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As seen in laughable American movies about disasters in the air -- Zero Hour!, The Crowded Sky -- airplane trips are mainly an excuse for ridiculous dramatics. Postwar England made a strong bid for a major role in international air commerce, and its aviation movies tended to be much more technically minded than ours. David Lean's science fiction-inflected Breaking the Sound Barrier mandated the sacrifice of test pilots for jet research, while the "boffin" engineer-hero of No Highway in the Sky bucks his company and the law to save lives when he feels certain that a particular jet airframe is unreliable. Try and imagine a Hollywood movie of the time that brings up the issue that American passenger planes might not be safe.
No American film of the time would have dared to suggest that passenger air travel could be put at risk by bad design or irresponsible company policy -- the crashes in Yankee films come from egregious pilot error, near-absurd coincidences or just plain bad luck. That makes 1960's Trouble in the Sky (original title Cone of Silence) that much more of a rarity. The modest but well-produced and directed thriller stars an ensemble cast of Brit veterans that includes a number of favorites familiar to American fans.
Experienced airline Captain Gort (Bernard Lee of The Third Man) is forced to take the blame for a runway mishap, when an inquest finds no mechanical fault with the aircraft. This causes a flap back at Atlas Aviation, which is trying to perfect its first passenger jet airliner, the Phoenix. As Gort's co-pilot died in the crash, rival pilot Capt. Judd (Peter Cushing) lobbies behind the scenes to have Gort sent back to propeller craft. Judd also thinks that Gort has been re-qualified to continue flying the Phoenix because training and testing chief Capt. Dallas (Michael Craig) is courting Gort's loyal daughter Charlotte (Elizabeth Seal). In actuality, the still-able Gort scores better on his blind-instrument flying tests than anyone, and he's a stickler for following the letter of the flying rules. The more Dallas investigates, the more he feels that the problem is with the aircraft's flying procedures. When heavily loaded at hot temperatures, the Phoenix has difficulty taking off. Other pilots are quietly ignoring the rules, reaching for a faster speed before attempting lift-off. But nobody tells this to the loyal Captain Gort, who always flies by the book. He's soon confronted with a take-off situation identical to one in which he almost crashed.
Trouble in the Sky is a serious issue film with a clear central idea -- should an airline and an aircraft manufacturer respond when one of their planes crashes? Romantic subplots are kept to a minimum. Captain Gort's daughter Charlotte is in the show just long enough to help establish sympathy for the good pilot with the stained reputation, and catty stewardess Delphi Lawrence's function is to add her irrational distrust to Gort's tarnished reputation. The drama works first and foremost because we care deeply that Gort be totally vindicated. Gort holds up against the negative attitudes of his subordinates and refuses to be provoked by the competitive Judd. Gort proves his skill blindfolded in an instrument-homing test, steering his plane onto a proper airport approach solely by a radio signal whine over his headphones. When the signal is silent, the pilot is "on the beam". Accreditation pilot Dallas gives Gort the full test, and he comes through with flying colors.
We know that Captain Gort has the right stuff when a hailstorm smashes out one of his cockpit windows, depressurizing the cabin and forcing Gort to fly with a 450 mph blast of air in his face. While the rest of the crew flounders, Gort holds the stick and calmly reduces altitude. The same goes for Captain Judd, untill he all but panics in the cockpit when Captain Gort executes a dangerous landing. We soon agree that that Gort is the victim of a bad judgment. The fair-minded Dallas agreed with the first verdict but becomes convinced that other factors must be involved. As it turns out, in this particular case the "system" itself has conspired to hide a deadly flaw in the operation profile of the Phoenix.
Trouble in the Sky is based on a controversial true case relating to England's first jet passenger plane, De Havilland's Comet. Some still charge that industry politics conspired to hide the cause of a mishap, later attributed to a design flaw. Only when a second Comet crashed in Pakistan did it become evident that something was seriously wrong. The film was based on a book by Arthur David Beaty, an ex-pilot who became an expert on human error in plane mishaps.
