The Flight that Disappeared (1961)

Nate and I are somewhat burned out on kaiju movies. We're going to need some time to recover from the pain that was Godzilla: Final Wars, so for this review we decided to venture into unexplored territory with the less-than-well-known Cold War movie, The Flight That Disappeared. I admit that I'd never heard of it before, but when Nate suggested it, he assured me that there are no giant monsters whatsoever in it, and also that it's only 71 minutes long (you have no idea how hard it was to watch all 2 hours plus of Godzilla: Final Wars).

Godzilla isn't concerned about our pain, he's got a hot date for the senior prom.

The movie starts out with less than a bang, with a number of people filing aboard an airplane for a flight from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Not the best way to grab the audience's attention, but if you fly as much as I do, there's a certain amount of interest in seeing how air travel in 1961 differed from air travel today. The good: The stewardesses know everybody's name! The airplane aisle is wide enough to walk down easily! There seems to be adequate leg room! There's real food (pot roast, we are told)! The bad: There are no overhead compartments, just overhead shelves (dangerous), and people are allowed to smoke (ugh). Everybody seems to be very dressed up, especially in comparison to the average airplane passenger today. Part of this was that in 1961, people were more concerned with the public impression they made than they are now, but also it was because in 1961, travel by airplane was expensive and usually only the well-off chose to do it.

And not a single passenger under the age of 30.

We learn a little bit about some of the crew and the passengers. One of the stewardesses, the blonde one, is engaged to the copilot, and they're planning to get married soon. The propeller-driven DC-6 he's helping to fly was outdated for a major airline in 1961, but one of the things the crew discusses is that it's going to be replaced soon by a jet airliner.

Not the best cockpit set, but serviceable.

Among the passengers is a Dr. Carl Morris, who is some kind of scientist and has a beard, which was unusual in 1961. His assistant, Marcia Paxton, is also on the airplane, and we'll learn shortly that she's a mathematician, which was very unusual in 1961.

Overly-bearded Doctor Morris on the left, with Random Smoky McCancer Guy.

Another passenger is Tom Endicott, who is also a scientist but for some reason at first claims to be in public relations.

Tom on the right, with the aforementioned Marcia
(romantic subplot alert!).

Two more passengers are Walter Cooper, a middle-aged man who is very stressed out over something, and his blind wife Helen. They're heading for a farm, where they're going to kick back and relax. None of the actors are anybody you'd be likely to have heard of, but they aren't bad.

Walter with his put-upon wife.

Another thing this airplane has that most modern ones don't is a lounge at the rear. The lounge comes in very handy for cluing us in on the main characters. It's here that we learn that Tom Endicott is a scientist who is connected in some way to development of atomic bombs, and that Marcia Paxton is adamantly opposed to marriage, although she doesn't get around to saying why. We also learn that Dr. Morris is in charge of the development of the "beta bomb," and at the same time we learn that Walter Cooper is convinced to the point of derangement that this bomb must be produced. Not only that, it must be immediately dropped on our enemy (enemy not specified, but considering that it's 1961, most people will be able to figure out who it is), because this is the only way our glorious country can survive! In my opinion, Dr. Morris is way too calm for somebody who's just a couple of feet away from an obvious nutcase, especially since in 1961 there was no airport security to screen passengers. In Mr. Cooper's conversation with his wife, mention was made of him having been in "the hospital," and it's plain to see now that he wasn't in there for an appendectomy. Harvey Stephens, the actor who plays him, had a long but undistinguished career, but he does a good job of playing a lunatic without going too far over the top.

Walter explains his manifesto.

To Dr. Morris' relief, his conversation with Mr. Cooper is interrupted by one of the stewardesses asking them to return to their seats. She doesn't tell them why, but we, the omniscient viewers, already know that it's because the airplane has started to climb for no reason, and no matter what the pilot does, he can't stop it. His superiors at the airline have no idea what's wrong, either. Is this a case of maintenance error? No, because spooky music starts playing when the airplane starts its climb.

You can never have enough blurry stock-footage shots of airplanes in your movie.

The spooky music is actually quite welcome, because it's the first hint that this movie will be about something more than just the tedium of air travel. Unfortunately, we've already finished the first third of the movie, and this is all that's happened. Yes, it's shaping up to be a very slow, draggy movie. However, Godzilla's not in it, so I'm okay with it. I'm going to turn the review over to Nate now, I'm sure he'll have a number of opinions to share.

Godzilla is busy anyway, Kanji is such a hard alphabet to master.

Thanks, Pam. I've been tasked to review the middle third of this movie, so here it goes. The plane continues to climb at an uncontrolled, but quite shallow, angle far beyond what it's rated for and everyone is worried, but at a level far below a panic.

Ok, that's done, back to Pam now for the third act.




