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A Monument to All the Bullshit in the World: 1970s Disaster Movies

  The disaster movie genre in the nineteen-seventies did not arrive out of the blue, it had precedents, even from as far back as the thirties with such popular dramatic thrillers as San Francisco (about that city's famous fire) or Deluge (positing a Biblical flood hitting the East Coast of America), but as special effects advanced, so did the ambition to make these blockbusters. In the sixties, there had been The Last Voyage, about a sinking ocean liner (a real liner, sunk for real), or Krakatoa, East of Java (depicting a genuine historical event), but with Airport in 1970, a light bulb went on above some producers' heads and the idea of casting a bunch of stars then placing them in peril was born. The template was more or less set in stone ever after, as in that Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin had headed the celebs dealing with an aeroplane with a bomb on board, though this remained the approach in a more nascent form.

Airport was more concerned with the soap opera aspect of the story, playing up the relationships possibly even more than the peril, yet while it was a huge hit, one producer thought he could do better. That man was Irwin Allen, who had spent the previous decade in television making popular (if ridiculous) science fiction shows like Lost in Space or Land of the Giants as well as the occasional big screen excursion. He purchased the rights to the Paul Gallico novel that would become 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, the first real instance of the disaster movie as we like to think of it, as while it had its inspirations, it was groundbreaking for assembling the cast in that soap opera style, yet having them interact in a scenario where divorce or problem offspring were not the issue, staying alive was. Quite often, if you think of a disaster epic from this era, it is this one your mind goes to, as it got the formula so right.

The titular Poseidon was the cruise liner on its last voyage (sound familiar?) which is subjected to what can lightly be described as choppy seas as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean. The Captain Leslie Nielsen warns the company man they should take the trip slowly, because hurrying the journey has put the ship in danger from capsizing in this rough weather, but as in many good seventies thrillers, the authorities are not to be trusted, an it's no surprise when the vessel is hit by a tidal wave and tips over: "Hell, upside down" as the advertising had it. This leaves the crew and passengers, who were enjoying a New Year's Eve celebration, to pick themselves off the ceiling and ponder their next move, in particular the progressive priest Gene Hackman who sees himself as quite the Moses, destined to lead the survivors out of the inverted ballroom and out through the hull, where rescue may or may not be awaiting them.

Allen assembled an excellent cast, it had to be said, as while there was plenty about The Poseidon Adventure that could be described as hokey, it was never boring, and that was down to director Ronald Neame keeping things moving by making us aware that peril was now ever-present. Among the performers were Ernest Borgnine, yelling half his lines as Hackman's main doubter, a cop, Stella Stevens as his ex-prostitute wife (!), Shelley Winters whose weight never goes ten minutes without a mention, Carol Lynley as the near-terminally pathetic lounge singer, Red Buttons as the health food nut who does his best to keep her alive, and Pamela Sue Martin as the teenager who idolises Hackman; Roddy McDowall was present too, as a staff member with a Scottish accent for some reason. With all that lot representing a panoply of human experience, the idea that there was an Old Testament God forcing this test of faith on them was as brutal as it was exciting.

However, Allen wanted to go one better than his success with The Poseidon Adventure, and his follow-up was, if anything, an even bigger production. With seemingly bottomless funds, he managed to sign up one of the starriest casts ever assembled for a blockbuster since the days of the celebrity revue films of the war years - or perhaps Allen's notorious flop The Story of Mankind from the fifties - but it paid off for him a thousandfold with 1974's The Towering Inferno. The premise was basically The Poseidon Adventure on land: trap your cast in the world's tallest building (a fictional construct for the movie) which soars above the San Francisco skyline, and set the place on fire. Everything about this was twice as big as it needed to be: based on two novels, produced by two major studios teaming up, and featuring two of the most famous actors of the day in the lead roles of architect and fire chief.

They were Paul Newman, who was not a huge fan of the material it had to be said, not that you would notice it from his performance, and Steve McQueen, whose main concern was that he not be upstaged by Newman, obsessing over his standing to an almost paranoid degree, insisting on having the same number of lines and that curious billing which saw one star placed higher than the other, but on the right hand side of the screen as both their names appeared on the screen at the beginning. William Holden was also vocally aggrieved that he had agreed to appear in this, possibly because they refused to give him top billing as he requested, yet the overall impression was that everyone in this - everyone renowned enough - was strictly doing this for the paycheque, and were not doing this for the art. For that reason, the seventies disaster movie was already being looked down on in the culture, even as they packed them in at the theatres.

