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Monday, July 11, 2011

The Flight That Disappeared

This is a low-budget independent film with a message. The Flight That Disappeared (FTD) amounts to a anti-nuclear moralizing turned into a movie. The writers, Ralph and Judith Hart, and Orville Hampton had a message they wanted to deliver, so they wrapped it in a Twilight Zone style package. FTD is a low-budget film, intended as socio-political preaching more than drive-in fodder. Yet, it is a good example of atomic angst.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Passengers board Flight 60 in Los Angeles for a flight to Washington DC. Among those aboard are Dr. Morris, nuclear theorist; Marcia Paxton, his mathematician associate; and Tom Endicott, rocket engineer. (Much of the movie's first half is made up of character development and stock footage.) Eventually, Dr. Morris, Marcia and Tom all figure out that they're being summoned to Washington for the same meeting. Most likely, they will be asked to create a super bomb and super missile to deliver it. A minor character named Walter Cooper is a mentally unstable "hawk" who tries to convince Dr. Morris that his super bomb must be used first to take out the enemy before they develop a super bomb too. Somewhere over the midwest, the plane climbs over a thunderstorm, but keeps on climbing. The crew cannot stop the climb. The plane flies so high that the passengers begin to pass out. Walter wakes up crazy paranoid and jumps out of the plane. The engines conk out for lack of oxygen, but the plane keeps climbing. Everyone aboard passes out. Air traffic controllers are frantic and searching for the missing airliner. Meanwhile, Tom, Marcia and Dr. Morris wake up. No one else does. The plane is motionless in a foggy dreamscape. A man (The Examiner) calls them out through the door Walter left open. The three are accused of destroying the future and will be tried by a jury of those yet unborn. There is some arguing over semantics, but the jury pronounces them guilty. Their punishment is to be kept in non-time. They make a run for the plane, but are stopped. Just before The Examiner is about to 'freeze' them, a bald man comes up and says the future can't interfere with the "divine order" and has no business judging the present. Tom awakens on the plane back in flight. He talks of his experience, but the passengers and crew think he's delusional from a hit on the head. Later, Marcia and Dr. Morris agree that they had an identical "dream" but have no proof that it really happened. Without proof, they'll just have to assume it was a shared delusion. The plane lands in DC. Mystified air traffic executives meet the pilot and tell him he's exactly 24 hours overdue. Tom, Marcia and Dr. Morris hear this. It is the proof they needed. Dr. Morris tears up his super bomb notes and throws them in the trash. Tom and Marcia link arms and walk off all happy. The End.

Armageddon Averted
FTD is a more aggressive version of Klaatu's warning ten years earlier. In The Day the Earth Stood Still ('51), Klaatu warns the people of earth not to mess with nukes. In FTD, people stand trial for their future use. The Examiner shows images of the possible future (file footage of Dresden and Hiroshima) in which all life on earth is wiped out. Heeding this terrible warning, the three inventors of the super bomb censor themselves to prevent the awful future.

Cold War Spotlight
The nuclear arms debate is carried out by the cast. Dr. Morris has is own misgivings, but goes with the conventional flow of wisdom that he must make his super bomb as a deterrent. Mr. Jameson and Walter Cooper voice the more belligerent tone of hit-em-hard, hit-em-first, etc. The Examiner takes the belligerently pacifist role. Some must perish now, to save those in the future.

Pacifist First Strike -- Somewhat ironically, the souls of the future perform the exact strategy that Walter Cooper was advocating. In order to prevent armageddon, they struck first. They planned to take out the inventors of the super bomb to prevent it from ever coming into existence. This was exactly what Walter advocated. Use the bomb on the enemy before they invent one too.

Guilt At The Source -- Curiously, the writers have taken the stance that originators -- the inventors -- of a weapon that kills, are ultimately responsible. Those actually pulling the trigger(s) are minor figures. By that (rather liberal) thinking, Smith and Wesson are responsible for gang murders. Exxon killed the girlfriend doused and set on fire by her boyfriend, etc. etc. The presumption being that removing all weapons would remove murder. Mankind has, sadly, proven too resourceful to be thwarted by a lack of obvious weapons. Bare hands suffice, in far too many cases.

Dies Ex Machina -- True to the classical greek theater idiom, a never-before-seen and unnamed bald man (of the future, apparently) steps in at the last minute and gets our heroes out of trouble. He argues that the future cannot circumvent "divine order" and that those of the present have to sort things out for themselves. Where was this bald-guy earlier, during the trial? Was he an archangel who just noticed the future kids misbehaving and had to step in and put a stop to it? Dies ex machina was a weak plot solution back in ancient Greece. It was weak in 1961 too.

Sunset of the Props -- Despite the wording on the poster, it is not a JETliner that disappears. It was a DC-6, four-engined propeller airliner. The script gives some milage to the fact that prop planes were old fashioned, so this doesn't appear to be a last minute change because more stock footage was available for the DC-6. By 1961, most airlines had converted from prop planes to the DC-8 (four jet engines) and the Boeing 707 (also four jets). The choice of setting it on a prop plane is a bit unusual, but could have been for artistic reasons. Just as air travel was transitioning from propellers to modern jets, the old way of thinking (nukes and deterrence) must give way to the modern anti-nuclear dawn. Get it?

Better as a B -- In 1957, Irwin Allen produced a big budget A film attempting to tell pretty much the exact same message as FTD, but generally failing to do so. The Story of Mankind was loosely based on a kids book by Hendrik Van Loon from 1921 that was a one-volume synopsis of human history. Allen took that historical synopsis idea (and the title) and added a trial in which mankind is on trial in heaven for creating the atom bomb. Vincent Price plays the devil. Ronald Colman plays a vaguely milktoast Christ-ish advocate. History is replayed in a myriad of vignettes. Michael Carridine plays Pharaoh. Peter Lorrie plays Nero. Harpo Marx plays Issac Newton, Groucho Marx an American settler, etc. etc. The overall effect is so distracting and ludicrous that it overshadows the moral of the story. The net message is that, yes, mankind is bad, but we can be good too...so there. Quite the non-ending. FTD, as a B film, had a much smaller budget but did a better job of delivering the same message.

Bottom line? FTD is not high cinema art. It amounts to a Twilight Zone episode stretched into a low-budget feature film. But, overlooking the marginal acting and cheap sets, it is not all that bad. FTD does convey some of the ideological passion that swirled around at the height of the Cold War. (The Cuban Missile Crisis is just one year away). Watch FTD as a snapshot of 1961 nuclear philosophy.


EFAP said...

This film, however amateurishly staged, contains precious humanistic ideology and therefore is definitely worth watching.

Steve T said...

Yea , excellent summing up, as said no high end art house masterpiece, but carries a perfectly valid snapshot of ideology of its time. Enjoyable, controversy free, thankfully lacking the current 2022, box ticking exercises,