Saturday, July 9, 2016

Jet Storm (1959)

Jet Storm is an aviation disaster movie but in several interesting ways it differs from most movies of this type. This British production was released in 1959.

Thirty-two passengers are about to board an airliner in London en route to New York. One of the passengers, Ernest Tilley (Richard Attenborough), seems a bit distracted. He has good reason to be. He has just spotted a man about to board the same aircraft. He has been searching for this man for two years. He knew the man would be taking this flight but now he has confirmation. The man is James Brock (George Rose) and he was responsible for the death of Ernest Tilley’s seven-year-old daughter in a hit-and-run accident.

Not long after take-off two other passengers overhear Tilley talking to his wife. What they hear disturbs them enough to cause them to inform the pilot, Captain Bardow (Stanley Baker). Tilley was telling his wife that James Brock was about to die.

After speaking to Tilley it is obvious to Bardow that Tilley, an explosives expert, has planted a bomb aboard the plane. He intends to kill James Brock, and everyone else on board. Tilley blames the whole world for the death of his daughter, his bitterness exacerbated by his belief that Brock escaped justice through bribery. Bardow’s problem is that he has no way of knowing how Tilley intends to trigger the bomb so Tilley will have to be approached very carefully. Given his expertise in explosives it is likely that Tilley has designed his bomb with a remote control detonating device and any attempt to rush him, or threaten him, is likely to result in the immediate detonation of the bomb.

This movie is a skillful exercise in slow-burning suspense. At first no-one takes Tilley seriously. They assume he is merely making empty verbal threats. It gradually dawns on the passengers and crew that Tilley is dead serious and that his threats are anything but empty.

This movie does not quite follow the usual aviation disaster movie formula. While there is plenty of nail-biting suspense the real emphasis here is on the psychological reactions of the passengers. Thirty-two people suddenly find themselves facing possible imminent death. How will they react? As it turns out some deal with the situation with courage and cheerfulness. Others react with cowardice, selfishness, stupidity and viciousness. Tilley wants to kill everyone aboard because he believes that people are worthless and that when they discover they are about to die they will reveal themselves as corrupt and vicious and cowardly. In the case of about half the passengers his assessment is spot on. The question then becomes - can those passengers who behave bravely and decently somehow convince Tilley that people are worth saving?

And can the passengers who keep their nerve prevent those who have lost theirs from doing something foolish that will result in everyone’s death?

This film also departs from the usual formula in that the crew are not heroic paragons of virtue who save the day through their incredible skill and bravery. Captain Bardow is brave and he is very competent but no amount of flying skill is going to make any difference. Any attempt by the crew, no matter how brave and self-sacrificing they might be, to take any overt action against Tilley will simply cause him to blow up the aircraft immediately.

If the airliner and those aboard are to be saved it’s going to require a more subtle and indirect approach.

Richard Attenborough made a career out of playing vulnerable and/or damaged characters  and he’s wise enough to underplay his performance, which has the effect of making Tilley much more menacing. Tilley is just the sort of quiet inoffensive little man who might blow up an aircraft. Stanley Baker is excellent, as always. The support cast is a galaxy of wonderful British character actors. They’re all good and it’s almost unfair to single anyone out although special mention must be made of Dame Sybil Thorndike and also Elizabeth Sellars’ performance as the cool and aristocratic Inez Barrington. 

Interestingly enough the airliner portrayed in the film is a Russian Tupolev Tu-104. At the time the film was made the only other jet airliner in service was the British de Havilland Comet but given the series of well-publicised and disastrous crashes suffered by the British aircraft the producers might have thought that using a Comet for the film would be in poor taste.

Writer-director Cy Endfield went on to achieve huge success a few years later with Zulu. There are in fact intriguing parallels between the two movies - in both cases you have a potentially disastrous situation in which courage alone is not enough to save the day. Courage is certainly required, but it has to be combined with coolness and discipline. 

Jet Storm is not just one of the best aviation disaster movies it’s also a complex and engrossing psychological drama. Very entertaining and highly recommended.

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