Back in the pre-Internet and pre-cable analog days of the “Big Three” networks, it seemed as if it was a weekly occurrence, as we watch the nightly news on ABC, CBS, and NBC, that yet another airline skyjacking, aka hijacking, occurred. It was ’70s de rigueur for criminals to make buck or advance their political-personal causes. As a June 2013 Wired investigative article written by Brendan I. Koerner tells us, between 1961 and 1973, nearly 160 of hijacks occurred in American airspace.
As this week’s reviews of “airline disaster” TV movies has shown, the “Big Three” TV networks, along with cable channels like USA and HBO — as well as the film studios — knew plot fodder when they saw it. And when Universal discovered box office gold with Airport — and ignited the ’70s disaster movie genre — with their 1970 adaption of Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel of the same name, you’d knew there be more of the same.
While Paramount Studios’ television division was first out of the gate with their 1971 CBS-TV broadcast movie Terror in the Sky (which is a cousin to Airport by way of Arthur Hailey’s airline-plotted tales), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios wasted no time getting into business with producer Walter Seltzer; Seltzer optioned David Harper’s late-’60s best-seller Hijacked and began working the material under the titles Hijacked and Airborne.
At the time, Seltzer made four movies with Charlton Heston: The War Lord (1965), Will Penny (1967), Number One (1969), and The Omega Man (1971), so Seltzer had his leading man. (The duo would also make Soylent Green and The Last Hard Men in 1973 and 1976, respectively.) For Heston’s leading lady-lead stewardess, Seltzer brought on three-time lifetime Golden Globe-nominee (also of The Neptune Factor and Jackson County Jail) Yvette Mimieux, who co-starred with Heston in Diamond Head (1962).
During a routine Global Airways Minneapolis-bound flight, a passenger (Susan Dey of The Partridge Family) discovers a lipsticked-scrawl bomb threat on a first-class bathroom mirror urging the flight divert to Anchorage, Alaska. A jazz cellist (ex-NFL’er Rosey Grier) believes his jittery military seatmate (James Brolin of The Amityville Horror) is responsible. The rest of the cast of passengers features Walter Pidgeon as a U.S. Senator and Mariette Hartley as a pregnant woman in crisis-induced labor (Earth II), along with Ken Swofford (Black Roses) and Claude Akins (General Aldo from Battle for the Planet of the Apes). And a suspenseful, Murphy’s Law-thriller mix of failed hijacker subduing, radio and radar snafus, fuel loss, near air collisions, and violation of Soviet airspace — as we say around the Allegheny wilds of B&S’ offices — ensues.
Say what you will about these old, ’70s airline disaster flicks, but Skyjacked cleaned up at the box office, becoming one of MGM’s biggest hits of 1972 alongside Shaft and Kansas City Bomber. And Heston knew a hit genre when he saw one: he jumped back in the cockpit for Airport 1975. And he stuck with the disaster-thriller genre with Earthquake (1974) and Two-Minute Warning (1976) — and they also cleaned up at the box office. Oh, and Chuck hit the cockpit for a one-more-third time with ABC-TV’s Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232 (1992).