Watching the film now, it looks as if Atlas Aviation is supremely negligent, and that the Phoenix is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The morose design engineer Nigel Pickering (Noel Willman) delays production on the Phoenix 2, without saying what misgivings he has about the design of the Mark 1 Phoenix presently in the air. Pickering is hiding his doubts until he is absolutely certain, a proven way of covering one's own tail while preventing others from avoiding unnecessary risks. The culmination of this kind of systemic irresponsibility can be seen in the first Space Shuttle disaster, where engineers were bullied into keeping quiet about known design problems. When the livelihood of so many people and the future of an entire industry is at stake, nobody wants to go public with claims that aircraft aren't safe. 1
Trouble in the Sky doesn't dodge the issue, even with its final shot of whistle-blower Dallas and designer Pickering shaking hands at the last inquest. But it never shows an actual airplane crash or its aftermath. It also stresses the negative role played by personal bias and group morale. Gort's first takeoff mishap leaves the pilot in a professional limbo in which other pilots tend to avoid him. Since Gort isn't a trusted associate, he doesn't learn that other pilots are altering the Phoenix takeoff procedure to increase their safety margin. Not following official operation profile rules is a major offense, but most of the pilots defy the guidelines anyway. Judd and Gort follow the rules to the letter, and suffer for it. The two-faced Judd also listens to idle gossip against Gort, and lobbies against his fellow pilot. Trainer Dallas later proves that Judd almost crashed for the same reason that Gort did, and didn't even know it.
Trouble in the Sky overflows with acting talent. So many familiar faces are on view, the British Film Industry really looks like a closed shop, where the same 40 actors get all the work. Bermard Lee and Peter Cushing are completely convincing as skilled pilots. André Morell is a troubled company official, while top-billed Michael Craig (Mysterious Island) seems to be imitating Kenneth More's nice-guy persona. George Sanders plays the inquest lawyer (who works for the aircraft company?) with a barely supressed sneer. Gordon Jackson and Charles Tingwell are other pilots and Marne Maitland an Indian booking agent for the company. Wally Veevers' special effects are clearly models yet look superior to the miniatures used in American films of this ilk. The low budget forces Veevers to recreat entire airports with miniature sets that frequently resemble 2D dioramas.
Director Charles Frend (The Cruel Sea) handles all aspects of the show with a sure hand. The finely crafted Trouble in the Sky will appeal to English film fans and aviation buffs. Considering the openly hysterical attitude of American air jeopardy thrillers, this is a refreshingly sane alternative.
VCI's DVD of Trouble in the Sky has a nicely-transferred picture and clear sound, and comes from original elements bearing the film's British title Cone of Silence. The problem is format. The original film is in an anamorphic widescreen process, and the title sequence plays flat-letterboxed at the correct 2:35 ratio. But immediately thereafter the ratio changes to 1:78, presumably to fit widescreen TVs. The movie then plays out at this pan-scanned aspect ratio, frequently cropping parts of actors off on the left and right extremes of the screen. The culmination of this is the last shot, which favors the actors on the left, cropping away Noel Willman's engineer character entirely on the right. As the shot represents a reconciliation between pilot and designer, this hurts the film considerably.
Trouble in the Sky still plays well enough, and casual viewers may not even notice. But I hope VCI is more careful about its transfers in the future. DVD collectors stopped tolerating non-enhanced 'scope films years ago, and the pan-scanning is sure to be criticized as a big mistake.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Trouble in the Sky rates:
1. My father was a flight-line sergeant at Edwards AFB in the 1950s when dozens of radical aircraft designs were tested by a large group of (frankly) fearless test pilots, several of whom became Mercury Astronauts. All kinds of risky devices were tested and although deadly crashes were not frequent, they did occur. But even in the middle of the Cold War, with competitive aircraft companies and results-hungry generals exerting pressure on the flight line, the rank & file pilots and flight engineers refused to be intimidated. One idea investigated was a way to save pilots that were being killed ejecting the normal way at too-high speeds. An experimental "emergency exit" system ejected not just the pilot's seat but an entire boxed-in compartment. But one of the first compartments tested fired downward. One pilot was killed when the device triggered while the plane was on the ground, taxi-ing down the runway -- the unlucky pilot was basically shot out of a cannon, point-blank at a concrete wall. When the schedule-minded civilian program director arbitrarily decided that the accident was a fluke, and that another pilot would try it again the next day, there was an "unofficial mutiny" on the flight line to stop the tests and re-evaluate the design. My father was proud of his part in this kind of ethical behavior. He told me that this professional "screw you, we'll do it the right way or not at all" attitude carried over to NASA and prevailed through the Saturn program. Then, sometime during the Vietnam years, the civilian contractors took over ....
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