TV Terror Guide: Family Flight (1972)
Air Date: Oct. 25, 1972 (ABC)
Production Companies: Silverton Productions (in association with Universal Television)
Running Time: 73 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Guerdon Trueblood
Directed by: Marvin J. Chomsky
Cast: Rod Taylor, Dina Merrill, Kristoffer Tabori, Janet Margolin
For a small-screen survival drama, Family Flight (1972) really surprised me. I think that’s because it holds back on the melodrama and presents its content in as realistic a way as possible. Its familiar formula of introducing its dysfunctional characters, placing them together under strained circumstances, revealing secrets along the way, then providing a well-earned conclusion, is handled efficiently and sensitively.
We don’t know at first why David Carlyle never drives when someone else is in the car, but we soon learn from a series of flashbacks that when he was driving a dune buggy 18 months ago, he was more interested in making out with his girlfriend, Carol Rutledge (Janet Margolin), than watching for bumps in the desert. Therefore, his brother tumbled out to his death and David continues to suffer from guilt for the accident.
When he returns home, his tough-but-loving father, ex-Navy pilot, Jason Carlyle (Rod Taylor) convinces David to join him and his wife, Florence (Dina Merrill) on a trip to Mexico. When he arrives at the airport, though, David is shocked to learn that Carol is accompanying them. I’m not sure I remember why; but, whatever the reason, it’s really to create an awkward situation from which David and Carol can reconnect.
Listening to music on the small plane’s radio instead of the control tower, Jason flies his plane into a storm. It’s struck by lightning and makes an unexpected landing in the middle of Baja, 100 miles off course. He must have been a Boy Scout, because he immediately knows how to craft a device to collect water using only a dry cleaning bag and a plastic cup. He estimates that if no one finds them, they can last for only six or seven days.
Instead of waiting to die, they decide to repair the plane and build a runway so they can fly out of there. In the average survival movie, we’d probably be subjected to repeated images of the four survivors performing arduous tasks, perhaps in a montage. In Family Flight, though, their primary concern is working slowly so they conserve their energy and can complete the tasks at hand.
It works… and then things get a little silly. When Jason is wounded by the propellor, David has to face his demons and fly his family (and Carol) to safety. He takes a wrong turn and heads out to sea. No problem; there’s an aircraft carrier nearby. Still, though, instead of making an impossible landing on the ship, Jason tries twice and fails, meaning he must make a landing on the water after all.
One of the secrets revealed while stranded in the desert is that Florence is an alcoholic. David didn’t know this about his mother and learns it only as she goes through what appears to be a very painful withdrawal. It’s a nice dramatic touch to add depth to the characters and the story, but not much else is done with it. She seems to recover quickly and it’s not addressed again.
Director Marvin J. Chomsky was a television veteran, helming episodes of The Wild Wild West, Star Trek, and Gunsmoke, but its writer Guerdon Trueblood who has a more interesting resume. His 26 credits include a handful of other television thrillers (The Savage Bees, Ants, The Deadly Cargo), but also the story of the big screen bomb, Jaws 3-D (1983), which earned him a nomination for a Razzie award.
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