There have always been movies about disasters – earthquake and tidal waves decimated New York City in 1933’s Deluge, and we’ve gotten to watch the Titanic sink in 1912, 1913, 1953, and 1958, prior to James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. Traditionally, disaster films were about real events, such as the San Francisco quake of 1906, but in the 1970’s, the disaster film came into its own and genre was born – with a bang. From blazing skyscrapers to exploding airliners to capsizing cruise ships, disaster films were the rage, and every actor worth his or her salt signed on to be a casualty or hero.
For the most part, filmmakers and audiences took the genre seriously– these were not schlock films. The highest-end special effects were usually employed (no easy task, absent our modern CGI technology), and the scriptwriters tried to weave into the mayhem interesting multiple storylines with full, rich characters who could actually make you care, and actually make you cry.
Many of these flicks won Oscars, even more were nominated, but above all else, they’re about watching some of the finest actors in the world scramble, shriek, and blaspheme the Heavens as their once placid worlds spiral out of control – while someone sings a Maureen McGovern song.
1. Airport (1970)
When boozer Dean Martin is in your cockpit, you know it’s time to party. The parent picture of the disaster film genre, Airport helped wind down the Golden Age of filmmaking and usher in the modern age of the Blockbuster. Directed by George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street, 1947), it kicked off a series of Airport films (four in the franchise, and a half dozen copycats) and set the tone for what was to come: star-studded camp!
Brawny Burt Lancaster headlines as a Chicago airport manager trying to juggle multiple crises during a blizzard, beginning with a plane that’s skidded halfway off an icy runway and is quickly getting buried in snow. Mechanic Joe Patroni (George Kennedy) shows up to help, there are soon bigger fowl to fry. Up in the sky, a Trans Global airliner is transporting a mentally ill demolition expert (Van Heflin in his final screen appearance) who’s decided to blow up the plane, via the bomb in his briefcase, so that his wife can collect the insurance money and be set for life (so much easier than just driving off a bridge, you know).
Piloted by Barry Nelson, along with engineer Gary Collins and flight-check captain Dean Martin, who’s philandering with young, sexy, pregnant stewardess Jacqueline Bisset, the passengers include a bevy of recognizable faces and stereotypes that would become a staple of the airplane disaster film such as priests, nuns, doctors, mouthy/adorable kids, and cheating husbands. There’s also iconic film actors Virginia Grey, Maureen Stapleton, Lloyd Nolan, and Helen Hayes, who delivers a standout performance as unapologetic, sassy stowaway Ada Quonsett, and she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.
Airport takes a while to get off the ground, literally, but once we’re in the air, it makes up for all of the melodrama with a fine moment of suspense, an awesome slapping of a face, and an unintentionally hilarious shot of a field of oxygen masks dropping. The film was a commercial success, garnering a nomination for Best Picture, and surpassed Spartacus as Universal Pictures’ highest grossing film of all time raking in 100 million on a 10 million budget.
Critics were less impressed, however, and even star Burt Lancaster called the film “the biggest piece of junk ever made.” Probably not, and besides, there’s little more thrilling these days than seeing an old time airport terminal where people don’t have to take off their shoes, don’t get felt up at the gate (well, not officially, anyway), flights are not overbooked (there are empty seats and it’s not even a red-eye!), there’s enough head and leg room in the cabin to accommodate Andre the Giant, pilots are adamant about departing on time, and even in coach, you get to drink from real glass and eat warm nuts in a dish. Mmmm…warm nuts in a dish.
2. Skyjacked (1972)
Designed to capitalize on the success of Airport, this aviation terror tale focuses on an airliner highjacked by a disillusioned Vietnam vet (Mr. Barbra Streisand, James Brolin), who’s decided to defect to the Soviet Union and demands the flight be diverted to Moscow. Eschewing violent bravado for mystery (you know, like usual), Brolin scrawls a cryptic message on a mirror in lipstick and in the galley instead, until a passenger (Susan Dey in her acting debut) brings the troubling tidbits to the attention of Captain O’Hara (Charlton Heston) – who, by the way, is diddling stewardess Angela (1960’s blonde bombshell, Yvette Mimeux), though not right at that moment.