One curious aspect of the genre in this decade was that it tied in with the health and safety drive that was synonymous with the era: turn on the television and you would see public service announcements galore (public information films in Britain), all instructing the audience to think about what they were doing and take care of themselves and their surroundings. Into this arrived The Towering Inferno as the ultimate fire safety lecture, methodically going through the perils of lax safeguarding (the blaze begins thanks to faulty wiring, a cost-cutting measure) and explaining how the professionals would go about rescuing you from such a conflagration. Naturally, those who are responsible for this hubris-fuelled calamity are punished, yet innocents perish as well, all to ramp up the anguish and highlight how one person's folly can be paid for by others. And wrapped up in a spectacular package of stunts and special effects, the stars the icing on a towering cake.

1974 was quite the year for disaster movies, as Hollywood alone released three blockbusters in quick succession. The Towering Inferno was the biggest of those, arriving in time for the Christmas season, but before that over at Universal they were trying to muscle in on the act with Earthquake. The calamity was self-explanatory the second you read the title, as Los Angeles was hit with the much anticipated "Big One" (in fact the San Andreas fault would wait till the nineties before it unleashed one of its most destructive quakes, and even so it was nowhere as devastating as the one depicted in this film). Back in the thirties, one major success had been San Francisco with Clark Gable and Jeanette McDonald struggling through a historical recreation of a disaster, so you can imagine director and producer Mark Robson had that in mind when he assembled his all-star cast to be all shook up by the tremors and falling masonry forty years later.

One thing he had in his arsenal that was not available back then was Sensurround, a noisy process whereby the audience in theatres would be subjected to a loud rumble as the action sequences played out on the screen. Sort of the forerunner of 4D cinema experiences, but maybe owing more to the gimmicks of showman director William Castle, the effect, everyone agreed, was rather like watching the mayhem while a very large vacuum cleaner was turned on - an enhancement to the night out? Well, probably not, as patrons had to dodge bits of ceiling plaster in some of the more elderly picture palaces when the effect was on full, and most other disaster flicks relied on special effects and their celebrity casts to draw the audiences in (though there was one more Sensurround movie in the genre to come). However, it was worth noting Robson had also been the director of Valley of the Dolls, the big budget soap, a pinnacle of big studio trash.

Therefore we were treated in the early stages to leading man Charlton Heston putting up with screen wife Ava Gardner sniping at him and almost fooling him that she had taken an overdose of pills before a pre-disaster tremor hits, or discussing nymphomania with his mistress Genevieve Bujold (a male nympho is a satyr - don't say you don't learn anything in movies). Also appearing were George Kennedy (more on him later) as a maverick cop, Marjoe Gortner as an unstable National Guardsman obsessed with a huge-afroed Victoria Principal, Richard Roundtree trying to outdo Evel Knievel, and Lorne Green as Gardner's father (yeah, right) who happens to be Cheston’s boss. The effects when they arrived were impressive by the standards of the day, though variable, but what was perhaps most interesting was that like The Towering Inferno, Earthquake posited that not everyone deserves to survive: not every life was sacred to Hollywood.

Beating both The Towering Inferno and Earthquake to the screen was a star-packed blockbuster that was originally set to be a television special, yet was judged to feature a script so good that the audiences of the world were invited to pay for the privilege of seeing it instead. Fittingly it ended up a staple of many a lazy television scheduler's evening plans, possibly because there was a lot of TV talent in this follow-up to the film that started the disaster interest, Airport. Airport 1975 was that blockbuster, and with two more to succeed it during the rest of the decade, many disaster buffs like to pick this one as their favourite. Charlton Heston was our hero, quite the genre celebrity given how often in this era of moviemaking he would try to save the world from an unspeakable fate, or a plane at least, and his leading lady was the unlikely, to say the least, Karen Black, the off-kilter actress as well-known for her offscreen kookiness as her onscreen kookiness.

