This week sees the opening of a humble little film called “San Andreas,” in which Dwayne Johnson causes a tectonic event by flexing a bicep, cocking an eyebrow and roaring his mighty, demigod laugh. Or something (our reviewer can tell you in more detail). Featuring many, many, many shots of structural collapse, by all accounts the Brad Peyton film distinctly recalls disaster movies past in its gleeful dismantling of the height of civilization’s civic achievements (symbolized as always by the Golden Gate Bridge) in less than the time it takes to think “ah, the hubris of humanity in the face of Nature’s unknowable wrath!”
Of course, the modern disaster movie has its cracked, unsound foundations in the 1970s, when, although films fitting the bill had been made before, suddenly a glut of identikit pictures flooded theaters. Starring a rotating troupe of movie stars just starting to go a bit brown around the edges like old fruit, the films saw boats sink, airplanes crash, skyscrapers tumble, epidemics break out and…ahem… some bees, but aside from their interchangeable casts, they also shared an ethos. Usually employing cross cutting between the blithe “before” moments (picnics, romantic trysts, parades, instrument-strumming nuns/hippies/hare krishnas) and the fateful bomb on the tracks/crack in the dam/shivering stowaway sneezing onto food, they were marked by bloated spectacle, staggering disregard for human life and a barely-there approach to creating characters you actually gave a damn about. Reportedly, “San Andreas” has taken many leaves from that playbook, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to check our brains at the door, rack up a serious body count and take a look at 10 defining 1970s Disaster Movies. Cower beneath a table and enjoy.
“Airport” (1970) and sequels
Perhaps now overshadowed by the spoof it inspired, the Zucker Brothers’ glorious “Airplane!,” this adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s best-selling novel was the “Iron Man” of disaster movies, proving a giant box-office hit, kicking off the craze for the genre and spawning a string of imitators. The original film is relatively restrained in terms of what came after, more “Grand Hotel” than “San Andreas,” a multi-character, semi-realistic look at the day-to-day task of running an airport that happens to be on a day when a terrible snowstorm and a mad bomber (Van Heflin, in his last role) are causing chaos. That it’s a little more restrained doesn’t necessarily make it a better movie, however: “Miracle On 34th Street” scribe George Seaton’s script is riddled with cliches and cyphers, and his direction isn’t much better, even if the cast including Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Jean Seberg, Jacqueline Bisset and George Kennedy are doing their best. Somehow, its blockbuster success converted into awards success: in the year of “Five Easy Pieces” and “MASH,” it won ten Oscar nominations, with Best Supporting Actress going to Helen Hayes as the twinkly-eyed stowaway. Nowadays, its critical reputation has decidedly diminished, in part because it’s impossible to watch the movie without imagining Lancaster talking about it being the wrong week to quit sniffing glue, or thinking about Martin asking a child if he’d ever been to a Turkish prison. Somehow, Universal didn’t immediately cash-in, waiting four years for the first follow-up, “Airport 1975” (which was confusingly released in 1974). Toplined by Charlton Heston, Karen Black and Gloria Swanson (along with a returning Kennedy, the only actor to appear in all four movies, and a now-Zucker-ruined appearance by Helen Reddy as a guitar-strumming nun), it mostly involves the lot as passengers on a then-new 747 stricken by a mid-air collision, and is shlockier and cheaper than its predecessor. It was nevertheless a hit, and two more sequels followed: “Airport ’77,” with arguably the best cast of the series (Jack Lemmon! James Stewart! Lee Grant! Joseph Cotten! Olivia de Havilland! Christopher Lee!), and a marginally more exciting hijacking plot, but it’s sunk by crashing the plane in the ocean in the middle of the movie, turning it into an ill-conceived riff on “The Poseidon Adventure.” Finally, the franchise was killed by “Airport ’79: The Concorde,” in which arms dealer Robert Wagner tries to shoot down the-then state-of-the-art pointy supersonic aircraft with an international cast including Alain Delon, David Warner, Bibi Andersson and Charo, while Kennedy finally gets to fly the plane. It feels like a final descent into self-parody, and somehow manages to be the worst of the four.
