History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

September 17

66 years ago today Allied Airborne troops parachuted into the Netherlands with the goal of seizing several German-held bridges on the Meuse River, the Waal River, and the Lower Rhine, as the “Market” portion of Operation Market Garden (Garden was the armored ground division). The Operation ultimately proved to be one of the Allies’ biggest blunders of the war. William Goldman and Richard Attenborough made a fairly decent movie about it, but its memory is tainted by serving as the payoff for the “Caine–Hackman Theory” subplot from Jeremy Piven’s PCU.

Let’s stay with airborne related blunders though.

102 years ago today, Orville Wright arrived at Fort Myer in Arlington County, Virginia to demonstrate his airplane, the Wright Flyer, for the US Army. The purpose of Wright’s demonstration was simple – the Army was interested in purchasing an airplane from the Wright Brothers. It had been five years since Orville Wright made his historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and the dreamy possibilities of bringing warfare to the skies had been weighing heavy on the US Army’s mind.

First Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was a 26-year-old flight enthusiast serving as the United States government’s representative to the Aerial Experiment Association, a Canadian aeronautical research group overseen by Alexander Graham Bell (yup, that Alexander Graham Bell). In their dash to weaponize air-travel, the Army had purchased a dirigible. Selfridge was supposed to pilot this dirigible from Nebraska to the Missouri State Fair, where it was to be shown off, but when he learned of Wright’s presentation at Fort Myer he begged for a transfer of duties. His transfer was granted.

Selfridge wasn’t just interested in watching Wright fly around. Selfridge was a true aeronautical nut; he both piloted and designed planes himself. He was here to talk his way on-board the Wright Flyer as a passenger. Wright, no doubt eager to please the Army, obliged. At first the demonstration was going swimmingly – Wright made four successful circuits around the base, but on the fifth one the right propeller snapped. This set off a chain reaction of breakage, which shattered the other propeller, among other things, and sent the plane into a nosedive. When the plane smashed into the ground both Wright and Selfridge were thrown against the remaining unsnapped-wires of the aircraft. Wright suffered minor injuries, but Selfridge fractured his skull, dying later at the hospital and becoming the world’s first airplane fatality (we’re not counting those idiots who strapped wings on a bicycle and pedaled off a cliff). This tragedy did not stop the US Army from starting an air force, of course, but Selfridge’s death did inspire the Army to issue headgear to their first pilots.

To honor Selfridge’s unfortunate achievement, let’s take a positive spin here and look at some films about people who survived their plane crashes.

Wings (1927)
It’s only appropriate to begin with a film depicting the end result of the US Army’s interest in Wright’s plane. Wings tells the story of two small-town rivals, Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who join the US Army’s infant Air Force (then called the Air Service) during the First World War. Jack and David soon become friends, then during a frenzied dogfight, David’s plane is shot down. Saddness. But wait! David miraculously survives! Although, unfortunately the film’s final events get a little Shakespearean. Gary Cooper makes one of his first film appearance’s here as the film’s Goose (for the kids out there, that’s a Top Gun reference). Aside from boasting a then astronomical $2 million budget, Wings’ primary claim to fame is nabbing Most Outstanding Production at the first Academy Awards; there was no “Best Picture” at the time (Murnau’s Sunrise won Most Artistic Quality of Production, the other category eventually folded into Best Picture).   

Lost Horizon (1937)
Frank Capra’s adaptation of James Hilton’s influential and oft-imitated milestone in genre fiction. The story follows a group of English-speakers fleeing civil unrest in China. Sucks for them, their escape plane is hijacked and taken wildly off course, eventually crash-landing high in the Himalayan Mountains. Fortunately all survive, and double fortunately they soon stumble upon an idyllic valley, sheltered from the snow and storms of the mountains, known as Shangri-La. Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn was disappointed with the film Capra turned in, feeling it was too boring and too long, thus limiting the number of showings it could have. Cohn recut the film himself, which lead Capra to sue the studio and later refer to Cohn as “the Jewish producer” in an interview. Stay classy Capra. 