She played the stewardess we are introduced to having a spat with Heston, who cannot understand what she's upset about. She will have something genuine to be upset about by the halfway mark when, while in the air approaching Salt Lake City, ailing light aircraft pilot Dana Andrews manages the accidental feat of crashing said plane into the cockpit of Black's Jumbo Jet. The logistics of this set aside in a "don't bother us with details!" fashion, it remains to be seen who can now pilot the airliner since the pilots have all either been killed or are incapacitated. Therefore Heston flies to the rescue, after Black's immortal line "There's no one left to fly the plane!" serves as a rallying cry to the team on the ground, including Heston's Earthquake pal George Kennedy, the fixture of all four in this franchise to varying degrees. But the roster of the famous did not stop with them, as executive producer Jennings Lang called in every favour he could.

This had Gloria Swanson bigging herself up as... herself, penning her own dialogue to ensure her importance in the passenger list, and Myrna Loy, not as herself, but a hard-drinking little old lady for alcoholic amusement purposes. That was something you noticed, everyone here was preoccupied with sex (cue dodgy quips, especially from co-pilot Erik Estrada for some reason) and booze (three comic characters purely exist to throw back Scotches at regular intervals), apparently to convince the viewer that this was a diversion for grown-ups and worth seeing in the theatre where nearer the knuckle material had become the norm. Linda Blair was the exception to this, and she had been in The Exorcist the previous year, but while watching Airport 1975 you would be more prone to memories of another film, Airplane! It was both Andrews' fifties disaster effort Zero Hour and this that they plundered for spoof material, though lovers of camp can find this just as amusing.

America did not have it all their own way in 1974, as from across the Atlantic Ocean, and indeed located in the North Atlantic, there was a United States/Great Britain coproduction from director Richard Lester which sounded like a British take on The Poseidon Adventure, but was more in tune with the fears of terrorism and the nation falling apart before their eyes that were growing across the decade. Lester was practically brought in at the last minute for Juggernaut, and had Alan Plater rewrite it, hence the strain of very British mordant wit running through the dialogue; the results did not hit big at the time, but regular television showings since then built a welcome audience who were delighted to discover an offbeat gem that finally found the appreciation it lacked way back in the seventies. It has since become a sleeper for almost everyone who stumbles across it, and not merely thanks to the bomb disposal scenes that fast became clichés.

Just as in the American disaster flicks, there was an all-star cast, yet given its provenance from the opposite side of the Pond from the usual fare, there were more cast members recognisable to the Brits. Richard Harris was the Irish star nominally the lead, though this was far more an ensemble piece, so he was supported by the likes of Omar Sharif as the Captain, Anthony Hopkins as the police inspector trying to track the bomber, David Hemmings as Harris's righthand man, Shirley Knight as Sharif's mistress, also on board his ship - the Britannic - Clifton James as a passenger and erstwhile mayor, Ian Holm as the owner of the cruise liner, Freddie Jones as a bomb expert, and the cherry on top, Roy Kinnear as the entertainments officer delivering a career best performance as his desperation to cheer up the increasingly depressed passengers serves up some of the finest gallows humour of the era, not something many American disaster efforts thought to include.

It wasn't perfect, as for instance the identity of the bomber is obvious thanks to his voice being easily recognisable even over the telephone, though he does try to disguise it, but the conceit that the Britannic is actually a stand-in for the much beleaguered United Kingdom of the seventies succeeded both as a dose of black comedy and an acutely observed bit of social commentary, with its infrastructure heading down the dumper, its bombings, out of touch authorities, reliance on crowdpleasing comedy to keep the nation's spirits up and so forth. It was telling that not only does Harris fail to reach his goal, but in the process explosions happen no matter what his defusing crew try, and the passengers lapse into a kind of resignation in a way that Gene Hackman would be horrified at. All set in a rolling sea that's too dangerous to drop the lifeboats into, its gunmetal skies and freezing winds signalled impending doom whether the bomb issues were solved or not.

Back in the United States, 1975 did not produce too many efforts that could be claimed as disaster flicks, about the closest you would get would be the historical epic The Hindenburg, but in 1976 one film followed Juggernaut's lead by presenting a manmade calamity, though we never discover the motives of the man in question. That film was Two-Minute Warning, and what do you know, Charlton Heston was back again, headlining albeit in a reduced role as this was even more of an ensemble picture than Airport 1975 or his other experiences with a world gone mad around this point. He was in charge of the security at the Los Angeles Coliseum this time, but unfortunately for his character and quite a few others, along with thousands of faceless masses, this big game was the event a mad sniper chooses to visit the stadium, setting himself up at a high vantage point and spending the game eyeing up potential victims through his scope.

