The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1974)
Originally broadcast on television in 1974, The Disappearance of Flight 412 is a "plane movie". Kinda. There are a few planes in it, see, especially in the beginning, but then they do a lot of talking and stuff in the middle and last acts, which is fine and all but I'd rather see the planes more. I have a thing for old military jets, especially from the Cold War era. In fact, I love them so much I devote WAY too much time to my other site (Forgotten Jets), which has become a major distraction for me (just ask my wife...).
Our movie concerns a certain US Air Force radar training unit based at an air base in Southern California. It's mission is to test out new airborne radar sets and help ground-based radars calibrate better return echoes. This was the height of the Cold War, and having the best radars meant that you could detect the enemy coming at you from further away and sooner, which could mean the difference between your city being intact and being a radioactive crater. The unit is not very big, maybe just a couple of planes and their crews, commanded by a certain Colonel Moore.
Let's meet the Colonel, played by 58-year old Glenn Ford, a haggard and grizzled old man who looks more like 78 than 58 here. The Colonel is a smart, competent and dedicated Air Force officer, and he has everything under control (somewhat). He does look pretty spiffy in his uniform, I must say.
We open our movie with a radar test flight taking off from the air base. The flight is commanded by Captain Bishop, played by 31-year old David Soul. Yes, Hutch from Starsky and Hutch! There are also three other relatively non-descript officers on the plane. I'd give you their names and such, but it's really not that important.
The plane they are flying is a civilian Grumman Gulfstream II, painted to look like a US Air Force C-11 (the USAF surely wouldn't loan a real C-11 for this movie, especially as it dogs the military so badly). The C-11 was often used as a radar-testbed, so this is actually quite accurate.
Our C-11 radar plane.
The flight takes off and runs down the California coast and gains some altitude. They are eventually handed over to a Marine Corps Air Base for the next phase of the test, which is something to do with radar return signals or something. We never really find out what the test is, because it's interrupted by the appearance of three "unidentified blips" on their radar screens!
Down below, this is understandably causing quite a stir. The base radar men and their command staffs are freaking out about these unidentified blips, which is really not that surprising considering the year and all (hey, these could be Rooskie bombers!). The blips seem to be shadowing the radar plane, though 40,000 feet above them. No one can get a visual on the blips, but at least three or more radar sets have them solidly pegged and a dozen men are watching the sets.
From the MCAB two F-4 interceptors rise, roaring off into the sky on full afterburner. The two Phantoms reach the radar plane's altitude in a major hurry and then pass by them, heading up to reach the blips. The jets enter a cloud bank and...never exit! Total freak-out now on the ground! The radar plane crew, who witnessed this, reports no chutes or debris or anything, the two Phantoms just vanished.
A stock footage Phantom taking off from a stock footage airbase.
We leave the coast for a bit to go to an old abandoned airfield out in the California desert, where an unmarked Sikorsky helicopter drops in to unload about a dozen men. They are all dressed in tacky civilian clothes and wear sunglasses, and they carry briefcases and satchels. This is a Top Secret Government team, whose sole mission is to debrief US military personnel after a suspected UFO encounter or event (like what just happened, so they must be on 24-hour fast-response alert). Mulder and Scully would have a field day with this!
The radar plane is diverted to this place all sneaky like, with covert radio signals and fake compass directions and all that. For some reason, a lot of effort is made to cover the plane's course, though it's a military flight so they could just order it to land anywhere, right? Honestly, it makes zero sense.
The C-11's crew meets one of the Government Team at the old airfield.
The crew is now interrogated by the Government Team, who seek to know exactly what the airmen thought they heard or saw about the supposed UFOs. The entire middle third of this movie is one long interrogation scene, talking, talking, and more talking. It's tense in the beginning, as the airmen are separated into two groups and don't know what's going on, but quickly degenerates into a ham-show as badly-paid actors over-emote and chew scenery like it's a competition.
The interrogation is really quite tame by any standards, even though we are made to think that it's a grueling, Guantanamo Bay sort of experience. No one is hit, there are no torture devices, they are even allowed drinks and food and even time to catnap. The Government Team simply asks them the same questions over and over, though not in a threatening way, and tries to get the airmen to recant their story about seeing UFOs. Despite this kid-gloves treatment, the airmen crack like schoolgirls in the principal's office.
Back at the airbase, the Colonel is getting worried that his missing plane and crew is still unaccounted for. He starts to snoop around, asking questions from the Marines and also checking out his own radar plots. Eventually he puts the pieces together and realizes that his plane was diverted somewhere along the way to an unknown location. A radar tech who was curious enough to keep an eye on the plane's track provides the final clue, pointing to a seemingly empty stretch of California desert. A look through an airfield guide suggests that an old WWII training airfield, long abandoned, might be the place to find his missing plane. All this investigation has to be kept hush-hush, of course, as the Colonel doesn't want his bosses to know he's going off on his own initiative.
With his reluctant XO in tow, the Colonel jumps in a hugeass Ford Ranch Wagon station wagon and drives out to the old airfield in the middle of the night to get his men back. Not exactly official protocol, but pretty ballsy for any command grade officer expecting a promotion in the future.
Driving along, chatting.
The XO is twitchy, having been through this before two years ago when his own crew "allegedly" saw a UFO. He warns the Colonel to stay out of this, to protect his career if nothing else. The Colonel, however, is an old man who knows wrong from right and he is determined to get to the truth.
They arrive at the airfield, and are actually let inside (!). There they meet the Government Team, who are quite cordial, but firm in their jobs, they have that Top Secret Priority One clearance thing going. They tell the Colonel he can have his men back when they are done "debriefing" them.
Which is pretty soon. Breaking under the "strain" of being talked to nicely and given coffee and sandwiches, the airmen all agree to say, write, declare anything to "stop this horror". Seriously, didn't they teach these guys anything at the Academy about resisting interrogation? Captain Bishop's rapid descent into blubbering madness at the velvety hands of his polite interrogator is especially egregious as it's noted that he survived a Vietnam POW camp. Someone should take his bars away.
Bishop melts down under the "pressure".
The airmen are released and head back to their base with the Colonel. The Colonel then tries to go to his boss (a three-star General) with the info about the interrogation. The problem is that the General is "in the know" about the Government Team and tells the Colonel to mind his own business and not to bother on about things that are out of his league.
The movie ends ambiguously, as the Colonel and the General wax on about UFOs and government conspiracies without anything really new being said that we didn't already know. Maybe in 1974 viewers would have gotten all riled up about supposed military cover-ups and the like, but to me in 2008, after two decades of internet and media over-saturation on UFOs, it just seems dated. A pretty sputtering and preachy end to movie, but it could have been worse.
Just a stinger about the DVD case for his movie. It's one of those el cheapo public domain releases from Digiview that I picked up for a dollar at Wal-Mart. The cover art is extremely misleading. It prominently shows the face of the XO, a character with maybe five minutes of screen time and played by an unknown bit-part actor, and in the background is an old prop-driven C-54 cargo plane, which is nowhere in this movie. It's like whoever photoshopped the cover never even watched the movie. This sort of problem is common with Digiview releases, I've reviewed quite a few and I don't think a one of them had decent, representative cover art.
Written in March 2008 by Nathan Decker.
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