With a Song in My Heart (1952)
Walter Lang’s (The King and I) biopic of then-famous stage and television singer/actress Jane Froman, starring Susan Hayward. In 1943 when Froman is flying to Europe to perform in a USO show, her plane crashes into a river in Portugal. One of only fifteen survivors, Froman had one of her legs almost severed in half, but she declines returning to the States and performs for the troops on crutches. Despite permanent pain from her injuries, both physical and mental (Froman had given her seat on the flight to another passenger, who ended up dying) Froman continues with her career. The film won Best Original Score at the Oscars, and Hayward was nominated for her performance.

Fate Is the Hunter (1964)
When a commercial airliner crashes, killing 53 people and leaving only one survivor, a stewardess named Martha (Suzanne Pleshette), the crash is blamed on the flight’s pilot, who had been seen drinking earlier in the day. The pilot’s buddy, McBane (Glenn Ford) refuses to believe his buddy’s drinking crashed the plane (presumably cause his buddy was a functional alcoholic). With the help of Martha he investigates the crash, putting together all the pieces he can and eventually setting up a simulation to clear his good buddy’s drinking name. Author Ernest K. Gann, whose non-fiction book inspired the film, thought the film was so dreadful that he demanded his name be removed from the credits.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
This Robert Aldrich adventure film stars Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough (he made the list after all!) as the pilot and navigator of a cargo plane that crashes in the middle of Sahara Desert. All-star in-fighting ensues about what to do while their water supply is running dry, until one of the members claims that he can build a new plane from the wreckage of the old plane. Four decades later Denis Quaid will try and prove he’s this generation’s Jimmy Stewart. He is slightly more successful at this than Tyrese Gibson is at proving he’s this generation’s Richard Attenborough.

Lt. Robin Crusoe USN (1966)
This Walt Disney “classic” is a modern retelling of the seminal Daniel Defoe story. Here Crusoe (Dick Van Dyke) crashes his plane onto a tropical island, where he soon sets up shop to live in wacky jungle splendor. He befriends a NASA chimp named Floyd (previously thought dead) who also washed up on the island, and instead of subjugating a black guy and insultingly naming him Friday, Crusoe finds a sexy island girl and insultingly names her Wednesday. Wednesday has run away from her island tribe because her dad plans to sacrifice her to their god. Crusoe won’t stand for that. Presumably this film was the inspiration for Cast Away.

A Cry in the Wild (1990)
A certain generation of school children might be familiar with this adaptation of Gary Paulsen’s Newbery award-winning wilderness survival novel, Hatchet. The film stars Jared Rushton (the best-friend from Big) as Brian, a boy who receives the ominous gift of a hatchet from his mother while heading to the airport. During his flight in a small single-engine plane the pilot has a heart attack and the plane goes down in the Canadian wilderness. Brian survives, and fortunately he’s got the uber-useful hatchet. The film was produced by Roger Corman, which may explain the series of sequels that took up a Rambo-style name switcheroo: White Wolves: A Cry in the Wild II, White Wolves II: Legend of the Wild, and White Wolves III: Cry of the White Wolf. I like how they kinda bring it back full-circle with the final title.

Fearless (1993)
Peter Weir’s tale of how surviving a plane crash can really F with your S. Jeff Brides is such a survivor, and his S is majorly F’d. Caught in a tailspin of existential woe, which causes him to withdraw from friends and family, his therapist suggests he try and help break another crash-survivor’s (Rosie Perez) similar tailspin. Bridges helps Perez, but can’t help himself. Ultimately, he is saved by a strawberry.

Amblin Entertainment producing legend Frank Marshall’s directorial effort is the granddaddy of cultural touchstone films that get referenced disproportional to how many people actually watched them (possibly usurped by You Got Served). The film, starring Ethan Hawke, tells the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into the Andes in 1972. As we all know, the surviving players were forced to cannibalize the corpses of their teammates to stay alive. The story is also the basis for the 2008 documentary Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains.

Final Destination (2000)
This Wong-Morgan joint makes surviving a plane crash not seem so great. It also has the distinction of showing our survivors die horribly in a plane crash, before ultimately sparing them (well, not ultimately for some). Once-was up-and-comer Devon Sawa stars as Alex Browning, who gets a psychic flash that ends up saving the lives of a handful of people on a doomed airline flight. All seems awesome at first. Then Rube Goldberg’s evil spirit shows up, and a veritable OK Go music video of death and destruction pursues our survivors.

Well, that’s it for today. See y’all next time. Still plenty of history and movies left.