The Rise and Fall of the Disaster Film Genre of the 1970s: Part 2, 1974-1980

1974 was the beginning of the end of the disaster film franchise. In its first four years, Airport set the foundational work for the genre in motion, with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno both securing the notion that the disaster genre was a franchise that was indeed profitable. The formula to these films was simple enough: Secure an diverse A-list cast to guarantee appeal for all moviegoer types and place these actors within a hazardous plotline that threatens the lives of the characters they are portraying.

The idea was for moviegoers to be both thrilled by the innovation of special effects within the films, but also be in suspense with the concept of ‘who will survive’ out of the grand cast the movie managed to secure. According to producer Irwin Allen, this franchise wasn’t close to concluding. As he famously proclaimed in a 1977 interview, “I’m not going to run out of disasters. Pick up the daily newspaper – which is my best source for crisis stories – and you’ll find 10 or 15 every day.” Yet by 1980, the disaster genre would be completely stripped of its former glory.

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Charlton Heston and George Kennedy in Earthquake (1974)

The beginning of the end ironically started in 1974, the year The Towering Inferno was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, with the success of Earthquake, whose screenplay was first drafted by The Godfather author, Mario Puzo. This film was Universal Studio’s response to the success of Airport in 1970, especially after witnessing the box-office success of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. Knowing they were in competition with Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno, the producers of Earthquake strived to create a new innovative experience to coincide with the film.

Their tactic was convincing theaters to install “Senssurround,” which was designed to simulate the vibration of an earthquake, thus allowing for audiences to ‘experience’ the disaster with the characters in the movie. While this tactic wasn’t entirely successful, Earthquake managed to succeed on its own merit despite its shortcomings as a film.

Earthquake follows the same framework from its predecessor disaster films by introducing a handful of individuals, mostly blue-collar characters who endure the typical stresses of life. The main plot follows Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston), who is in an unhappy marriage with Remy (Ava Gardner) and engaged in an affair with Denise Marshall (Genevieve Bujold). What complicates this matter further is that Remy’s father (Lorne Greene) is also Stewart’s boss, which forces him to remain unhappily with his wife despite his wanting to run away and start a new life with his girlfriend.

In many regards, this love triangle mirrors the framework of Dean Martin’s character in Airport, especially in the context of soap-opera narrative. Yet once the earthquake strikes, by no coincidence occurring within San Francisco, the entire city crumbles and Stewart is left with the dilemma of saving both his wife and his lover.

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Charlton Heston and Ava Gardener in Earthquake (1974)

Earthquake wasn’t a particularly profound film, in fact the film is deeply flawed, yet it can be argued that it was the last of the successful disaster films because it relied on characterization. When observing Earthquake in its entirety, the actual earthquake and its aftershocks, are a relatively small portion of the film. The vast majority of the film is placed upon the characters, to which moviegoers had to be sympathetic towards them in order to care where the plotline of the film went. Additionally, Earthquake was the last of the disaster films that placed genuine shock value on character deaths.

Earthquake is one of the rare disaster movies in which the lead character, the hero, dies as a result of the disaster. At the conclusion of the film, Heston’s character willfully sacrifices his safety in an attempt to save his wife, to which both he and his wife perish. For moviegoers, this was both a surprise and shocking conclusion to a film within a franchise that typically had the hero walking away victorious. Instead, Earthquake concludes in a bittersweet tone, which added to the concept that ‘anything could happen’ when one watches a disaster movie.

It is for these reasons why Earthquake was well received despite its shortcomings. It should also be noted that even though this film’s visual effects were glaringly flawed, it was because of the film’s success as to why the Academy Awards awarded Earthquake a special Oscar for visual effects. This award win does challenge the credibility of the Academy Awards regarding its first years with the visual effects category, to which the justification can be chalked down to voters being immersed in disaster film nostalgia and wanting to award Earthquake something (see the blatantly bad earthquake sequence for yourself here).

Earthquake was able to achieve success despite substandard special effects, yet Airport 1975 (1974) didn’t have that same luxury. The film succeeded in being a commercial success, but that had more to do with disaster film nostalgia than the film being structurally superior to other films from that given year. Critics, upon the film’s release, called out Airport 1975’s illogical plotline, ludicrous characters, and lack of reality. In that regard, critics weren’t misguided at all.

