Plane crazy: a brief history of the screen plane crash

Few situations offer film-makers such dramatic potential as the aftermath of an air crash. Now the makers of this summer's glossiest TV import are bringing Hollywood's favourite storyline to the small screen. Cahal Milmo surveys the wreckage
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The Independent Culture

What are the chances, when a passenger jet disintegrates, of the survivors consisting only of people uniformly blessed with good looks, sculpted bodies and an agent?

Anyone tuning in to Channel 4 at 10pm on Wednesday will find that the answer is surprisingly high as Lost, the latest and slickest permutation of that Hollywood favourite, the plane crash drama, hits British screens.

The television series that chronicles the fate of 48 survivors stranded on a desert island has become the hottest US television export since Desperate Housewives.

Its first series finale attracted 21 million viewers in America and it is the fastest-selling series in the history of the ABC network, topping ratings in countries from Norway to Russia. It has also been nominated for 12 Emmys and has spawned its own magazine. Not bad for a programme that began life as an off-shoot of the network's desert island game show, Survivor.

The drama tracks the battle for survival by an exotic group of people, including a doctor, a junkie pop star and an Iraqi soldier. Dubbed " Lord of the Frequent Flyers" by one critic, the series has been lauded for escaping the traditional triumph over adversity format of desert island dramas by interweaving flashbacks from the past of the main characters with the narrative of daily survival.

With it comes the growing realisation that more than mere chance has brought the survivors together as secrets are revealed and they are stalked by an unknown jungle beast.

The result is a hybrid mixing elements of Survivor-style adventure with Twin Peaks-type surrealism. One plot line suggests that the tropical island is plagued by polar bears.

Some might argue that this thread of the unreal (speculation is rife among fans that the island is actually purgatory and the "survivors" are dead) is necessary to avoid one obvious hole in the plot: how, in an age where satellite tracking pinpoints an aircraft to within a square metre, can survivors go unfound for long enough to fill 24 episodes - and make it into a second series?


The archetype of desert island allegories based on the aftermath of a plane crash ironically makes hardly any mention of its key premise - that a group of boys fleeing wartime Britain are stranded after their aircraft is shot down. Instead, William Golding's first novel, published in 1954, and the Peter Brook film focus on the idea that civilisation is a thin layer easily stripped from the human condition by adversity. The boys eventually divide into two factions - those seeking to establish shelter and those wishing to have fun and hunt, led by the head of the school choir, Jack. Ironically, it is Jack who states in the early stages of the film: "We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages. We're English. And the English are best at everything."


Starring Anita Ekberg and Rod Steiger, this classic B-movie is a remake of an earlier film by its director John Farrow, Five Came Back. One critic said Five Came Back was the better of the two because it is 22 minutes shorter. The film is nonetheless notable for the plot line followed to a greater or lesser extent by many subsequent plane-crash survivor epics.

The story is about a small passenger plane that crashes into cannibal-infested jungle. The pilot is able to repair the aircraft but discovers it can carry only five of the 11 survivors. A battle of wills and brawn ensues, with Steiger as a condemned murderer, to decide who will fly to safety and who will be left.


One of the few works of fiction to successfully combine aviation disaster with Herodotus, Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning book and the Anthony Minghella film are where air crashes meet high culture. The story is based on Count Almásy, a Hungarian cartographer and explorer, who is burned horribly when he is shot down over the Sahara during the Second World War. His injuries have their roots in his adulterous love affair with Katharine Clifton, the wife of a British pilot and cartographer, who is herself badly injured in a plane crashed by her jealous husband. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, won nine Oscars with a script including the lines: "It's a very plum plum."


The classic of the genre, this tale of a group of oil workers stranded in the Sahara after their plane crashes with Jimmy Stewart at the helm, combines Boy's Own derring do with a close focus on the psychology of isolation and adversity. In the wake of the crash, the group decide to fashion a new aircraft from the wreckage with Stewart's pilot at loggerheads with the German engineer, played by Hardy Krüger. In between them, Richard Attenborough, playing an alcoholic navigator, tries to keep the peace. Buoyed by some memorable dialogue ("Mr Towns, you behave as if stupidity were a virtue. Why is that?") and a strong cast, the film was voted the best ever survival movie by an American movie magazine.

CAST AWAY (2000)

Memorable chiefly for the scenes in which Tom Hanks meets his intellectual equal in a Wilson volleyball which he imaginatively names Wilson, this is the Robinson Crusoe-style tale of a Federal Express employee trapped on a tropical island after a plane crash. Played by Hanks, the FedEx executive survives with equipment found in courier packages washed up from the wreckage of the jet, before finally contriving a raft that will drift him to civilisation after four years of isolation. Hanks received an Oscar nomination for his role, in which he engages in long debates with his volleyball muse before stabbing it to death. Despite featuring the spectacular demise of one its aircraft, FedEx was an enthusiastic collaborator in the film, providing its own materials to ensure accuracy during extensive exposure of the brand.


Carrying the tagline "One selfless act of courage can really mess up your whole day", this film succeeds in the risky strategy of basing a comedy on a plane crash.

Dustin Hoffman plays a petty thief who witnesses a plane crash and goes to loot the wreckage, only to end up rescuing several passengers before he disappears, leaving a shoe behind.

When a television reporter on the plane offers a $1m prize for an interview with the "Angel of Flight 104", the thief is beaten to it by a friend who claims his glory while the thief lands in jail.

The movie helped establish the critical reputation of Stephen Frears, the film's British director.


When Max Klein, played by Jeff Bridges, emerges unscathed from a plane crash, he provides the basis for an off-beat study into the psychological traumas of survival.

The Bridges character believes himself invulnerable and subsequently drives his car into a brick wall to prove his point. In one scene he shouts to God: "You want to kill me but you can't." His isolation, in which his relationship with his wife Laura, played by Isabella Rossellini, is destroyed, is only ended when he meets Carla Rodrigo, played by Rosie Perez. She is the only other survivor of the crash, racked by guilt after her baby died in the tragedy.

ALIVE (1993)

One of the greatest, and most disturbing, battles for survival is based on the accounts of a Uruguayan rugby team whose military turboprop crashed in the Andes on the way to a match in Chile in 1972. For 10 days the 27 survivors did their best to live with the meagre rations they had but, after hearing over the radio that the search for them had been called off, they took the collective decision to cannibalise the dead. The group tried unsuccessfully to rig up a radio to communicate with the outside world before sending three men over the mountains to reach Chile. The journey took 10 days and helicopters arrived to rescue the 14 remaining survivors some 72 days after the crash. The group did not initially say how they had survived, claiming they had eaten cheese.


Arguably the daddy of all awful airliner disaster movies, Airport 1975 pitches "Nancy", a stewardess, into the pilot's seat of a Boeing 747 after the cockpit is struck by a light aircraft, killing the crew. On the ground, an off-duty pilot played by Charlton Heston mounts a rescue by being winched into the aircraft from a helicopter.

The cast has all the usual suspects for a 1970s blockbuster, a cute teenager awaiting a kidney transplant, two nuns and a rock star. Critics lauded the film, second in a series of plane-related epics, for its special effects placing the jumbo seemingly feet above the Rockies.