On-board passengers include pregnant Polaroid queen Mariette Hartley, Leslie Uggums, veteran stars Walter Pigeon and Jeanne Crain (in her final film appearance), and newcomer, football great Rosie Grier. There’s also an impressive fighter squadron of Soviet jets, and one itchy trigger finger. The Soviets always know just how to scratch that itch, by the way.
3. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
By far the most popular of all the disaster films, director Ronald Neame and soon-to-be crowned “Master of Disaster” producer Irwin Allen cut no corners when they decided to hire five Oscar-winning actors for their leads: Gene Hackman (The French Connection, 1971), Ernest Borgnine (Marty, 1955), Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959 and A Patch of Blue, 1965), Jack Albertson (The Subject was Roses, 1969), and Red Buttons (Sayonara, 1958).
They also kept the story brilliantly simple, hiring screenwriters Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night, 1967) and Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) to adapt Paul Gallico’s novel about a cruise ship full of colorful passengers that capsizes when a tsunami strikes it at midnight on New Year’s Eve. This, of course, makes Poseidon, the New Year’s Eve movie to watch every year, and it never gets old. Ever.
Shot in sequence, we start off on a beautiful voyage with Rev. Scott (Hackman) who questions, out loud to his makeshift ship-flock, if there even is a God; Manny and Belle (Albertson and Winters), a married couple on their way to Israel to see their first grandchild; retired detective Mike and his temperamental sexbomb wife Linda (Borgnine and Stella Stevens) who bicker endlessly until one of them goes fatal; devoted teenage sister and tween brother Susan and Robin (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea), who are traveling alone and meeting their parents at the next port (those were the days!); airhead ship singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley), who we’re always hoping will drown, but who always manages to survive, thanks to the puppy-dog devotion of new friend, aging bachelor James (Red Buttons); and heroic steward Acres (Roddy McDowell) – all of whom get dirtier and bloodier, and manage to win our hearts and wrench our guts. Well, except Nonnie. Please drown. Please.
The special effects are superior, and the capsizing scene is one of the most famous tumbles in cinematic history – genuinely disturbing, and the source of trauma for millions of children who saw the film at a much too early age.
Highlights include Winters plunging into a flooded engine room pool to save Hackman (and doing all of her own stunts, resulting in one of the most impressive and riveting underwater scenes ever performed by an actor – and getting her an Oscar nomination in the process), scaling an upside-down Christmas Tree (which is probably totally blasphemous),everyone pretending that Stella Stevens isn’t basically naked throughout the entire film, Ernest Borgnine crying, Gene Hackman crying, Shelley Winters not crying, floating corpses, hidden corpses (surprise! I was in the bathroom!), and Nonnie singing the love theme from the film, “The Song from the Poseidon Adventure,” later retitled “The Morning After,” which won the Oscar for Best Original song and, when released in 1973 by singer Maureen McGovern, went all the way to Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100. All right, Nonnie can live.
4. The Towering Inferno (1974)
Released on New Year’s Day, producer Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno is considered the gold standard of disaster films. Featuring a Hollywood Royalty cast that includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, and, in her final film appearance, Jennifer Jones, the film’s budget was almost four times that of The Poseidon Adventure and showcased the work of the industry’s finest special effects professionals.
Looking at it through a modern perspective, it seems completely insane that anyone would build a 138-story skyscraper, or want to step foot into one (the Twin Towers were both 110 stories high), but visionary architect Newman designed it, Holden built it, and Chamberlain screwed it up by cutting corners and installing cheap conduits. That spells disaster for the 294 guests who are partying the evening of the dedication ceremony on the 135th floor of the residential section of The Glass Tower, and it’s soon a race against inferno for fire chief Steve McQueen and his crew.
The story wastes no time, starting the action at only 12 minutes into the film, and by the 40 mark, everyone’s engulfed in one crazy hell. The screenplay, by Poseidon writer Stirling Silliphant, also squeezes the most out of the cast when each shows up for a bit of camera time to further their storylines, and it’s only through tight writing, expert editing, and using the finest actors that rapid intercuts of dialogue and explosions can actually make an audience connect to character and catastrophe at the same time.