“The Andromeda Strain” (1971)
This film is less the edge-of-your-seat thrillride it was billed as (the poster overpromising “suspense that will last through your lifetime!” when it scarcely lasts a lunchtime) and more a showcase for some solid production design by Douglas Trumbull and the po-faced sincerity of Michael Crichton‘s source novel brought slavishly to the screen by Robert Wise. As much as we make fun of the overloaded starry casts elsewhere, “The Andromeda Strain” is unusual for boasting no name stars at all. It makes us long for a quick cameo from a spitefully alcoholic Ava Gardner or a slumming Richard of the Harris/Chamberlain/Widmark ilk, but instead we get B-actors Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid as the core team of doctors tasked with analysing the eponymous extraterrestrial pathogen which came to earth on a downed satellite and wiped out the entire population of a small town, bar an old drunk and a baby (the group must also contend with rather a lot of lumpen dialogue). With long stretches of dry talkiness, whole scenes that consist of someone watching a screen and a subplot whereby vital information is missed or misinterpreted due to the female scientist going into some sort of epileptic trance at a key moment, the film is not exactly bad —it’s just terribly un-dynamic and mired in a mighty swamp of self-importance despite the daftness of the plot. Again falling back on the ol’ evil military-industrial complex trope (the government had unbeknownst to the scientists been using the satellite program to research and develop new germ warfare capabilities, the same “twist” that happens in 85% of contagion narratives), and having to introduce a rather contrived nuclear threat to the base’s human occupants in order to create a final-act showpiece, Wise’s direction starts off fizzily enough, with split screen moments and some nice eerie shots in the town of the dead, but goes slowly flat, an extended, drawn-out noisemaker deflation. Mostly the film is pulled under by its willful seriousness, as though it wants to be read as a cautionary tale rather than entertainment, even ending portentously when killjoy Dr Stone (Hill), explaining the final containment of the threat to Senator Phillips (Eric Christmas), says soberly that they prevailed this time but “there’s no guarantee that another so-called biological crisis won’t occur again.” “Hm. What do we do about that?” queries Phillips. “Precisely, Senator,” replies Stone, against the rising volume of Gil Mellé‘s uneasy score, all but turning quizzically to camera. “What. Do. We. Do?” Makes you think, doesn’t it? Actually, nope.
“The Poseidon Adventure” (1972)
Heightening and ‘perfecting’ the formula patented by “Airport,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” based on a novel by Paul Gallico, isn’t Shakespeare or anything, but as far as disaster movies go, it’s an undeniably superior example, with some legitimate thrills and impressive production value, along with a cast that, while not the starriest ever assembled to be killed off one by one, are at least enormously committed and have some characterful roles to get stuck into. Directed by David Lean’s former producer Ronald Neame (“The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie”), the film is set on the final voyage of ocean liner the SS Poseidon, which is turned upside down by a huge tidal wave (in the, uh, famously tsunami-prone Mediterranean, for some reason) on New Year’s Eve, leaving the survivors forced to find a way upwards through the ship. Those survivors include radical reverend Gene Hackman, cop Ernest Borgnine and his ex-prostitute wife Stella Stevens, Jewish grandparents Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson, and ‘bachelor’ Red Buttons. There’s a little more grit, variety and certainly some great character actor faces in this cast that amounts to a more compelling and flawed collection of heroes than many of the subsequent, inferior films that stole everything herein that wasn’t nailed down. And man-o-man, did they ever: more so than “Airport,” this picture established the tropes of the genre, with a collection of perilous set pieces in which at least one of the characters died, with noble sacrifice and sheer unfairness often playing a big part (Hackman’s rant against God after another wasted life is one of the film’s best moments, and one suspects could only have happened in a big mainstream movie in the 1970s —these days, it’d be noted out of existence by nervous executives). The people who survive these films aren’t always the ones who deserve to, and “The Poseidon Adventure” sets up a gang of genuinely human, flawed figures better than most. Not that it’s lacking in spectacle: Seale manages the set pieces nicely, and they still stand up for their genuinely impressive production value today (indeed, far more so than the instantly-dated CGI of Wolfgang Petersen’s 2006 remake “Poseidon,” which also swaps out the Borgnines and Hackmans of the world for the much blander group of Josh Lucas, Jacinda Barrett and co.). It feels formulaic now, but that’s in part because of what came after, and the film’s undeniably effective at what it does —if you’re unmoved by the sacrifice of Winters’ character (she was Oscar-nominated for her trouble), you probably should be decomposing at the bottom of the ocean.
