Aleksandr Mitta’s Ekipazh

The Russian film poster for Ekipazh aka AIR CREW (1980).

Who said Hollywood holds the patent on the disaster film genre? There have been numerous contenders from other countries that are fine specimens of the form such as Submersion of Japan aka Tidal Wave (1973) by director Shiro Moritani, Ian Barry’s doomsday thriller The Chain Reaction (1980) from Australia, and Renzo Martinelli’s Vajont – La Diga del Disonore (2001), based on the 1963 flooding of Longarone, Italy after the collapse of the Vajont Dam. One of my favorites, however, is a variation on 1970’s Airport and its sequels entitled Ekipazh (English title: Air Crew, 1980), directed by Aleksandr Mitta. It was made in the Soviet Union during the final decade before it became the Russian Federation. The film, which is equal parts soap opera, suspense thriller and disaster epic, focuses on three pilots and assorted crew members who embark on a flight to rescue survivors from an earthquake in a mountain mining town. 

The U.S. poster for the 1980 Russian disaster drama Ekipazh aka AIR CREW.

Air Crew is not to be confused with the 2016 remake of Ekipazh from director Nikolay Lebedev that is known as Flight Crew. While the remake is generally considered superior to the 1980 original with a more streamlined narrative and better special effects, Air Crew has undeniable old school charm and entertainment value due to the way it takes disaster film cliches and makes them seem fresh with unfamiliar cultural twists. At the time, Air Crew was also touted as the first disaster film made in Russia and was considered somewhat controversial for a sex scene involving one of the main pilots Igor (Leonid Filatov) and his flight attendant girlfriend Tamara (Alexandra Yakovleva).

An international film poster for the Russian disaster drama AIR CREW (1980).

The first claim is not really true. There was an earlier airplane disaster drama made in 1962 titled 713 Requests Permission to Land (Russian title: 713 Prosit Posadku) directed by Grigori Nikulin. The set-up is somewhat similar to the premise of 1957’s Zero Hour! in which food poisoning temporarily disables the flight crew. In this case, the pilots are served poisoned coffee and a passenger has to take charge and land the plane. As for the aforementioned sex scene, it is tame by American standards and only offers a brief glimpse of topless female nudity, which was still rare for Soviet cinema at the time.

Igor (Leonid Filatov) and Tamara (Alexandra Yakovleva) are co-workers who have to deal with the consequences of a bad break-up in AIR CREW (1980), a Russian disaster drama.

Like many disaster films, Air Crew has plenty of character exposition in the beginning – maybe too much – but it helps the viewer develop a rooting interest in the main protagonists before they are thrown into the fray to handle one crisis after another. One thing you notice right away is the economic disparity between the occupation of airline pilots and their living conditions in Russia. It is not a glamorous occupation and could be considered a job for the average working class male as evidenced by the cramped apartments where some pilots live with their families and in-laws.

Here is another alternative international poster for the 1980 Russian disaster epic AIR CREW.

Another interesting sign of the times is some evidence of the emerging feminist movement and women’s rights as the three main pilots seem stuck in male chauvinist mode while the women in their lives are more open to change. Dialogue between the men and women often take on a familiar battle-of-the-sexes tone as when Igor says to his lover, “We have an understanding. Full independence. No Obligations…those were your words.” To which Tamara replies, “I said it because that’s what you wanted to hear. Don’t you know that all girls want to get married. They want children and a lifetime companion.”

Igor (Leonid Filatov) looks at the devastation caused by earthquake aftershocks in the 1980 Russian disaster drama AIR CREW.

Air Crew is also distinguished by its lack of socialist messaging or propaganda in any obvious way. Yes, there is a strong emphasis on individuals risking their lives for the greater good but that is what we generally call heroic behavior. Of course, some of the feats our main protagonists accomplish in the film seem highly improbable or absurd but that is part of the escapist appeal.

Andrey (Georgi Zhzhyonov), the main pilot and hero of AIR CREW, is faced with some horrifying challenges in the 1980 Russian drama.

So who are these people anyway? First, there is Andrey (Georgi Zhzhyonov), a longtime employee for the company and family man whose wife Anyuta (Yekaterina Vasilyeva) is a doctor. He is worried that his upcoming company physical may render him an occupational risk but another situation causing him stress is his daughter Natasha (Galina Gladkova), a college student. She has just learned that she is pregnant but has no interest in marrying her boyfriend and plans to raise the baby herself.

Igor (Leonid Filatov) and Tamara (Alexandra Yakovleva) enjoy some private time away from work in the 1980 Russian disaster drama AIR CREW.

