Dana Andrews is Ted Stryker, a World War II pilot who is scarred by guilt and grief after the death of six of his men. Though the war has been over for more than ten years, Ted still struggles and hasn’t been able to step on a plane since.
Ted’s wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) decides to leave for Vancouver and take their son with her. Despite the fact that he’s nowhere near ready to fly again, Ted follows his wife and son onto the flight.
But tragedy strikes on the plane, when a number of the passengers, as well as both the pilot and co-pilot, come down with food poisoning after eating bad fish. With both the pilot and co-pilot immobilized, someone on board must land the plane and get the sick to a hospital as soon as possible.
Ted is the only other pilot on board – in fact, the only man with any flying experience at all, though his planes in the war were much smaller than the huge, multi-engine jet that’s now in trouble. Despite his trauma, Ted must take over the plane in order to save the lives of everyone on board.
Hall Bartlett directs the 1957 thriller Zero Hour!, the screenplay for which he co-wrote with Arthur Hailey and John Champion. The film was spoofed over twenty years after its release in the 1980 film Airplane!, which uses almost the exact same script to tell a much less dramatic version of the story.
Anyone who has seen Airplane! will find it difficult to completely buy into the drama of Zero Hour!, especially given how similar the scripts are. Even for someone like myself, who has only seen Airplane! once (and that viewing was years before watching Zero Hour!), it can be difficult to view this film as a thrilling, action-packed drama rather than a corny, comedic film.
The script itself does lend itself to some silliness, though not quite as many laughs as the viewer gets from the spoof version. Unfortunately, many of the performances do nothing to help the laughable portions of the script. The sick passengers in particular seem not sincerely sick, but rather an over-exaggerated caricature of how people act when ill. The first woman who falls ill and requires the doctor’s attention is the worst example of this. She’s so over-the-top that it is literally impossible to take her seriously.
The leads, however, do a decent job of building the suspense and tension that was probably intended when the story was originally formulated. Dana Andrews manages believability and brings a sense of anguish to his role, despite some of the mildly corny dialogue that he must deliver. Linda Darnell brings a bit of drama as well, with her constant worried stares.
The best performance, though, comes from Sterling Hayden as the pilot who must talk Ted through the landing. Hayden’s character knew Ted during the war, and therefore understands just how mentally scarred he is. Hayden tensely chain smokes, paces the room and gives stern advice over the radio. He comes close to saving the film from being overtaken by its Airplane!-induced reputation of cheese. Part of this could be credited to the fact that much of Hayden’s dialogue is technical flight lingo, but his delivery also has a harsh edge to it that isn’t present in most of the other performances.
Zero Hour! is an enjoyable watch that would probably make a very great thriller if its parody wasn’t so well-known. If you’re able to focus on this film as something separate from Airplane! and don’t judge the cornier portions of the script too harshly, it does make for a somewhat dramatic and tense film boosted by three decent lead performances. The score: 3.5/5
*A NOTE FROM LINDSEY: This review marks the end of my Through the Library, Alphabetically series! I’ve enjoyed discovering these films and making my way through a small fraction of my library’s wonderful DVD collection. I’m contemplating similar series of alphabetical Netflix picks and moving alphabetically through my own DVD collection in the future, or possibly doing another round through the library, but nothing is set in stone yet, so stay tuned for updates!