By Craig Leask
What was it about the 1970’s – that decade full of contradiction and change? The Vietnam War (1955–1975) was in full swing and escalating with no sign of resolution and the oil crisis was ravaging the economy. These factors led to a restless population and, for the first time, a public who were openly and relentlessly questioning traditional authority. Yet rather than seek comfort and security in their entertainment needs, this atmosphere of doom and gloom bred a strong desire by the movie going public to watch uncontrollable bad things happening to otherwise good people. Out of the blue there was an audience with a blood thirsty need to watch nature taking man to task in its fullest capacity, destroying those iconic buildings that for generations have provided populations with a sense of pride and identity. This was the beginning of a need by people to see the security of everyday life disrupted, challenged, destroyed and maybe, just maybe, end with man again triumphing over overwhelming odds.
Although many films can be classified as falling within the disaster realm were released in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, it is widely accepted that the modern disaster movie has its foundations in the 1970’s, which introduced a sudden glut of calamity pictures flooding theaters. Starring a rotating troupe of movie stars, often just slightly past their prime, who clamored in droves for the opportunity to headline movies which followed sinking boats, crashing airplanes, tumbling skyscrapers, epidemics and a rash of genetically altered insects, animals and fish.
Weather he knew it at the time or not, producer Irwin Allen was unleashing this forbidden passion with the development and release of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), ultimately creating the Disaster Movie Genre. This one film would spawn dozens more, some great and, let’s be honest, some absolute dogs, but per Allen’s original formula all somehow managed to secure stellar casts and in most cases enormous profits.
The following represents a selection of the many disaster films produced and released in the 1970’s in order of release date. This is by no means a comprehensive list as once you dig into any movie archive, you will find that practically every perceived act of God and every creature (living or imagined) has been built up and filmed as an insurmountable threat to man’s very existence.
Based on the 1968 bestselling novel by Arthur Hailey, Airport follows the lives of personnel and passengers throughout the busy Lincoln Metropolitan Airport within a 12-hour time period. What Hailey was able to create in his novel was ultimately a soap opera based in and around the daily activities and stresses of running an international transportation hub (blizzards, frozen runways, equipment malfunctions and fuel problems). Taking the original novel, director/writer George Seaton, working with Hailey, reduced a number of the book’s sub-plots to allow the 440-page novel to be condensed into a 137-minute film.
Although this film actually predates the disaster film genre, Airport inadvertently created the formula that was adapted by the many films that followed. Collectively they created back stories for the various characters, establishing their relationship stresses, their romantic indiscretions, economic hardships and work challenges, allowing the audience to get to know each character before being challenged by the horrific situations the film’s advertising promised.
The all-star cast includes Burt Lancaster as stern airport manager Mel Bakersfield; Dean Martin as pilot Vernon Demarest, who is stepping out on his neglected wife Sarah (Barbara Hale) with stewardess Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset) who is carrying his child; George Kennedy as crusty TWA mechanic Joe Patroni, who would go on to reprise the role in three Airport sequels; Van Heflin as the struggling and tormented D.O. Guerrero with a plan to blow up the 707 providing a life insurance payout to his wife Inez, beautifully played by Maureen Stapleton; and Helen Hayes who won an Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Ada Quonsett, the adorable and conniving stowaway.
Airport received 10 Oscar nominations and is recognized as the precursor to the more epic disaster films which followed throughout the 1970’s. It’s success also inspired three sequels: Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977) and The Concorde … Airport ’79 (1979), all of which followed the lives of unsuspecting passengers facing the perils of air travel gone wrong. Although each succeeding production delivered an all-star cast, they all paled to the original, delivering less believability and less quality with each iteration.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
As mentioned, The Poseidon Adventure is seen as patient zero in the Disaster Movie Genre, setting the template for many man-made and natural disaster films to follow. This and The Towering Inferno (1974), were the most successful films of Irwin Allen’s career – movies he produced and personally directed some of the action scenes.
Based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel, the film features an incredible ensemble cast including Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons and, most memorably, Shelley Winters. The plot for The Poseidon Adventure centers on the fictional S.S. Poseidon, a luxury cruise ship travelling from New York City to Athens on New Year’s Eve. As the clock strikes midnight and the passengers are engaged in the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a rogue wave pummels towards the unsuspecting luxury liner, dramatically broadsiding and capsizing the vessel. The unforeseen tragedy leaves passengers and crew mangled, disoriented and trapped inside the ship’s overturned hull. The film continues to follow the gallant efforts of its stars as they maneuver their way through the ship’s interior, attempting to reach safety through a weak spot in its hull. The journey slowly reduces their numbers through fire, explosions, drowning and generally being mangled in the ship’s wreckage.