Airport 1975, ironically not taking place at an airport like its original film, occurs on a jumbo 747 jet that is struck by a small private plane. The in-air collision jettisons out the co-pilot and incapacitates the pilot. This leaves the head stewardess, Nancy Pryor (Karen Black), to man the controls herself. Of course, her boyfriend, Captain Alan Murdock (Charlton Heston), is dictating to her on the ground on how to fly the plane. Additionally to helping Nancy navigate the plane, Murdock is assisting in an mid-air rescue for an experienced pilot to take control of the plane, which ultimately is Murdock participating in the daring rescue.

The plot of Airport 1975 is outlandish, which was something critics simply could not ignore. NY Times critic, Vincent Canby, described the film as “a silly, jumbo-sized sequel to the original film” with Variety Magazine cynically commenting, “Jack Smight’s direction has the refreshing pace of a filmmaker who knows his plot can crash unless he hurries.”

Airport 1975 Poster

Despite moviegoers’ interest in the film, critics were accurate in their depiction of Airport 1975. It had become increasingly evident that characterization, thereby proper script writing, was now being phased out of the disaster franchise in favor of grander disaster scenarios. The disaster was now the sole headliner of such films, to which the A-list cast was now secondary, reducing them to being a gimmick to the overall disaster franchise. Much like the A-list cast being relegated to character-types in The Towering Inferno, the characters within Airport 1975 were even more minimized to being stock characters, to which their backstories and motivations were never even acknowledged.

What Airport 1975 offered, instead, was a new series of character-types, many of which were either out of place, had no continuity, or lacked any reality. Such characters were a singing nun (Helen Reddy), a young girl confined to a hospital bed since she is on her way to have a life-saving kidney operation (Linda Blair), a group of alcoholics led by a gender-defying female (Myrna Loy), and even Gloria Swanson awkwardly starring as herself as she and her assistant work on the final touches of her autobiography (incidentally Swanson wrote all of her own dialogue for the film).

Nonetheless, these characters were incorporated into the plot with the intention of creating the notion of a diverse cast of characters, which instead offered unintentional laughs for audiences (see here for unintentional laughs from the film). It can be argued that 1974 audiences forgave the minimal use of these actors because they were still intoxicated with the dazzle of witnessing a big-name cast within a disaster scenario. Airport 1975 would be the last time a substandard disaster film would be a box-office success.

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Karen Black in Airport 1975 (1974)

What Irwin Allen and the disaster genre did not anticipate was competition from an unlikely source. That source was newcomer Steven Spielberg and his box-office hit, Jaws (1975). Jaws completely contradicted the notion of the ‘success formula’ for a natural disaster film by reducing the concept of violent spectacle, reinforcing the necessity for characterization, and eliminating the mindset that one needed an exuberant A-list in order to boost moviegoer appeal.

This blatant rejection of the disaster formula thus reinvented the concept of what is a successful action film, while also making the disaster films appear contrived in comparison. Spielberg put the tension and the suspense of his movie in the ominous first-person vantage of the shark while weaving the visual with John Williams’ haunting score.

This was a simple deviation from the common filming technique of natural disaster films that relied on blatant, in-your-face storytelling. As small as a change this was, it was resoundingly more effective with audience reactions. Jaws kept moviegoers from wanting to go swimming at the beach and reignited interest in marine life. Additionally, Jaws took away the mindset that the characters had to be heroes in order to be beloved.

Instead, Jaws provided unlikely protagonists: Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) avoids the water, Quint (Robert Shaw) is uncouth and eccentric, and Matt Hooper (Richard Deyfuss) is the nerdy oceanographer. When contrasting these three characters with the canon of disaster film heroes, it is evident how more ‘true to life’ the protagonists of Jaws are merely by how un-Hollywood they are. They may be blue-collared characters, as many of the disaster film characters tended to be, yet they are more concise and rounded as individuals. Their actions are limited to what they are capable of, not like disaster films where ordinary people suddenly have to achieve extraordinary feats to survive or save others.

What aided Jaws further was it being grounded in realism, never once entering territory that could be deemed as farcical. Moviegoers viewed Jaws and left with the idea of ‘this could really happen,’ which incited a general fear of the water. This type of film narrative was not only new in the scope of filmmaking, but it cheapened what was once considered “suspenseful.”

