Zero Hour! Review

You have seen this film before. Even if you haven't actually seen Zero Hour!, there's a very good chance that you have, if you ignore the obvious contradiction, seen it. You see, Zero Hour! was the film that David and Jerry Zucker and their friend Jim Abrahams turned to in their writing a follow-up to Kentucky Fried Movie, the film that eventually became Airplane! And when one says adapt, what is really meant is that Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker simply lifted the story, pages of dialogue and even the famous, "Who had the fish?" horror of Zero Hour! and added gags, an blow-up autopilot and Hare Krishnas. But, as you'll find out, they left almost everything else well alone.

Ahem...Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) had a miserable experience in the war. So far, so much like millions of others but lying on his bed where he's supposed to be recovering, Ted bears a terrible guilt, that of the death of his men, something he feels entirely responsible for. His doctors, who look to be at the very bluntest end of psychology, tell him that he shouldn't worry and that she should get himself home. "Because of my mistake, six men didn't return from that raid!" Doubtless prompting him about the thousands of injured soldiers parked in corridor waiting for the bed that he's occupying, the doctors finally rid themselves of, discharge him...and he leaves to settle into a life of marriage, domestic contentment and horrendous flashbacks.

Ten years and twelve jobs later, Stryker is desperate. His marriage is failing, his home is a crummy apartment and the flashbacks are neverending. He approaches an old friend about a job but learns that all that's on offer is a job as a pilot. Stryker hasn't flown in ten years! But with nothing else, he takes it. Heading home, he intends on breaking the good news to his wife but she's already gone, left for the airport and to catch a flight with their son. Catching that same flight, Stryker hopes that they can begin again but fate hasn't finished with Ted Stryker just yet. As thunder cracks and the rain lashes the plane, the passengers begin to fall ill. The cause is narrowed down to the fish that was served as part the meal. With half the passengers, captain and pilot falling sick, Dr Baird (Geoffrey Toone) asks the stewardess (Peggy King) to help. "The life of everyone aboard depends on just one thing: finding someone out there who can not only fly this plane but who didn't have fish for dinner!" Ted Stryker glances nervously out of the window and desperately wishes that he was somewhere else...

How did Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker get away with it? Very simply, they purchased the rights to the script for Zero Hour! and not only half-inched the storyline but much of the dialogue as well. There is a cheap sense of comedy to Airplane!, which doesn't stop it being very funny, but Zero Hour is very nearly as funny even though it does contain only a handful of jokes, there is a surplus of comedy in the situation, the ridiculous dialogue and in Dana Andrews plumbing the very depths of the acting profession to bring us a man more improbable than a dozen flying monkeys. Part of this is due to Arthur Hailey, on whose story this is based and who supplied the screenplay, not being at all interested in writing a decent set of characters when a whisky-loving Scot, a square-jawed (and ultimately morphined-to-the-skies) pilot and a ventriloquist with a sock puppet will do, the 1957 equivalent to Airplane!'s guitar-playing nun. In the plane, Elena Stryker (Linda Darnell) gazes at her husband and love lights in her eyes once again. He doesn't return the look. Instead, he looks completely baffled at the acres of dials, switches and levers and wrestles with the controls, something that's not made easy by the gallons of sweat that gush forth from his forehead.

"Looks like I picked a bad week to give up smoking!" On the ground, Captain Treleaven (Sterling Hayden) grimaces at the radar - a device that doesn't actually appear to bear any relation to Flight 714's position in the air - grits his teeth and growls out his crew. In the air, Stryker joins in, "I may bend your precious airplane but I'll bring it down!" Emergency crews rally via stock footage. Night turns to day and back again. In spite of falling 400 feet in less than a second, a very level-headed and surprisingly sure-footed doctor pops into the cockpit to say, "I just want to tell you both, good luck", while, in the tower, even Treleaven's second-in-command joins in, "He may not be able to fly, but he's sure got guts!" Finally, a tiny little model plane falls onto the ground, loses its landing gear, which, in the manner of all the best Airfix kits, were probably not glued on properly, and grinds to a halt. Stryker and Treleaven have sweated so profusely as to need to wring their suits dry while everyone else, particularly those who ate the lamb chops, look entirely untroubled by the disaster, perhaps being blissfully unaware of the crisis.

It is complete nonsense and entirely obvious why Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker were sufficiently enamoured of it to base their breakthrough feature on it. Though without as many laughs as Airplane!, there is still so very much to enjoy in Zero Hour!, not least the melodrama, the love affairs and so misguided a sense of crisis as to have its audience laughing aloud as the plane falls through the sky and 'troubled' Ted Stryker suffering those damn flashbacks. But best of all, there's an entire airline-in-trouble genre finding its feet here, one that would concoct a disaster out of the most incongruous of events. Here, it's an out-of-the-blue calamity involving food poisoning, two seriously-ill pilots and a man in an airport control tower struggling with a nicotine addiction but it would later see a Boeing 707 threatened by a suicide bomber, a light aircraft crashing into the flight deck of a 747 and a Concorde dodging surface-to-air missiles with a series of loops and barrel rolls! Less sensational than those crises, this is, for very sensitive folk, particularly those who tremble at the mere mention of in-flight meals, still a drama worth bothering. For the rest of us, this is a terrifically entertaining film that has more laughs than the average comedy. Not as many as Airplane!, mind, but very close.


Given some basic rules of economics, Warners were never going to spend the kind of money on restoring Zero Hour! that they would have done on a Ben-Hur or Wizard Of Oz. Inasmuch as they've clearly taken a good deal of care over this with plenty of detail in the image, the damage to the print is noticeable, not least in the spots, lines and scratches on the source material. It has looked much worse than it does here - there have been some television broadcasts of Zero Hour! in the last decade when only a truly dreadful print was available - making clear that though Warners have taken some amount of care over Zero Hour!, it's one of their lesser efforts.

The same can be said over the DD2.0 audio track, with the DD2.0 Mono track coming with a small amount of background noise and the occasional flutter in the background but which is often very reasonable. Other than the drone of propellers, which Airplane! also made use of to accompany their jet plane, there's really only dialogue on the soundtrack and so long as that remains clear throughout, and largely it does, there's not a great deal to complain about.


The only extra on the disc is a Trailer (2m04s).

7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
3 out of 10


out of 10

Latest Articles