Igor, a back-up pilot and engineer, is the confirmed bachelor in the group and infamous as a ladies’ man, something that creates tension between him and Andrey. His groovy apartment featuring an aquarium, an elaborate music system and synchronized light show which is activated by sitting on his bed, is more like a mini-disco. It is also Igor’s lair for seduction but his affair with flight attendant Tamara ends badly when a former conquest drops by the apartment for a brief fling between flights.

Airplane pilot Valentin (Anatoliy Vasilev) has a combative relationship with his wife Alya (Irina Akulova) due to his long work hours and lack of attention to his home life in AIR CREW (1980).

Valentin (Anatoliy Vasilev), the second pilot, has a contentious relationship with his wife Alya (Irina Akulova) and their frequent arguments may be the cause behind their young son’s speech problem. His inability to say complete words could be an emotional response to his parent’s bickering. The couple end up in divorce court with Alya winning custody of their son and moving away to another town where she finds a new boyfriend.

Valentin (Anatoliy Vasilev, left) and Igor (Leonid Filatov) are two of the main protagonists in the Russian disaster epic AIR CREW (1980).

All of these subplots dominate the first 70 or so minutes of Air Crew before it kicks into high gear when flight 85-131 lands in the mountain village of Bidri to rescue earthquake survivors. The special effects are almost apocalyptic in their depiction as flaming lava, floods and avalanches cascade down a mountain peak toward the airport, destroying everything in their path. Wounded victims and a lot of frightened women and children are rushed inside the plane amid the aftershocks from the quake and the pilot barely manages to take off as the crumbling tarmac is engulfed in flames.

Flight attendant Tamara (Alexandra Yakovleva) has a reason to look worried in the 1980 Russian drama AIR CREW, directed by Aleksandr Mitta.

That’s just the first of many problems. A crack in the plane’s exterior and damage to the tail section threatens to expose the crew and passengers to extreme cold and the possibility of breaking apart in mid-flight. The plane is also running low on fuel and most nearby airports are closed due to heavy rainstorms. On that of this, Andrey realizes that the brakes won’t work even if they are lucky enough to land the flight.

Audrey (Georgi Zhzhyonov) worries about his upcoming heart exam and other personal problems that keep him up at night in AIR CREW (1980), a disaster movie from Russia.

When it rains, it pours in Air Crew and that is part of the fun. Compared to U.S. made disaster flicks, the special effects in this film are occasionally tacky and jerry-rigged but also colorful and inventive, especially in the use of miniatures. The production design by Anatoliy Kuznetsov is equally unique, whether it is Igor’s garish swinger’s apartment or the bizarre Bidri airport, which is carved into the side of a mountain. And Alfred Schnittke’s melodic score featuring a catchy theme song (instrumental) provides the appropriate tonal shifts for a disaster film soundtrack.

Flight 85-131 makes a safe, successful landing after losing its tail upon touchdown in the 1980 Russian disaster thriller AIR CREW.

Of course, some of the major set pieces are simply nutty in their melodramatic extremes. For example, doctors are busy operating on patients inside the plane as if it’s a surgery ward while Valentin dresses up in heavy protective gear before venturing out on the plane’s exterior to make a repair. Not only does he look like some strange outer space visitor but the fact that he doesn’t get swept off the plane by high winds increase the disbelief factor. OK, he does suffer severe frostbite but, on the positive side, none of the major characters die in Air Crew.

Yes, it’s Valentin (Anatoliy Vasilev) to the rescue as a fissure in the plane’s surface threatens to crack open and kill the passengers and crew in AIR CREW (1980), a disaster epic from Russia.

Aleksandr Mitta’s disaster epic didn’t really get an official theatrical release in the U.S. but it did pop up at a few film festivals such as the Chicago International Film Festival where it was nominated for Best Feature. Not many Russian films from the glasnost era made their way to these shores but Air Crew was a rare exception when it showed up on DVD in 2002, courtesy of Image Entertainment, which had licensed it from Ruscico and MosFilm. The disc offers multiple language and subtitle options but I recommend watching Air Crew in Russian with English subtitles. On the other hand, if you want some laughs, try the English dubbed version which transforms some of the more dramatic scenes into comic ones. The film’s running time is listed as 119 minutes but the IMDB listing notes that Air Crew runs two hours and 24 minutes. Either that is incorrect or some 25 minutes have been deleted for the U.S. DVD release. If anyone has any information on that, we’d love to hear it.

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