Friday, August 11, 2023

Zero Hour!: A Review



It is now hard, if not impossible, to watch Zero Hour! without some laughter. Now remembered most notoriously as the inspiration for the spoof Airplane!, Zero Hour! lends itself to open mockery in its sincerity. 

Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) once led men on aerial combat runs at the end of World War II. A botched mission however has gotten some of his men killed, which leaves Stryker guilt-ridden. 

His post-traumatic stress disorder has left him a shell of a man, forever haunted by his wartime experience. Now eleven years after the end of the war, he's had twelve jobs in ten years. However, things appear to finally turn around for him thanks to an old friend. It is unfortunate that when he goes to tell his wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) and son Joey (Raymond Ferrell), they've bolted. She left a note telling Ted they are moving clear across Canada.

Ted hurriedly books their flight to intercept them and try to win Ellen back. A crisis, however, emerges when the in-flight meal causes food poisoning among the passengers and crew, including Joey. As flight attendant Janet (Peggy King) is told, "The lives of everyone on board depends on one thing: finding somebody back there who not only can fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner". 

Ted, aided by Ellen at the controls, must now overcome his PTSD to land the plane safely. He is guided by Captain Mike Treleaven (Sterling Hayden), who coincidentally was his commanding officer and still blames Stryker for killing his men. While Trevleaven muses, "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking", he must join forces with his frenemy Stryker to save the passengers from certain death.

It is difficult for anyone who has seen Airplane! to judge Zero Hour! objectively. Minus a few plot changes (Zero Hour! has Ted and Ellen married with a child), Zero Hour! is pretty much Airplane! with a straight face. Even the original film's exclamation point in the title is ripe for parody. 

As a side note, I think the exclamation point in Zero Hour! unintentionally adds to the ridicule factor that the Airplane! writing/directing team so effectively mocked. Even if Airplane! had never been made, Zero Hour! adding that exclamation point opens the film up to mockery in its dogged determination to be a gripping drama only ending up looking laughable.

Whole bits of dialogue and scenes from Airplane! are lifted verbatim from Zero Hour! leading to at the least suppressed giggles, at most outright howls of laughter. Perhaps the most notorious section is when Joey goes to the cockpit and marvels how he's never been in one before. Another scene has a female passenger going into hysterics as others try to calm her down. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, while Airplane! features basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the controls, Zero Hour! has football player Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch copiloting the endangered flight. 

I ask though, would people who have never seen Airplane! laugh if they watch Zero Hour! instead? While it would require someone who actually has never seen either, my sense is that the answer is yes. I think it has to do with the earnestness of the actors. By playing EVERYTHING so serious, it has the opposite effect and makes things unintentionally funny. Hayden and Andrews in particular came across as overdoing the acting: tough in the former, shell-shocked in the latter. Their combined efforts came across as more hilarious than gripping.

I think a major flaw in Zero Hour! is when we get the stock footage when Stryker has his flashbacks. Coupled with Andrews' stoic face, the result is if not laughable at least curious. Over and over again, the determined efforts to make Zero Hour! into this gripping domestic drama went so overboard that one can only marvel at the unintentional humor of it all.

Dana Andrews, Sterling Hayden and in her all-too-brief career Linda Darnell did their best to make Zero Hour! what it was intended to be. I cannot blame them wholly for the end results. That would be director Hall Bartlett, who opted to not let his actors move beyond a certain level of performance. The few times Bartlett and his fellow screenwriters Arthur Hailey and John Champion tried to inject a little bit of levity via either Stewardess Turner's comic boyfriend or a tipsy Scotsman end up not being amusing. There was more fun to be had at the hysterical passenger (hysterical in every sense of the word).

As a side note, Zero Hour! was the last film released in Darnell's lifetime before her tragic and untimely death. 

Zero Hour! has become famous or infamous as the source of one of the greatest comedies and spoofs every made. It is not terrible but now forever lives in the shadow of the film that mocks it. 

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