No, really, that was it, that was the entire second act, all 30 minutes of it distilled into one sentence. The plane keeps ascending at a steady, if improbable, pace, despite the engines long ago conking out due to oxygen starvation. The thinness of the air also has the passengers and crew passing out and sucking on O2 bottles, but everyone keeps their cool and no one even raises their voice, some of the passengers are even content to just sit back and read magazines like nothing's happening. Eventually everyone, including the pilots, passes out as the plane cruises along at the edge of space. Back on the ground, the suit-and-tie guys in the airline's ATC office are pretty much just standing around amiably chatting and chain smoking, no panic there, not even much worry. Even the newscaster announcing the plane's loss seems like he's in a hurry to get to the sports. And...that's about it. Seriously. Nothing to see here, move along.

Captain Oveur, is that you?

Ok, ok, ok, fine, I guess I could comment on the quality of the film stock, which is really quite excellent for the film's age and budget. Whoever did the digital transfer was working with a very well-preserved master negative, I only wish more b-movies from 50 years ago looked this good (hell, half this good). The sound is also fantastic, and as Pam mentioned, the background score is superb, if a bit dated. Ok, happy now? I "talked about the movie", right? Pam, take us to the third act!




Alright, ok, calm down, sheesh. It's just that so far this movie has been like walking an 87-year old pensioner across a sleepy country two-lane on a muggy summer day. Sure, the company's nice, you might even hear some old stories about the Depression and how handsome McCarthy was in person, but you're not going to remember any of it five minutes after she shuffles to the other side and you both go your separate ways. There's just nothing in this movie so far that gets you in the least bit excited or interested, nothing that angers or frightens you, nothing that is new or unique, and certainly nothing cringeworthy or stupid that I can write snarky sarcastic comments about (sorry!). It's know, just...there.

The brunette stewardess' "all-moving tailplane" does look quite nice in her tight skirt...

Even when Tom and Marcia wake up and realize that the plane isn't moving and they are the only one's who are "awake", neither seems really that concerned about their predicament. Marcia does touch her face once, though, the universal sign of worry for women in the 1960s, but never does she waver towards hysteria and she even resists the urge to clutch plaintively to Tom's arm. They idly chat about how they might be dead, or asleep, or even in suspended animation like hibernating bears, but even when they realize that their hearts have stopped beating (wtf?) they are still calm, cool, and collected. They seem to be treating all this like a lab experiment that just happens to involve them as test subjects. That's scientists fer ya! Here's hoping that the third act picks up a bit, otherwise I'm going to really regret picking this movie to review (sorry, again!). Pam, help us out, please.

The blonde's "engine cowlings" are also pretty well-made...

Okay, okay, I guess I've slept enough for a while, I'll get back to work. I should mention that there's one slightly interesting occurrence, when Mr. Cooper decides that the most appropriate way to deal with his anxiety is to yank open the airplane door and hurl himself out. This of course causes Tom Endicott, who is standing right next to him, to be sucked out of the airplane, along with the contents of the lounge, and makes the plane dangerously unstable...Hmm, to my disappointment, no. Too bad, that would have ended the movie right there. Tom's hair isn't even ruffled, and nothing is disturbed in the lounge. Tom doesn't even attempt to close the door before he strolls back into the main cabin.

Tom, showing about as much emotion as he's capable of.

As Nate mentioned, Tom and Marcia take the course of events with the calm one would expect of two red-blooded Americans, and Dr. Morris is also a model of stoicism. The plane is climbing steadily for no apparent reason, everybody else on board is unconscious for lack of oxygen, and their hearts aren't beating, but Dr. Morris chooses this moment to discuss his research, which involves developing a bomb that can wipe out an entire country (whether Monaco-sized or China-sized, he doesn't say). To me, the most impressive thing of all about Dr. Morris' research is that he's managed to fit the notes for all of his bomb research into one teeny little black notebook. Tom, not to be outdone, admits that he's designed a rocket that can deliver such a bomb to any place on Earth with pinpoint accuracy. All of this is discussed in tones suitable to talking about changing the oil in your car.

The good Doctor explains his bomb.

Just as I'm about to fall asleep (dear God, 23 minutes to go, I'll never make it), we get a welcome break in the discussion. In walks a man dressed in nondescript shirt and pants, and we know he's not just some ordinary guy, maybe an airplane mechanic, because he speaks in a stagy Shakespearean voice. Think Patrick Stewart, but with some echo thrown in. As he leads them outside the plane, he informs them that their knowledge will lead to the death of the entire human race, so people from the future have brought them to this place to be judged, and they are going to be put on trial in front of a jury made up of future humans. People of the future, it seems, wear clothing and hairstyles identical to those of 1961, and they like to hang out in barren rocky places surrounded by fog. Really, people. Trying your ancestors on a charge of willfully destroying mankind is serious business, surely deserving of a courtroom at least. However, I'm glad to say that the three representatives of 1961 greet their trial with their usual stolid indifference, I mean bravery.