“The Towering Inferno” (1974)
The success of “The Poseidon Adventure” made producer Irwin Allen (who’d made his name in TV with shows like “Lost In Space,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “Land Of The Giants”) the king of the disaster movie, and his next picture was even bigger and starrier, uniting two massive A-list names for the first time. “The Towering Inferno” certainly delivered in spectacle and star wattage, but it’s ultimately a rather lesser movie in most every way. The project came about in an unusual fashion: looking for his ‘Poseidon’ follow-up, Allen tried to option the rights to Richard Martin Stern’s best-seller “The Tower,” only to discover that a rival studio had already nabbed them. Unbowed, he instead optioned another similar book, “The Glass Inferno,” but rather than a “Volcano”/‘Dante’s Peak” situation, Fox and Warner Bros agreed to team up, and “The Poseidon Adventure” screenwriter Sterling Silpiphant (an Oscar-winner for “In The Heat Of The Night”) was enlisted to amalgamate the books. He ended up following his formula from the earlier disaster epic in large part, with a raging fire breaking out on the 81st floor of the 138-story world’s tallest building, the Glass Tower in San Francisco (these days, it would rank as fourth, behind Burj Khalifa, Shanghai Tower and the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel), trapping the various luminaries gathered there for the dedication ceremony, including owner William Holden, his daughter Susan Blakely, conman Fred Astaire, senator Robert Vaughn, and Security Officer O.J. Simpson (whose presence, as with the concept of people trapped in one of the world’s tallest building as it collapses in flames, makes it a rather more uncomfortable experience to watch today). They’re led by architect Paul Newman —the film makes pains to emphasize that the fire isn’t his responsibility, with sneery engineer Richard Chamberlain instead at fault— who liases with fire chief Steve McQueen on how to rescue as many as possible. Unlike the disaster films of the late 1970s, this is big-budget, big-spectacle stuff, with seemingly few expenses spared on the state-of-the-art effects and Oscar-winning cinematography (the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in total, including Best Picture), and the cast all give good value for money, particularly Astaire. But while the introduction of the outside world attempting a rescue lends a little variety, it’s just a little too close to the “Poseidon Adventure” formula, with characters filling similar roles and dying similarly tragic deaths (though Newman and McQueen somehow feel untouchable, which indeed they are). It’s certainly superior to what Allen would end up doing later in the decade, but it’s a little creaky forty years on.
Along with “Rollercoaster” one of the only films ever to use Sensurround, a gimmicky technique whereby low-frequency bass sounds were layered onto the soundtrack to give a rumbling effect, “Earthquake,” as well as being the most natural precursor to “San Andreas” on this list, is kind of like every single other disaster movie all rolled into one. Not only does it feature the aging-male-star-who-still-plays-attractive and aging-female-star-who-doesn’t tropes in Charlton Heston [HESTONCOUNT: 2] and Ava Gardner, who give it their best Burton/Taylor bitter spouse routine, but in its sprawl across a whole city it also features a whole load of other disaster scenarios, old and new, too. There’s a skyscraper collapse and rescue straight out of “Towering Inferno,” but also a flooded underground denouement that calls to mind “Daylight” and a subplot about a bullied national Guard reservist who turns psycho which is like something out of “The Purge.“Co-scripted by Mario Puzo, and also starring George Kennedy [KENNEDYCOUNT: 5] as an ornery but deeply heroic cop (who also does the worst fake-driving acting EVER seen), Genevieve Bujold as Heston’s childlike mistress (seriously she looks about seven), Lorne Greene (who plays Ava Gardner’s dad despite being all of six years older than her and looking younger), Richard Roundtree as a daredevil motorbike rider and Walter Matthau in a cameo role that requires him to wear a hat and fall drunk off a stool, the film is overstuffed in the extreme, but not without its impressive effects and well staged set pieces. The centerpiece of course is the earthquake itself, which goes on for a full ten minutes of screen time (rivalling the longest quake ever recorded, which happened in Sumatra in 2004), not including preshocks and aftershocks, and is quite spectacular in its building collapses, pylon topplings, bridge disintegrations and elevator plummets (this last ending in a gorily avant-garde/terrible blood spatter effect). The film was journeyman director Mark Robson‘s (“Inn of the Sixth Happiness”; “The Harder They Fall”; “Peyton Place”; “Von Ryan’s Express“) second last ever movie, and while it was very successful, it suffered a similar fate to many of his titles in feeling like an off-brand version of a bigger, similar film: released the same year as “The Towering Inferno,” “Earthquake” placed third at the end-of-year charts, where the Irwin Allen production came in first.
