, continent-spanning epic with a milk-money budget, stuffed with instantly dated television personalities and utterly committed to out-ridiculousing the plot points of your average episode of G.I. Joe

Story-wise, this all gets a bit complicated, so strap in. First, there’s George Kennedy as the hilariously sexist meatsack Joe Patroni. Kennedy is the only actor who appeared in all four Airport films, and his rise from engineer to airline owner to Concorde pilot is a moving tribute to the American dream of semi-random sequential achievement. Kennedy teams up with French pilot Alain Delon (star of Le Samouraï, presumably making a down payment on a houseboat) to fly the world’s first commercial supersonic jet from Washington to Europe. But danger follows them at every turn, sometimes in the form of Robert Wagner.

Reporter Susan Blakely is having an affair with the married Robert Wagner, head of Harrison Industries. Blakely got word that Wagner’s company is involved in selling illegal arms, and now that Blakely has proof, Wagner decides he has to kill Blakely. But he wants to make it look like an accident, so he has a flunky reprogram a Buzzard Drone, part of the missile system his company is trying to sell to the military, to “malfunction” during its next test firing and destroy the Concorde mid-flight. 

It’s a breathtakingly idiotic plan, and when Kennedy’s quick reflexes and the Concorde’s surprising maneuverability save the day, Wagner ups the ante by calling in a favor and sending a fighter plane after the beleaguered jet. Kennedy responds in the only logical way: by turning the plane upside down, sticking his arm out the window, and firing a flare to distract the other plane’s heat-seekers:

This takes out one of the missiles, but to win the day, Delon throws the Concorde into a dive, pulling up at the last second and sending the fighter crashing into the sea. (How the Concorde, essentially a bullet with wings, is able to out-fly a plane specifically designed for combat, is never explained. Nor does anyone share how Kennedy is able to stick his arm out of an airplane and not lose the limb.) 

One nearly disastrous emergency landing later, everyone disembarks to spend an evening sampling the wonders of Paris. The next day, most of the cast returns to the Concorde for the final leg of the trip to Moscow. No one seems all that curious as to why the jet was attacked multiple times, least of all Blakely. She has a tearful confrontation with Wagner in which she bemoans her poor taste in men (never once mentioning that hooking up with a dude with a wife and three kids is probably bad news even before he decides to murder the hell out of you), tells him it’s over, and completely fails to realize that her former beau wants her dead. So Wagner makes other arrangements, and when the Concorde hits the air for the last time, its cargo bay holds a deadly secret…

Key Scenes: Airport ’79 is stuffed to the gills with random, half-assed subplots. Delon is having an affair with a stewardess, which may lead to something more serious (spoiler alert: “Je t’aime”), and the eternally smarmy John Davidson plays a sports reporter having an affair with gymnast Andrea Marcovicci. The two reveal their romance to the audience through some playful hot-tub banter: 

In addition to all the hormonal madness, there’s Avery Schreiber and his deaf daughter; Charo, dropping in for a scene as a well-dressed ditz trying (and failing) to smuggle her dog on board; David Warner as a navigator with a troubled marriage; Cicely Tyson as a mother transporting a heart to her dying son; Eddie Albert as extremely horny man married to Sybil Danning; and more corny punchlines and cheap sentiment than a Dean Martin roast. None of this is particularly essential, and the movie’s baffling two-hour runtime makes each meandering, forced bit of Love, American Style hilarity all the more painful.

Can easily be distinguished by: It’s The Love Boat in the air, basically. Also, during the Parisian layover (wink wink, nudge nudge), Kennedy meets a suspiciously charming lady who helps him forget his dead wife. He finds out later that the woman was a prostitute hired by Delon to show him a good time (ah, the French), but that doesn’t stop him—and us—from getting a George Kennedy love scene:

Anyone who ever wanted to see George Kennedy’s post-coital glow can now check off that box on the bucket list. (Next stop—therapy!) 

Sign it was made in 1979: A number of the passengers making the flight are Olympic athletes on their way to a goodwill tour of Moscow, in preparation for the 1980 Summer Olympics. Except the U.S. ended up boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics, which gave Airport ’79 a small window in which it was topical before it became instantly dated. 

Kennedy is weirdly charming throughout the Airport franchise, with a kind of corpulent geniality that seems to have gone out of favor in modern film; his constant stream of sexist remarks (see below) and the gasps of laughter they inevitably receive have a kind of folksy charm when compared to the entire filmography of Dane Cook.

Plus, there’s Jimmie Walker, playing his sax and gettin’ high:

Timeless message: Nothing can kill the Patroni.

Memorable quotes: Delon woos his lady love: “Can I tell you something very personal? Your hair is in my French fries.” (And yet there are no French fries visible, thus casting doubt on the veracity of the entire film.)

Wagner, describing family time at Studio 54: “My three kids used to climb in [bed] with us. It was like a disco on Saturday night.”

Kennedy’s greatest hits:

“Gee. I remember this Eurasian gal. She had these great big blue eyes. They called her The Tarantula. You ever run into her?” 

“Two cups black. You pilots are such men.” “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothing, honey.”

“There’s a story that back in the ’20s when he was barnstorming, he made a bet he could put it to this good-looking wing-walker. He boffed her out on the wing, a thousand feet above El Paso. His ass got so sunburned, he couldn’t sit down for a week!” 

Available on DVD from Universal Studios.