This allowed for moviegoers to realize further how much they were taken for granted from producers such as Irwin Allen, who worked with the limited perception that as long as he continued to make films, moviegoers would continue to buy tickets, and they would continue to make money. This was a misguided ideology since moviegoers immediately grew tired of disaster films after the success of Jaws, which resulted in “…reviewers’ responses to the late disaster movies expressing the idea that spectators can see through the machinery and recognize how these movies are trying and failing to ‘thrill’ them” (Feil 20).

Airport 77 Poster

This could not be more evident with the production of Airport ’77 (1977), which again did not occur at an airport and instead featured a Boeing 747-100 owned by Philip Stevens (James Stewart) who is flying guests to his estate. Inside the plane is Stevens’ valuable collection of artwork, which prompts a group of thieves to hijack the plane. However, due to incompetence, the hijackers crash the plane into the Bermuda Triangle and the plane sinks underwater, but remains intact. This leaves the rescue up to Captain Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon) who must find a way out of the plane, find rescue, and somehow get the remaining passengers saved.

In the typical disaster film style, Gallagher’s girlfriend (Brenda Vaccaro) is on the plane too, which further motivates him to save everyone. In an even more typical disaster film narrative style, the remaining big-names to the cast are reduced to stock-characters: The drunk (Lee Grant), the helpless wealthy characters (Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten), the rejected husband (Christopher Lee), and the plane’s mechanic (Darren McGavin).

For audiences, Airport ’77 showcased  further the disaster film’s emphasis and focus on spectacle, even if it touched into the realm of farce. Airport ’77 signified the descent the genre had taken and blatantly took its audience for granted by expecting them to believe there was even a hint of authenticity with the film’s illogical plot (Click here to see the trailer for Airport ’77).

Irwin Allen refused to understand the evolution of filmmaking, failing to realize he and his movie canon was now deemed as “dated.” What finalized this notion was the success of Star Wars (1977), which redefined the expectation of special effects and reinforced the reality that a film did not need an all-star cast in order to be successful. According to the 1977 Varity review of Star Wars, Irwin Allen is referenced in it as disdainfully referring to Star Wars as “movie magic.” Ultimately, Irwin Allen was met with the reality that his film formula was now broken and no longer considered revolutionary.

The Swarm

Olivia de Havilland in The Swarm (1978)

Without deviating from what he was comfortable with and sticking to his usual formula, Irwin Allen began directing his own films, beginning with The Swarm (1978). The film focuses on a small town in Texas that is struck by waves of killer bees (yes, bees) that threaten the very existence of humanity. It is up to the military and Dr. Bradford Crane (Michael Caine) to stop the killer bees from devastating more towns and killing scores of people.

Despite the sheer ridiculousness of the plot, the movie still managed to star film heavyweights Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Fred MacMurray, and Henry Fonda; this is a cast a director would dream of having, yet the characters occupied secondary roles that bordered on lunacy. Furthermore, The Swarm showed indication of Irwin Allen’s continued desperation to uphold ‘shock-value’ with his films by having the vast majority of his cast being killed in a diabolical manner.

Yet given the lunacy of the plot and Irwin Allen’s style of avoiding characterization, The Swarm was a disjointed film with inane dialogue, unrealistic situations, and a cast that had no idea what to do with the script they were offered. The only achievement The Swarm managed to gain was its notoriety for creating the “camp film.” “Camp” can be best described as a film so terrible that “…the spectator experiences sadistic pleasure in seeing a film gasp for air as it chokes on its own clichés” (Fiel 23). The Swarm cannot be deemed as suspenseful or even part of the action canon; It can only be seen as a “camp film,” one that a moviegoer would specifically watch to laugh at (see the best unintentional laughs from The Swarm here).

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Henry Fonda in The Swarm (1978)

The Swarm was the end for Irwin Allen, yet he refused to believe it. His next film, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, was a desperate move for Allen to reignite interest in the movie that first gained him notoriety: The Poseidon Adventure. Directing a sequel to the original film served as evidence that Irwin Allen no longer could adhere to his ideology of ‘bigger and grander’ since he was retreating back to a disaster he had already done, opposed to creating a “new disaster,” as he claimed he could do in 1977.

However, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure doesn’t even have a disaster component in its narrative. Irwin Allen tried to use Beyond the Poseidon Adventure to spin a new angle to the disaster genre by continuing the story of the capsized ship with unsympathetic characters seeking to retrieve valuable coins, who save a handful of trapped passengers in the process, and thwart a group of terrorists from getting a cargo of plutonium from the ship. This was a plot so ludicrous and unnecessary that it was no mystery as to why the film was a commercial failure.

When Time Ran Out poster

Still undeterred, Irwin Allen would make the final disaster film from the 1970s genre, When Time Ran Out.. (1980). In many respects, this film bookends the disaster genre perfectly: It brought back actors from the successful era of disaster movies (Paul Newman, William Holden, Jacqueline Bisset, Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine), was directed by Irwin Allen, and the box-office reception proved Allen’s ideology of filmmaking had always been false.

When Time Ran Out… is a mere rip-off of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno with the concept of an volcanic eruption occurring that kills all in its path except a small resort hotel, whose guests were dissuaded from leaving by its owner at the onset of the eruption. After the eruption, and the reality that hotel is in the fiery path of volcanic fireballs (yes, fireballs), Hank Anderson (Paul Newman) persuades a handful of guests to follow him to the mountains that will lead to the beach where they would most assuredly be safe.

The film offered nothing original, only the same formula that had been used repeatedly over the last ten years. What once worked for The Towering Inferno was now a gimmick and considered washed-up. Even with the film’s casting, Irwin Allen relied on his big-name cast being a part of his film through studio contracts, opposed to the actors willingly wanting to be a part of the film. Paul Newman, Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, and Veronica Hamel were all compelled to participate in When Time Ran Out… due to contractual agreements with Irwin Allen and begrudingly acted in the movie knowing the film would flop, but at least being aware that they would make a decent paycheck from the film.

Additionally, the film reportedly cost twenty million to produce, generating in only 3.7 million in ticket sales, making When Time Ran Out… one of the biggest commercial failures in the history of cinema (Click here to see the infamous “Bridge Scene,” which was supposed to be the pivotal and most suspenseful scene of the movie). As critic Leonard Maltin wrote in his review of the movie, “Time never seems to run out as we wait and wait for a volcano to erupt and to put the all-star cast out of its misery.” Juxtaposing the failure of the film with the critical success of the slapstick comedy, Airplane!, which came out the same year and mocked the disaster film franchise (primarily the Airport movies), it was evidence that the disaster film genre was now over.

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Paul Newman in When Time Ran Out (1980)

The disaster film genre of the 1970s was a fleeting, yet noteworthy, era of filmmaking. For the vast majority of contemporary moviegoers, the association with disaster films is met with either watching the hilarious film Airplane! or enjoying the campiest of the disaster films for the sake of laughing at them. Of the franchise, only The Poseidon Adventure has truly stood the test of time, particularly because of the stellar characterization the film possesses. Airport, while dated, is mostly relegated to mandatory viewing for the acting performances from Helen Hayes and Maureen Stapleton. The Towering Inferno, however, is considered to be the most impactful and popular movie of the disaster film genre and still stands as a filmmaking example of how visual effects can lead a film narrative.

Yet the biggest takeaway from this genre was the debunking of Irwin Allen’s filmmaking mentality: ‘Bigger and grander’ is not synonymous with film success. After the definitive conclusion of the disaster genre, Irwin Allen faded away from filmmaking, thus proving that his style of filmmaking was never more than a mirage of smoke and mirrors. The lesson that should be learned from Irwin Allen is that a truly talented director is one who challenges himself and never falls victim to filming within a comfort zone. A true director should always gamble his/her career when making a film because if nothing is at stake, there is no determination to make the best conceivable film for audiences to experience. Irwin Allen subscribed to a particular formula with the disaster genre and that is precisely why it was a short-lived genre.

Sources Cited:

Buck, Jerry. Irwin Allen’s Movie ‘Fire’ Lights up Tube Tonight. AP. May, 1977. Transcript.

Canby, Vincent. Movie Review: Airport 1975 (1974). New York Times, 10, September, 1974. Online.

Feil, Ken. Dying for a Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. Print.

Kean, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London and New York: Wallflower, 2006. Print.

Murphy, A.D. Review: Star Wars. Variety. 25, May, 1977. Online.

Variety Staff. Review: Airport 1975. Variety. 31, December, 1974. Online

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