Whether because it was loosely based on real events, because it was directed by the uneven but highly capable Richard Lester, or because it’s a very British affair and remarkably stiff-upper-lipped despite the schlockiness of the genre, “Juggernaut” has stood the test of time remarkably well; even the costumes don’t seem as hilariously archaic as in other films on this list. It’s also a lot down to characterization, which this film has more of than all the others put together, especially in terms of a genuinely terrific Richard Harris as the charismatic bomb disposal expert parachuted aboard a luxury liner when a mad Irishman holds it for ransom. Clearly a kind of British response to the success of “The Poseidon Adventure,” anyone looking for the same thrills would have come away disappointed: the boat never sinks, bombast is severely curtailed and disaster, by and large, is averted. In fact the deaths remain within the single digits. But it does build its own, classier form of suspense, even when not involved in the procedural minutiae of defusing the barrel-bombs (which it does excellently), by cutting between the drama on board and that on dry land. Anthony Hopkins is the police detective charged with tracking down the bomber in London while his wife and children are, coincidentally, aboard the fateful ship; Omar Sharif is the ship’s captain who may or may not be about to embark on an affair; Roy Kinnear is the clownish ship’s entertainer who gets a nice scene that allows him to be more than a buffoon; and well-known Brit character actors Ian Holm, David Hemmings and Freddie Jones all turn up in support. Aside from the terrible female characters who are to a woman utterly useless, losing their children and pestering Sharif for proof of his affections when there are seven bombs on board his ship and 1200 lives at stake, the film is surprisingly thoughtful, and would be worth it for the scene between Harris and Sharif alone, in which a railing, self-recriminatory Harris drinks heavily and smashes a bottle, only to have his stomach gurgle very audibly on camera, which Harris then works into the moment brilliantly. Something of a neglected gem, this one, even if it’s low on the kind of splashy silliness that the term “Disaster Movie” might conjure up.
“The Cassandra Crossing” (1976)
Not the most well-known or most successful entry on this list, “The Cassandra Crossing” still might very well be the most disaster
movie here, encompassing a plot that takes in bio-terrorism, anarchist
bomb plots, shady US government conspiracies, international heroin
smuggling, holocaust survivors and a threatened pandemic. And that’s
before we even get to the titular disaster-in waiting, a steel railway
bridge, abandoned in 1948 which is probably too rickety to withstand the
weight of a train full of panicking passengers. Ostensibly a story
about contagion and containment, it details an escaped Swede infected
with a contagious and fatal strain of flu, who hides out on a train from
Geneva to Stockholm, exposing all the other passengers and forcing
untrustworthy grim-faced U.S. General Burt Lancaster
[LANCASTERCOUNT: 2] to recommend draconian containment and quarantine
measures, up to and including shooting dead any passengers who attempt
to get off. Meantime, Richard Harris [HARRISCOUNT: 2] is a celebrated neurosurgeon who has been pursued aboard by his comely ex-wife Sophia Loren (producer Carlo Ponti‘s
wife at the time; Ponti had designed the film a lot to be her
introduction to a wider U.S. audience, and my God is she gorgeous); Ava Gardner [GARDNERCOUNT: 2] is an industrialist’s wife travelling with her surly toy boy/secret heroin dealer Martin Sheen; OJ Simpson [SIMPSONCOUNT: 2] plays a priest who suspiciously does not say grace; Bergman Muse Ingrid Thulin plays a Swedish doctor who locks horns with Lancaster’s military man [THULINCOUNT: 1] ; Lee Strasberg plays a kindly old Jew who lost all his family in the concentration camps; and Lionel Stander, best known from “Hart to Hart“
where he played a factotum character called Max, plays a factotum
character called Max. Quite gruesome in its later stages especially, the
film has so many untidy and contrived subplots it’s hard to know where
to focus, but it’s glossily mounted enough that the effects and tension
set pieces work well even today, though it’s unlikely any effects
supervisor no matter how talented could ever create a collision as
dramatic as that of the accents and acting styles featured within.