Contemporary views of Two-Minute Warning were not too kind, either labelling it as irresponsible from those who believe movies can spawn bad ideas in their audiences, or criticising it as basically a soap opera where you're waiting around to see who dies and who lives - though was that not the essence of the disaster genre? In truth, though there were hokey elements to Edward Hume's screenplay (based on George LaFountaine's book), as if they were impossible to avoid in what was supposed to be a blockbuster, director Larry Peerce cannily kept the suspense levels high, creating one of the most underrated thrillers of the decade. What cannot have helped its reputation was that television version which cut out the gory violence and more besides, added a superfluous art heist plot to pad out what was left, and generally neutered what was a surprisingly brutal affair; in America especially, this was the incarnation most people would have seen.

In its original flavour, Two-Minute Warning was a far more absorbing, philosophically existential work. Not to get too pretentious, but it is down to pure chance who gets shot or not, you can be a hero or a villain or simply someone trying to get by who attends the football game to get away from your troubles for a while; even the Mayor is there, so the important and not-so-important are potential fodder for the gunmen. His rifle is a terrible leveller, as anyone from nervy gambler Jack Klugman to married couple giving it another chance David Janssen and Gena Rowlands to family man Beau Bridges struggling with unemployment taking wife (Pamela Bellwood) and kids for a treat are reduced to sitting targets. John Cassavetes was the ruthless SWAT leader trying to protect them, but his heavy-handed tactics may do more harm than good; this was an unusual example of disaster in that the mayhem occurred right at the end of the story, but was appropriately harrowing.

An example of a disaster flick where the mayhem occurred right at the beginning was the following year's Rollercoaster, all the better to make the audience fear, or indeed anticipate, the calamity happening again. This was also one of the genre that saw the incident in question put into play by a human rather than a natural disaster; Airport back in 1970 had technically been one of those too, as Van Heflin boarded the airliner with a bomb (obviously laxer security standards in those days for air travel) and was the psychopath in effect, though he was more of a pathetic character than those seen in later examples like Two-Minute Warning, this and Black Sunday, where career nutter Bruce Dern essayed the villainous role. In Rollercoaster, our bad guy was Timothy Bottoms, an unnamed specimen who was quite the mystery man as we never discover his motive, a deliberate act by the production to sustain his menace.

He actually commits two acts of sabotage in the opening act, the second setting a fire in an amusement park that merely needed a smoke machine to simulate on location, and from a distance to boot, but the first one was the reason those who saw this would not forget it, especially if they saw the unedited version. Bottoms sets off a bomb on the rollercoaster, not a huge one, just one big enough to break a track, and this is all that is needed to send the passengers flying as the other patrons and staff look on in horror. Despite its PG rating, this remains a disturbing sequence, very well put together by director James Goldstone and his stunt and effects teams, which sees the carriages hurtling off the rails and bodies scattered across the tarmac next to the arcades. Thanks to this, we take the film seriously, knowing what it and the saboteur is capable of, and this threat drove the rest of the drama - but was it a legitimate disaster entry?

After all, though other people die at the finale, it's a mild spoiler to say it's not in the way the villain was planning, and Goldstone certainly didn't regard this as part of the disaster canon, preferring to make allusions to the suspense Alfred Hitchcock instead - presumably his 1980 erupting volcano item When Time Ran Out... was one he genuinely did see as in the disaster tradition. It was true this was within the genre of thriller cat and mouse pursuits between the cop hero, in this case George Segal (not a cop, but a park security authority), and the bad guy who taunted him at every turn thanks to his way with technology and his lust for one million dollars from the parks he was targeting. Segal had a few bits of business with trying to quit smoking and a daughter from a broken marriage (a young Helen Hunt), but when things were in earnest, there was real tension thanks to general professionalism rather than wild inspiration on the part of the filmmakers.

Come the end of the decade, the genre was winding down into farce, literally, with the hit spoof Airplane! making a mockery of all previous attempts to mine human interest stories out of oh-so-serious peril. Perhaps not coincidentally, The Concorde… Airport '79 showed up almost simultaneously and was considered so dreadful that it actually threatened Airplane!'s position as 1979's top comedy disaster flick. Rendering it less funny now was that the plane used in the film really did suffer a disaster in 2000 when it crashed on the runway, killing everyone onboard, a curious item of prophecy in marked contrast to the fictional version, where not one passenger or crewmember dies. The cast merely escaped from the disaster with bruised egos as the time was well and truly up for the genre, and as this was directed by David Lowell Rich, a TV movie specialist, that would explain much of the star wattage (or lack of it) of the cast, as well as the style.