McQueen pretty much phones it in, but Newman, at age 49, not only goes all guns, but also engages in some impressive stunts, especially when he climbs up and down metal railing in a stairwell to save Jones, a little girl, and a tween boy, played by Mike Lookinland (Bobby, The Brady Bunch). Holden is at his crusty best, Dunaway is earnest and luminous, Jones is endearing to the point of tears, and Astaire, at age 75, walked away with his first-ever Oscar nomination for his charming performance as a conman turned do-gooder. Even OJ Simpson, who kicked off his acting career a few years earlier, gets some “hero” time when he saves a little cat. Run little cat, run like the wind!
There are many scenes in Inferno that are tough on the nerves. One of the most disturbing comes when tower publicity man Robert Wagner and his lover/secretary Susan Flannery (The Bold and the Beautiful) are trapped in their office and, after he perishes trying to get through the fire, she’s blown out of the window of the 65th floor – on fire. It’s spectacular, and gross, and you just can’t turn away.
There are plenty more dazzling deaths and explosions – outside elevators hanging by cables, transport cages tethered between two skyscraper tops faultering – and the models and fire effects employed never disappoint. It’s a grand showcase for the work of firefighters, in fact, and producers dedicated the film to them.
No Irwin Allen epic would be complete without a song from Maureen McGovern, of course, and this time, the singer gets to perform at the big party herself (lucky!), cooing out “We May Never Love Like this Again,” which went on to win the Oscar for Best Song. Music group The Trammps also recorded the hit “Disco Inferno,” which was inspired by the blazing dance floor in the film.
Irwin’s brutal producing style and refusal to take second best ensured that The Towering Inferno made almost ten times its budget at the box office (almost 140 million) and was nominated for Best Picture, making it the most successful disaster film, at that point of all time. Nice job. And here’s to yurts.
5. Earthquake (1974)
It didn’t take long for disaster film producers to realize that destroying Los Angeles would be super good times. Directed and produced by Mark Robson (Valley of the Dolls, 1967) with a screenplay co-written by Mario Puzo (The Godfather, 1972, etc.), the filmmakers decided to take terror to the next level by adding the “Sensurround” special effect to the film, which increased the low-level bass, making audiences actually “feel” the quake through additional theatre speakers. It worked, scaring the bejeezus out of everyone and instilling earthquake PTSD in small children for basically ever. It also got the film an Oscar for Best Sound.
The star-studded cast saw the return of Charlton Heston, wooden and stoic as ever, as construction engineer Stewart Graff who, ironically, is trying to convince a client to add more retrofitting to his new building, but you know, MONEY and everything, and when’s the last time we had a big quake anyway? Enter a series of sizable tremors, Graff’s braying, shrewish wife Remy (poor Ava Gardner), his vivacious new lover (a splendid Genevieve Bujold) and we have a tight little love-triangle that’s ready to explode as fast as Mulholland Dam hit with a 9.9 shaker.
Disaster-film staple George Kennedy is also on the scene as an old-school cop who breaks all the rules (stupid, stupid rules) and who eventually saves Victoria Principal (wearing a HUGE afro and a TIGHT bra-less tee-shirt) from psychotic soldier Marjoe Gortner (a real-life former child evangelist who was the subject of the must-see documentary Marjoe, 1972). Lest we forget veteran cowboy Lorne Greene, who, astonishingly, plays Ava Gardner’s father, which means he’d have sired the beauty when he was SEVEN, and iconic Richard Roundtree (Shaft, 1971) as daredevil motorcyclist Miles Quade.
Highlights include people tumbling out of burning skyscrapers, the splattering of elevators filled with dummies who didn’t take the stairs (during an earthquake, people!), trucks filled with sweet little cows careening off towering freeway connectors, houses on stilts (in California? Brilliant.) sliding down hilltops, Walter Matthau sporting pimp gear, and lots of glass shards in eyes, bricks bashing in skulls, and, oh, yes – that broken dam.
The film also offers some valuable earthquake advice: probably best not to set up your makeshift hospital underground (by three levels!) because, you know, earthquake, and, when a hot girl has nearly been raped, and seen hundreds of people shredded to death, heck, just give her a puppy! Thanks, George Kennedy, you old smoothie.