Still, Sophia Loren is jaw-dropping to look at, and she and Harris play
surprisingly well off each other, so much so that their climactic clinch
even brings a warm smile to the lips of a crying child who has just
lost her mother to a violent death.
A little heavy on plotting and light on actual disaster, “Rollercoaster” was director James Goldstone‘s second-last gasp at both the disaster genre (he’d also make terrible volcano-related Paul Newman starrer “When Time Ran Out” in 1980) and the big screen in general — in the ’80s he’d head for the TV hills and stay there. But “Rollercoaster” actually is not bad, grading on the steep curve of the ’70s disaster film, a lot down to the genial presence of George Segal who plays the whole film with his trademark suave yet befuddled air, as though it’s all a light comedy of manners. And for a dude whose job it is to inspect fairground attractions, he wears the hell out of a suit. Anyway, the film details a dastardly ransom plot put together by an unnamed impassive sociopath played by Timothy Bottoms, looking a bit like Ryan O’Neal the way that everyone in the 1970s looked a bit like Ryan O’Neal, whereby he plants explosive devices on rollercoasters and sets them off remotely, usually while eating cotton candy and observing from a safe distance. Having got the attention of Big Funfair with his first shot across their bows, in an opening scene that is genuinely quite gruesome in its shots of thrillseekers wedged into the little carriages being squidged as they tumble from a great height, he demands an Austin Powers-esque ransom of $1m, but takes a shine to Segal’s Harry Calder, and demands he makes the drop in person. When the money turns out to be marked, the bomber makes it personal between him and Calder, targeting the last coaster Calder inspected, which just so happens to be The Great American Revolution at Magic Mountain, due to open on July 4th. Cue lots of first-person rollercoaster footage, cross cut with footchases through the busy park, though “Rollercoaster”‘s focus is so tightly on the cat-and-mouse that there’s very little sense of investment in the callow teenagers and minority couples who are unwittingly dicing with death. Still, we get Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda in supporting roles, as well as a very young Helen Hunt as Segal’s daughter, and a genre-mandated ironic ending in which no one seems to worry that the passengers might be almost as traumatized by being the means by which a man is killed as they would be by derailment. So yes, there are good bits and bad bit, ups and downs, a bit like there are on a… oh, if only there were an analogy.
“The Swarm” (1978)
If one of the things that defines the classic Disaster Movie is that it’s a bit shit, Irwin Allen‘s “The Swarm” just might be the most definitive disaster film ever made — it is absolutely dire, but the kind of dire that is a huge amount of fun if you’re in the right mood. It stars a tan-clad Michael Caine seemingly permanently caught mid-eyeroll, and who can blame him — his character is an entomologist who has long been predicting a human vs insect war, but who “never dreamed it would turn out to be the bees. They were always our friends.” Oh, but there’s so much choice terrible dialogue, beginning early on when a helicopter pilot flies into what looks like a cloud of malevolent Raisinettes and delivers the classic “Oh my God! Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!” which a) we’re pretty sure influenced Nic Cage‘s famous bee moment in “The Wicker Man” and b) is now our ringtone. But for such a daft film with such a terminally silly premise it’s surprisingly bloodthirsty, killing quite a few people onscreen, a lot of them children, and then a few hundred more casually when the bees… derail a train. Also starring Richard Widmark [WIDMARKCOUNT: 2] as the quick-tempered military man piqued when a civilian is put in charge of the rescue and containment operation (and quite rightly as Caine’s character doesn’t really make a single right decision until the very end); reuniting him with Henry Fonda [FONDACOUNT: 2] as a spectacularly useless wheelchair-bound immunologist who dies testing his anti-venom on himself; Richard Chamberlain [CHAMBERLAINCOUNT: 2] who turns up for about five minutes and says, truthfully one feels, that he “came reluctantly”; Olivia De Havilland (maybe Ava Gardner wasn’t available); and Katharine Ross as a comely doctor cast presumably because she’s exactly the right height and coloring to be able to nestle appealingly against Caine’s tan-clad chest, some of the characters may survive, but none of the actors get out of here alive. Director Allen was, in a producer’s capacity, known as the “Master of Disaster” shepherding the twin peaks of the genre (“The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure“) into being earlier in the decade. But whether because the fad had run its course, or because he wasn’t much of a director (occasional “bee-vision” and some hilarious slo-mo bee-related deaths are about as far as he goes, innovation wise) or because, you know, it’s about fucking bees, “The Swarm” stank it up at the box office, as did his subsequent go-round “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.” The latter also starred Michael Caine (along with Sally Field), and is also dreadful, but even Caine, who was in “Jaws: The Revenge” counts “The Swarm” as the worst film he was ever in. A disaster movie indeed.