People of the future apparently prefer bland button-downs in pale earth tones and conservative haircuts.

The guy with the impressive voice shows them images of ruins resulting from the war caused by their bomb, and he says that the bomb will kill off all living things (although if you look closely at the photos, the bomb leaves a good many buildings at least partially intact, so it's strange it would kill everybody). In fact, Marcia tries to point out that the bomb, although powerful, can't destroy every living creature, but The Guy starts talking about children and matches, and Marcia seems to be too meek from the 1961 socialization she's received to interrupt him and tell him that he's missed the point she was trying to make. Tom then says that no crime has been committed, the three of them have only come up with some ideas on how a bomb could be built and delivered. (The actor playing Tom seems to have had trouble remembering his lines here.) The Guy says contemptuously that they've committed a crime by thinking up the bomb, since he claims that once thought up, it will inevitably be built and used. Oh, boy, so in the future, thinking about committing a crime, if you call defending your country a crime, is the same as actually committing it? I don't like this future. Hey, isn't this the main reason the United States wanted powerful weapons, so we wouldn't be conquered by people who believed that just thinking something was a crime? None of the three speaks up to point this out.

Note that Marcia is not clutching on Tom's arm.

Marcia asks what will happen if the jury finds them guilty. The Guy says that nothing will happen to them, they'll stay in this place forever. (He's having trouble remembering his lines, too.) I'd say that kidnapping three people from their homes and abandoning them in a rocky wilderness is most definitely doing something pretty unpleasant to them. I need to mention that even though the 1961 clothing the jury is wearing is a little distracting, the way they stand silently, surrounded by fog, is an arresting image. It's one of the few good parts of this movie.

Dry ice fog makes everything better.

Tom wants to make a break for the airplane, since he reasons that it's the only thing here that really exists. Yeah, I guess, but if it can't fly, it's not much use to them. I suppose he thinks it's better to do something than nothing, though. In the meantime, although the jury hasn't said a word or even murmured among themselves (to save money by not having to pay the actors for speaking parts?), The Guy announces that they have in fact been found guilty. At this, they make a run for the airplane, but as they get close to it, it disappears. The Guy repeats gleefully that there's no escape, and he seems to be right, but just as we've got some real suspense, a bald man shows up. We can tell he is connected to The Guy somehow, because he too has a stagy echo-y voice. As our three freeze, the bald guy announces that the future can't judge the present, the order of the cosmos can't be disturbed, and the three must be sent back to their own time.

The Future is not happy with the Past.

Fog swirls up to surround them, and...Tom wakes up with the blond stewardess holding a vial of ammonia under his nose. (I wonder if airplanes today carry ammonia in case a passenger faints?) He tries to tell her what happened, but she says the airplane hit a downdraft, and he banged his head against something and knocked himself out. Marcia and Dr. Morris claim to remember nothing, and none of the other passengers noticed anything other than a routine boring flight.

Tom can't catch a break.

Tom's searching for a way to prove their adventure really happened, and he thinks he's found it when he sees that Mr. Cooper's seat is empty. Unfortunately for Tom, Mr. Cooper strolls back a few moments later. Tom is getting so agitated that the Captain comes out of the cockpit and orders him back to his seat. This was long before the days of armed Air Marshals, but I guess Tom realizes this is getting him nowhere, and he meekly returns to his seat. When looked at closely, Marcia and Dr. Morris have a shifty air about them, and before too long, Dr. Morris asks both of them to follow him to the lounge. They both admit to Tom that they actually do remember what happened, although Dr. Morris thinks Tom dreamed the whole thing, and the other two picked up his dream through ESP, as though this is a more plausible explanation. Dr. Morris points out that there's no evidence that their experience was real, and then says he doesn't know what he'd do with his bomb design if it really did happen.

Talking, talking, always talking.

On the ground, there's slight (very slight) consternation when the pilot requests clearance to land. The pilot is asked to identify himself, which he does, and he's permitted to land. I'm beginning to think that maybe Dr. Morris was right and they dreamed the whole thing, but when the pilot is met by airline representatives as soon as he walks off the plane, he's told that the flight was due in (cue spooky music) exactly 24 hours ago! Dr. Morris, who was close enough to hear this, pulls out his little notebook and solemnly proceeds to tear it up.

The Doctor takes one last look at his notes before tearing them up. And that's a nice hat.

The main problem with this movie is that it drags out a slight plot much longer than it should. It probably could have been condensed to 30 minutes and made a decent Twilight Zone episode, or even condensed to an hour and been an okay Outer Limits episode. Well, actually it couldn't have been an Outer Limits episode, since Outer Limits didn't start broadcasting until 1963, but you get the idea. They just didn't have enough story here to make a movie. There's a major lapse in logic, which is, if everything the three experienced was real, then how could Mr. Cooper still be alive when they wake up? He jumped out of the airplane, remember? Another lapse in logic is the implication that once Dr. Morris has torn up his notebook, the bomb can never be built. In real life, of course, he'd have been part of a team doing research on the bomb, and no way would he be the only person alive who knew how to make it. This kind of assumption is pretty standard for science-fiction movies, though, so I guess it's not fair to blame this movie too much for using it.