Or lack of it. Ridiculous did not begin to cover the plot, which saw the first American Concorde under threat when millionaire businessman Robert Wagner decides to assassinate his TV reporter girlfriend Susan Blakely on the craft by having it shot down while she is on it - she has documents incriminating him in an illegal arms deal that could ruin him if the truth got out. Seeing as how he has already had an executive shot with apparent impunity, you wonder why such an elaborate plan was necessary, but if you wonder that, you wonder why have the movie at all? The producers may have sympathised, as their would-be blockbuster turned into a supersonic turkey within days of its release, bringing one of the signature franchises of the seventies to an ignominious end. But for lovers of sheer camp, it was a winner, as regular George Kennedy was somehow a Concorde pilot now and provided many of the unintended laughs with his inappropriate comments and behaviour.

If you ever wanted to see a George Kennedy sex scene, here was your chance, as his buddy and co-pilot Alain Delon (French superstar attempting to go global) has arranged something to ease the pain of Kennedy losing his wife - a prostitute! Meanwhile guest stars on the level of an average week on The Love Boat jostle for position in the passenger compartment, so Charo shows up with a chihuahua, Sybil Danning is airline owner Eddie Albert's trophy wife, Martha Raye spends most of the movie in the toilet (this is the film's idea of humour), Jimmie Walker is inseparable from his saxophone and smokes joints onboard, Sylvia Kristel, Emmanuelle herself, is a stewardess (this is the film's idea of class), and so on. The scenes of this lot screaming as they fly upside down are nothing short of hilarious, though you haven't lived until you've seen Kennedy open the Concorde's window (in flight!) and shoot a flare to divert the missile. Entertaining, then, but for the wrong reasons.

Irwin Allen was limping along trying to recreate (or relive) old glories with the deeply ill-advised Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and, in 1980, the very end of the seventies cycle When Time Ran Out…, both of which were as tedious as Allen's previous blockbusters had been thrilling and subsequently flopped. But he was not the only one, as former cheapo exploitation studio A.I.P. had been intent on making their mark with a bid for respectability come the end of the seventies, and with that came their bandwagon-jumping disaster efforts Avalanche in 1978, starring Rock Hudson and some lesser stars, and Meteor in 1979, which sported bigger stars overall, but mostly the biggest stars of 1967. It was very much a case of the old white guys saving the planet, maybe not too surprising considering old white guys were running A.I.P. and were giving a shout out to their generation by painting themselves as the heroes.

Or maybe because the younger stars were recognising, post-Star Wars in 1977, that the times were a-changing and they needed to be appearing in fresher material, ironic in that Star Wars did feature an entire world being blown up, and that decades later disaster would make a comeback as precisely the spectacle audiences wanted to see their celebrities battling against in the super-productions around the turn of the millennium and beyond. Meanwhile, Meteor went big too, positing a future where a giant asteroid "twenty miles wide" named Orpheus would be knocked in a cosmic game of pool off course by a comet impact, and head towards Earth with frightening speed. As this was still the Earth of the Cold War, the only way to rescue the human race was for both East and West to join forces, set aside their differences and fire their space-borne nuclear arsenal at the approaching rock, all the while avoiding chunks that had broken off when the comet hit.

Those chunks handily provided the film with more spectacle than the badly matted special effect of the asteroid, as they could roll up their sleeves and set about causing mass panic and loss of life. Sean Connery was our hero, a NASA scientist with a surly attitude who is reluctantly recruited to a base of operations under New York City where a back and forth ensues as the Americans and Soviets try to get their act together without admitting they have loads of missile pointed at one another from orbit. The Poseidon Adventure's Ronald Neame was directing, to far lesser effect this time, as the whole affair simply looked past it, Natalie Wood about the only performer, male or female, under fifty given anything like a substantial amount to do (as the Russian interpreter to Brian Keith as the Russian diplomat). Switzerland saw an avalanche crush skier Sybil Danning, Hong Kong was levelled in a tidal wave, and New York City was demolished (including shots of the collapsing WTC). But this was the end of the line for seventies disaster: eighties disaster wasn't really a thing - nineties disaster on the other hand picked up, and here we are, nostalgic about calamity through the ages.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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