In the 1990s, when the genre was revived thanks to pre-millennium anxiety and the rise of CGI effects, the second great battle (after “Volcano” vs “Dante’s Peak”) came with the near-simultaneous release of “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” Whoever won, we kind of lost, but both look like thoroughbred masterpieces when compared to their predecessor, 1979’s “Meteor,” one of the movies that helped to kill the original wave. Directed by “The Poseidon Adventure” helmer Ronald Neame to much, much, lesser effect, it sees a five-mile-wide chunk of the asteroid Orpheus on a collision course with Earth, causing a joint U.S. and Soviet alliance of scientists, led by Paul Bradley (Sean Connery, in visible pain and wearing a coat that makes him look like a second division soccer-team manager) and also including the likes of Brian Keith, Karl Malden, Martin Landau, Trevor Howard and interpreter Natalie Wood, all under the command of U.S. President Henry Fonda [FONDACOUNT: 3] seemingly cast as a nod to “Fail Safe.” The 1990s asteroid pictures managed to keep up some level of peril by introducing heroic space missions to obliterate the threat, but while “Meteor” seems to have been a sort of disaster-movie response to the success of “Star Wars” on some level, the action remains resolutely Earth-bound. This makes the film almost impossibly boring, mostly involving a selection of slumming-it actors (a wildly over-the-top Landau being the most entertaining) staring at screens while they wait for a meteor fragment to cause chaos somewhere around the globe. If chaos is the right word: the special-effects sequences, which seem to mostly involve close-ups of children’s playsets or running taps, would have been mocked in the 1930s, let alone in the era of Lucas and Spielberg. In the closing stages of the film, our heroes are at least put in some degree of peril, as a large segment of the meteor wipes out New York, but the scenes are as badly filmed as the rest of the movie, and by that point it’s too little, too late. Nowadays, it’s notable mostly as the single worst movie that Connery ever made (pipping “The Avengers” and “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” to the post by some margin), and as the film that essentially brought down Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures, the B-movie specialists who’d helped give people like Roger Corman, Martin Scorsese and George Miller their big breaks. Most disaster movies, even the ropier ones, make you feel for those who fall along the way: “Meteor” made you pray to join their number.
A few others to check out if you haven’t got your fill of puffy aging stars crying in torn chiffon: Robert Wise’s 1975 “The Hindenburg,” stars George C Scott and Anne Bancroft, reimagines the famous airship explosion (“Oh the humanity!”) as a terrorist incident and isn’t bad. We were tempted to include 1979’s “City on Fire” purely to bring FONDACOUNT to a whopping 4 — without the aid of a single “Airport” film! and GARDNERCOUNT to 3, but it’s really turgid. However it’s Kurosawa next to 1978’s “Avalanche” starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow, which is possibly the genre’s nadir for sheer complete boredom. That said, Farrow didn’t fare much better in the terrible “Hurricane” which came out the following year in 1979. And having covering the “Airport” movies above we didn’t feel the need for any more flying disasters, though if we had it probably would have been 1972 Charlton Heston-starrer “Skyjacked” if only for James Brolin‘s memorably unhinged turn as the baddie. There are plenty more where they came from though, so do let us know which of your favorites we missed, in the comments below, and stay safe out there.