The old saying, “If man were made to fly, he would have been given wings” exemplifies the fear that a section of society has with riding in a plane. Although air travel is still a safer way to traverse the globe, there is something frightening about hurdling through the sky at ungodly speeds thousands of feet above the ground with the very real understanding that gravity exists. With these fears, it is no wonder that the movie and television industry has made airplane disaster films a staple of the entertainment industry. This issue of our weekly series highlighting the television movies of the week from different studios, looks at two such stories, ABC’s Seven in Darkness and NBC’s The Ghost of Flight 401.
Seven in Darkness (1969): ABC chose this story to kick off ABC’s Movie of the Week, making this the very first episode of the series, and it chose well. The story is quite simple, a plane full of mostly blind passengers on their way to a convention for the seeing impaired, crashes on a mountain hundreds of miles off course, when the plane’s instruments fail during a storm. All the sighted passengers and crew were killed in the crash, and the seven survivors, including a pregnant woman who is very close to her due date, must learn to work together to find their way to safety. After the crash, the group elects Vietnam War Hero, Mark Larsen (Sean Garrison) to lead them, as he was famous for leading his men to safety during the Viet Nam war, but he harbors a guilty secret and is reluctant to take the reins away from the group’s teacher and mentor, Alex Swain (Barry Nelson) a former physician before losing his sight. A thorn in the side of the survivors is Sam Fuller (Milton Berle) a curmudgeonly bitter and selfish man who appears to only be looking out for himself. Can the group survive the elements, animal attacks and each other and make it back to civilization? Watch and find out!
I was very surprised with how good this film was. The story is compelling, and the casting was spot on, with Milton Berle in a rare dramatic performance. None of the characters were particularly unlikable, including Berle’s prickly character Alex who isn’t as selfish or bitter as he first seems. Sean Garrison’s Mark probably has the biggest character growth, his internal anguish over being thought of as a hero even though he knows the truth, finds his true inner strength and conquers his fears. Each of the passengers has their weaknesses and secrets which are conveyed to the audience in a very short amount of time creating rich characters with depth and added tension to an already extremely tense story. You are rooting for all of them to survive. There is sorrow and joy as each one of these people faces their fears and overcomes obstacles that even a sighted person would run from. The Brail Institute of America did consult and provide technical assistance, adding a level of realism to the production.
The Ghost of Flight 401 (1978): Based on true events, this story has been shared in several different media formats, books, songs, documentaries, television, and movies. NBCs fictionalized version of the story premiered in February of 1978, that same year the movie Crash based on the 1977 book of the same name was released. The story follows co-pilot Dom Cimoli (Ernest Bornine) who was out of the cockpit checking a faulty landing gear light, when some how the auto-pilot disengaged, the senior pilot and other crew members were distracted trying to fix the issue and didn’t realize their altitude had dropped and were unable to correct before crashing in the Florida Everglades. Dom survived the initial crash, but dies later in the hospital. Parts of the wreckage were salvaged and used in other plans of the same type. After which, several crewmembers and passengers begin seeing the ghost of Dom on planes with the re-used pieces. The airline tries to hide this and fires anyone who logs a sighting unless they agree to seek psychiatric help. The salvaged parts are eventually removed from the planes and the sightings cease.
Now that you know the whole story, you don’t have to watch this movie. Where the premise is interesting, the storytelling is not. This was an incredibly slow-moving film with really no payout. There is no real drama, and the production attempts to sensationalize the ghost sightings but fails to do so in an interesting way. The early scenes with Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine and his wife Maria (Carol Eve Rossen) are well done and help to create a very likeable character and build a good emotional connection with the audience which elicits some sorrow when he passes. But other than that, this film was just boring. The story itself should have remained as a segment on a documentary series instead of trying to make a full feature length movie out of it.
Air travel can be wonderful and adventurous, but there is always that risk when you get on a plane, that it may not land as intended. This risk, I believe, is what makes movies about plane crashes popular. The anticipated tension knowing that something is going to go wrong and the heroic acts of survival, mixed with good character development and intrigue, if done right, can make for some very good storytelling.
Movie of the Week: Fatal Flights
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