Monday, March 15, 2010

The Crash of Flight 401 - a toupological analysis.

The Crash of Flight 401 (aka Crash) is a 1978 TV movie that dramatizes the events surrounding the real-life crash of Miami-bound Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 in 1972. Bill Shatner has top-billing, despite fairly limited screen time.

Normally at this juncture we'd tell you a little bit about the story of the movie we are reviewing and analyzing. In this case we can't really do that, because this 95-minute feature has no story that we could discern. The plot is simple: the plane takes off and then crashes and then some survivors are rescued. At the end, we find out why the plane crashed.

Was the disaster movie parody Airplane (1980) partly inspired by this movie?

The characters are so stunningly shallow, two-dimensional and clichéd that The Crash of Flight 401 almost comes across as a parody of 1980's Airplane (if such a thing is possible), which itself was a devastating parody of 1970s disaster movies such as Airport (1970) and its numerous sequels - were the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team also inspired by the sheer awfulness of this particular disaster movie?

There's the nice old lady (above picture), the nun, the alcoholic woman, the finicky male passenger who insists on sitting in a particular seat, the woman who cries a lot, a stewardess who is afraid of flying (!?) - you get the picture.

Many of the characters aboard the plane seem to have an inexplicable sense of omen and dread regarding the most seemingly inane events. Meanwhile, Bill Shatner plays a no-nonsense NTSB inspector who refuses to cut corners, despite what the paper-pushing "suits" say. We're not joking - that really is as much as we learn about his character!

"Looks like I picked the wrong day to give up bad TV movies!"

He comes to assist the survivors once the plane crashes in the swamps of the Florida Everglades.

Shats' then-wife, Marcy Lafferty, plays an air stewardess in the movie:

Writing these kinds of disaster movies was always challenging; how to tell a story outside of the plot? Whose stories to tell? Should the movie have an ensemble cast or focus on just a few characters? How to make the audience care? Here, thanks to a dreadful script (and also the problem of the story being true, hence the audience knowing what will happen), the whole movie appears as doomed as the flight which it portrays.

The Crash of Flight 401 also has a curious structure: we see the crash, then we go back to before the flight and "learn" about the characters that will soon be passengers on board the plane and then we see the crash again - and again at the end we see the crash a third time, this time most graphically. Inter-woven into all of this is an incessant, dramatically redundant voice-over by Bill Shatner (the delivery considerably outmatching the material). The odd structure gives the impression of a hasty re-edit following on from a disastrous initial assembly of the movie, wherein voice-over was added - never a good sign.

The movie looks terribly cheap, shot very quickly, while the direction is about as flat as can be. An example of the dialogue therein: "Are you afraid of flying or getting there?" Summary: this movie is absolutely dreadful.

The only real emotional impact comes from the ghoulish scenes of survivors scattered around the Florida swamps and the shocking explanation of why the plane actually crashed, which comes at the end of the movie.

Let's move quickly to the hair. As with The Babysitter (1980), Bill Shatner is wearing his stage one curly weave - the kind that he wore in the first two Star Trek movies.

The actor, perhaps still unsure about just how much this new style of toupee can take, wears a hat during his most challenging scenes.

Asides from some general ruffling of hair in the wind, there are a couple of other interesting moments.

The first is a very,very long "Real Hair Reflex" - the longest we have ever seen! Is it possible that Bill Shatner thought this was a rehearsal rather than an actual take or didn't realize that he was in shot, as his hair motions seem to serve no dramatic purpose - or do they?

Also briefly visible is a small patch of baldness that Bill Shatner has evidently had for quite some time (also see here) at the rear base of the head, which is normally concealed with combing.

The Crash of Flight 401 is available on second-hand VHS. It is, presently, also up on YouTube. Tedious and hardly worth watching.


  1. Watched this film during the early 80's when it was re-broadcast on Canadian TV. I fell asleep after 10 minutes and awakened after it was over. At least now I know I didn't miss very much. The cause of the crash as explained on various sites is interesting, though.

    Crash of Flight 401 was probably more along the lines of what Shat wanted Rescue 911 to be: him performing the voiceover narration while doing an acting role in the re-creation of the accident.

  2. I watched this in Brazil a long time ago. Bill is really sleepwalking. The hair is no good, too.

  3. Wiki sez: "The film more-or-less follows the true events of the crash, although the names of key characters were changed and certain dramatic events were fictionalized. The crash sequence was one of the most authentic (and expensive) for television of the time, using multiple stunts, pyrotechnics and flyaway set pieces."

  4. They may have spent on special effects, but saved costs on the script and Bil1's hair

  5. The stage one curly weave is fab. Shame about the glimpse of (gulp) scalp at the back though.

  6. A nice analysis of the film. Interestingly, Crash was one two made-for-tv movies about the crash of Flight 401 to air the same year on two different networks. The second was the Ghost of Flight 401, based on the Fuller book.

    I've read the source material, Rob Elder's book Crash, and actually know some of the people portrayed in the film. The screen writers actually did a fairly good job creating character arcs based on the real-life people which, as you point out, isn't easy when dealing with a news event. The cause of the crash was pilot error, not a mismatched autopilot as Shater's voice over would have you believe.

    Also, the film Airplane was based on the movie ZERO HOUR, which bits and pieces drawn from other disaster movies of the 1970s.

  7. What a memorable movie