Initially unable to find a studio to back his venture, Allen raised a large portion of the $5 million budget on his own, convincing 20th Century-Fox to provide the balance. Filming Poseidon on the R.M.S. Queen Mary, the film ignored the critics and naysayers, grossing over $100 million world-wide and winning a Special Achievement Academy Award for the film’s cutting edge optical and physical effects. The film also received the Oscar for Best Original Song (“The Song from The Poseidon Adventure“, also known as “The Morning After”).
Naturally the success of The Poseidon Adventure generated remakes and take offs including the sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) in which a stellar cast (Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Telly Savalas, Shirley Jones and Sally Field) board the capsized liner to claim salvage rights, stumbling across additional survivors in the process; and Poseidon (2006), a loose remake of the original, starring Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, and Richard Dreyfuss. Both films were critical and financial failures.
In 1974 it was impossible for a studio not to take notice of the tremendous opportunity for profits being realized by 20th Century Fox’s The Poseidon Adventure and Universal’s Airport. This resulted in the beginnings of a barrage of disaster themes and proposals dominating studio boardrooms throughout Hollywood. Capitalizing on their own success, Universal Studios was already well into production of their Airport sequel – Airport 1975 – and were heavily engaged with executive producer Jennings Lang brainstorming ideas to feed into this new disaster-suspense genre. Director Mark Robson and Lang were passionate about taking the disaster film to the next level – envisioning an epic disaster, extending beyond the space and people contained within an airliner or on a ship at sea. With Poseidon Adventure and Airport, the ending is defined by the abilities of the characters to cleverly work their way out of the situation. Inspiration for this next big project was found close to home, originating in the experiences of studio executives who had lived through the February 1971 San Fernando Valley earthquake.
With an epic disaster, such as an earthquake, there is no game plan. If the earth doesn’t stop shaking, everyone will die. It’s as simple as that. This element of the unknown provides the stress and suspense to the story line, but the studio still needed to compete with Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno which was in production at the neighbouring 20th Century Fox Studios. With a cast that didn’t quite hold its own to the all-star cast in The Towering Inferno (Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene, Richard Roundtree and Walter Matthau, who appears in the credits as “Walter Matuschanskayasky”), and a much smaller budget, the studio needed a gimmick in order to properly compete. This involved heavily choreographed stunts and the use of the recently invented “Sensurround”, which involved a series of speakers and amplifiers blasting 120 decibel sound waves throughout the theater. The volume of Sensurround, which is comparable to that of a jet engine lifting a plane off the ground, literally shook theaters during the film’s run. Testing of the system resulted in portions of the plaster ceiling in Grauman’s Chinese Theater to crack, merchandise falling from the shelves of shops adjacent to a theater in Billings Montana and Building Department heads in Chicago, Illinois intervening in the film’s distribution due to concerns the sound system was damaging a theater structure. All of this gave the film unprecedented positive attention, driving crowds to the box office.
For the film’s effects and stunts, Earthquake set a record for the most stunt artists involved in a film – 141. Many of the effects were full scale, involving precise choreography with stunt teams performing in crowd scenes precariously close to raining chunks of concrete (some weighing up to six tons) dropping on cars, stunt falls of over 60 feet onto air bags, dangerous flood scenes and an elevator designed to collapse inward during a crash scene. Numerous stunt personnel were injured throughout the filming process.
Earthquake was a cinematic success becoming one of the top box office earners of 1974 with $79 million in receipts (The Towering Inferno topped the year out with $116 million) and a critical success garnering four Oscar nominations, winning for Best Sound and receiving a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
Irwin Allen had hoped to follow up on his success of The Poseidon Adventure with a film based on Richard Martin Stern’s 1973 novel “The Tower” but learned the film rights had previously been secured by Warner Brothers. Seeking out an alternate, Allen found a similar plot line in Thomas Scorita and Frank Robinson’s 1974 novel “The Glass Inferno”. Rather than investing in two competing movies, 20th Century-Fox and Warner Brothers agreed to join forces and co-produce The Towering Inferno, based on a script which pulled the best sections from each story. It was the first ever joint effort between two major studios, who equally shared the $14 million production cost and the $116 million box office receipts.
Directed by John Guillermin, the stellar cast includes Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, O. J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Susan Flannery, Dabney Coleman and Jennifer Jones in her final film. Sheila Allen, wife of producer Irwin Allen – who also appears in her husband’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Poseidon (2006) – notably steals every scene she is in as Paula Ramsay, the mayor’s wife, with her bleached blond beehive hairdo and limited acting abilities.
The plot involves the breakout of a fire in the 81st floor utility room of San Francisco’s “The Glass Tower”, the world’s newest and tallest skyscraper, during the building’s inaugural ceremony being held high above the flaming floor in the buildings 138th floor Promenade Room.