Aside from its glacially slow pace, what I really do not like about this movie is its message. I know that during the period this movie was made, there was genuine concern that a major war could erupt and atomic weapons would be used. Although wiping out every living being wasn't realistic, nobody was denying that life would be grim for the survivors. But what good was disarming ourselves supposed to do? Surely by 1961 nobody could reasonably deny that the Soviets had shown their hostility to the Western world and would likely attack if they thought they had a decent chance of winning? Didn't everybody know that the Soviets were developing their own weapons, both atomic and conventional, as fast as they could? Didn't World War II show that letting your defenses erode when there was an aggressive nation around made it much more likely that it would attack you? And surely by 1961, nobody could claim that the Communist system was economically viable, or that its brutal repression was only temporary, or in fact that it would be at all pleasant to live in a country governed by the Soviet Union. I've heard of the slogan, "Better Red than dead," but I say it's better to defend yourself and have a chance of coming out in good shape than rolling over and giving up.

Although most people have forgotten, in the 1930s when it became clear that a war with Nazi Germany was becoming increasingly likely, there were a number of people that thought that it would be better to make friends with Germany than try to fight it. (These people tended to belong to ethnic groups the Nazis deemed Aryan. I don't know of any Jews who thought this was a good idea.) The reason this is pretty much forgotten today is that the people who advocated this shut up once it was obvious that Nazi Germany didn't want to be friends with anybody, and that no matter how "Aryan" you were, once Germany conquered your country, they'd strip it of everything they could use and leave you in poverty. If, of course, you were still alive. The Norwegians, Danes, and Dutch can confirm this. So paste your notebook back together, Dr. Morris, we're counting on you!

Now that I've had my say, is there anything you'd like to add, Nate? Nate? Wake up!

What? What? Er, I wasn't sleeping, yeah. So, ok, The Flight that Disappeared was about as thrilling as an hour of a Water and Sewer Commission quarterly budget debate on public access TV, but it was really supposed to stimulate my mind more than my heart. In that respect it kinda sorta succeeded in a roundabout way as it made me appreciate the very real dangers of the 1960s. Anyone who has followed my ramblings over the years knows that I'm still heroically holding up the banner of Anti-Communism, refusing to admit that the Rooskies are any less a mortal threat to the soft vulnerable bosom of our nation than they were in the early years of the Cold War. With that in mind, it's no surprise that I completely agree with Pam that this movie probably didn't play that well outside of certain liberal zip codes of Southern California, especially in 1961 when the majority of the American public was sure the Reds were out for their blood and treasure.

The idea of the Doctor's supermegaawesome "Beta Bomb" might have had its real-world roots in the legendary "Tsar Bomb", a 50 megaton brute that the Reds lit off in October of 1961. For months before the test, however, that crafty bastard Khrushchev had been gloating to the western media about them having 100 megaton bombs in production and even bigger ones on the way. All lies, of course, but even the rumor of a 100 mt weapon that could burn an entire city to the bedrock in a single shot was almost impossible to comprehend, especially if they were in the hands of the Godless Communists. The western military and political machines also took advantage of the Rooskie's unsupportable claims of having these world-ending bombs to boost defense spending to insane levels ("If they have them, so must we!"). The arms race of the Cold War, right up to the Berlin Wall tumbling, was always more about fear and uncertainty than anything tangible.

All of this fear-mongering and doom-predicting spawned a pretty active anti-war movement in America and Europe, and many people worked tirelessly their whole lives to assure that the General Rippers of the world didn't nuke us all into dust. We probably owe a heavy debt to these people, who often faced daily scorn and abuse to keep the anti-war movement alive and relevant. Of course, in 1961 when this movie was released, the Soviet "nuclear threat" was very much overstated. As I've mentioned before (such as at the end of a different review), the Soviets were mostly incapable of hitting the Lower 48 back if we wanted to nuke them into oblivion, but if you lived along the Thames or the Rhine then you were looking at a grim future of radioactive mutants, glowing rocks, and hairy cannibals and all that.

Anyway, this was a pretty slow and measured movie, but the message was important, no matter what side of the issue you came down on. I don't think that people today have any real idea how close the world came to destroying itself in the decades before Gorbachev, so I encourage anyone to watch movies like these and learn a bit more.

In about five years from the time this movie was made, airline stewardess fashions would vastly improve.

The Douglas DC-6, the unsung hero of our movie.

The End.

Written in May 2012 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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