Battling the blaze, Fire Chief Michael O’Halleran (McQueen) realizes the building is too tall to fight the fire solely from the ground, necessitating the need for helicopter assistance. Things go from bad to worse as the attempted helicopter rescue is thwarted by high winds causing the aircraft to explode onto the building’s roof, eliminating the only available escape route. What follows are a series of creative rescue attempts: rappelling party guests by wire to the nearby 102 story Peerless Building; attempting to override the gravity brake on the scenic glass elevator, which ends up becoming precariously entangled in the buildings frame on the 110th floor; various attempts to lower people by rope down the building’s exterior, through fiery exit stairwells and in elevator shafts – all with very little success.
Despite its nearly three-hour running length, The Towering Inferno was a critical and financial success, becoming the highest grossing film of the year and was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning three (Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Original Song).
The Hindenburg (1975)
Directed by Robert Wise, with an all-star cast led by George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning and Richard Dysart. Based on the 1972 Michael Mooney book of the same name, the film outlines a fictitious version of the events which preceded the explosion of the German airship Hindenburg while docking in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. Although highly speculative, the film draws its plot lines from numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the timelines leading up to the live broadcast of this epic and very real disaster.
Commencing with the German Embassy in Washington D.C receiving a letter from Milwaukee resident Kathie Rauch claiming a time bomb had been placed aboard a German zeppelin which is scheduled to leave on a trans-Atlantic voyage to America. In response to the letter, German Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) and high-ranking Nazi Gestapo official, Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), board the vessel to investigate and thwart any attempts at sabotage. With an extensive cast of suspects led by Anne Bancroft, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning and Richard Dysart, the film follows an Agatha Christie styled plot with all passengers and crew displaying various reasons to fall under suspicion.
The Hindenburg was filmed in color with the interjection of black and white simulated newsreel footage as an introduction to the ship, as well as incorporating a portion of the very real historical newsreel footage from the actual Hindenburg disaster shot on May 6, 1937 as the film’s finale. The film ends to the live recording of Herbert Morrison’s radio commentary which described the horrific explosion as it occurred.
A. Hoehling, author of the 1962 book “Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?”, which outlined a sabotage theory similar to that outlined in Mooney’s book, sued the author as well as the film producers for copyright infringement. The charges were deemed baseless by Judge Charles M. Metzner and were dismissed.
Despite negative critical reaction, The Hindenburg was nominated by the Academy for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Cinematography and Sound, winning two Special Achievement Academy Awards for Sound Effects Editing and for Visual Effects.
Skyjacked (1972) – Directed by John Guillerman starring Charlton Heston, James Brolin, Susan Dey, Walter Pidgeon, Mike Henry and John Hillerman. A Vietnam Veteran hijacks a plane carrying mainly first-class passengers and the flight crew demanding to be taken passage to Moscow.
Juggernaut (1974) – Directed by Richard Lester and staring Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, Anthony Hopkins and Shirley Knight. A terrorist has planted explosives on the luxury ocean liner “Britannic” which is presently mid-way across the North Atlantic, demanding a ransom in exchange for disclosing the location of seven bombs and their respective disarming information.
Rollercoaster (1977) – Directed by James Goldstone and starring George Segal, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Harry Guardino, and Helen Hunt. The plot involves a terrorist who is sabotaging roller coasters at amusement parks throughout the country, demanding payment of a vast ransom.
The Swarm (1978) – Directed by Irwin Allen and staring Michael Caine, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Lee Grant, Patty Duke, Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda. The plot, which is loosely based upon the previous low budget initiatives, The Deadly Bees (1966) and Terror Out Of The Sky (1978), involves South American killer bees gradually swarming their way to the unsuspecting residents of Houston, Texas, destroying towns, trains and nuclear power plants in the process.
Avalanche (1978) – Directed by Corey Allen, starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow, the film follows the assorted and illicit antics of a shady developer (Hudson) during the weekend opening party of his luxury ski resort in an area of Colorado known for its severe avalanches.
Meteor (1979) – Directed by Ronald Neame, with a first-rate cast being led by Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Martin Landau and Henry Fonda. The plot involves collaboration between the Russian and American governments as they covertly maneuver around cold war politics in an attempt to save the earth from the imminent collision with a 5-mile wide asteroid. Although Meteor was panned when it was first released, it did provide the inspiration for Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998). The film incorporated footage from the film Avalanche (1978) in its production.
As mentioned, the appeal of disaster movies developed in the 1970’s endures today with studios continuing to release new and improved disasters and re-imagined versions of past movie attempts. The extent of the catastrophes is exhausting and includes such calamities as: Hard Rain (1998), Bullet Train (1975), Piranha (1978), Frogs (1972), Grizzly (1976) and the about to be released sequel Grizzly II, The Revenge (1983). Realizing they are over taxing audiences with this genre, studios have gone to the extent of even poking fun at themselves, producing numerous satirical disaster films: The Big Bus (1976), and Airplane! (1980), which led to Airplane II: The Sequel (1982).
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.