The Rise and Fall of the Disaster Film Genre of the 1970s: Part 1, 1970-1974

The disaster film genre of the 1970s is a highly unique and relatively assertive period in film history. Beginning in 1970, booming by 1974, and ultimately shifting from glorified filmmaking to camp by 1980, the disaster film genre generated a new style of filmmaking that intrigued moviegoers, and in many regards, combined all canons of acting by having actors from all generations working together in a single film.

The loosest definition of what qualifies as ‘disaster’ within this era was a studio-backed film that contained an A-list cast (many of whom were Oscar winners or nominees) and placing them in a circumstance outside of their control that challenges their survival. What particularly made such films unique was their ability to contain a tremendous cast of who’s-who, yet establish them within a framework that required them to work together, survive together, or die together.

Actors, whether they were classically trained or part of Hollywood’s new trend of gritty realism, were placed in a circumstance where their acting had to adapt to a confined environment. Adding to this, from the conception of the genre to its 1974 climax, the disaster film formula remained untainted by not exaggerating its circumstances, which made such films appear authentic in their possibility of occurring. This further heightened to the success of these films, even succeeding in a handful of them being nominated for Academy Awards.

Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset in Airport (1970)

The disaster genre began in 1970 with the arrival of Airport. What makes Airport an outlier when assessing the overall genre is that Airport was never marketed as a “disaster film.” In fact, the actual disaster of the film is a small portion of the overall narrative.

Airport follows a handful of characters in the midst of a snowstorm in the fictional Lincoln Airport located in Chicago. The main issue of the film is actually placed upon the airport manager, Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), who is being pressured to shut down the airport for the night due to snow conditions, while also juggling a crumbling marriage at the same time.

The film additionally incorporates other small characters who add to the plot: Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), who is the head of Maintenance Operations, is seeking to unearth a plane that is stuck in the snow in the middle of an integral airport runway, Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes) is both hilarious and endearing as a stowaway, Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) is a pilot and also Mel Bakerfeld’s brother-in-law, to which they both have a tense relationship towards each other and have conflicting opinions of the future of the airport.

Added to that, Demerest is engaged in an affair with a stewardess (Jacqueline Bisset) who informs him that she is pregnant. It’s D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin) who provides the disaster aspect of the film by portraying a desperate man who plans to bring a bomb on a plane with the intention of detonating it so his devastatingly innocent wife (Maureen Stapleton) can get the insurance.

Airport PosterWhen assessing the characters and the main plotlines of the film, classifying Airport as a ‘disaster film’ wouldn’t be entirely accurate. ‘Melodrama’ would be the more accurate description that describes the events that shape the film. It is the characters who shape the film with the disaster being the catalyst that brings all their plotlines together cohesively.

It also should be noted that Airport’s intentions were to merely bring to life the contents of the popular 1968 Arthur Hailey novel. To enhance attention towards the film, signing on a A-lister cast all but ensured the film would be highly anticipated. This type of casting wasn’t original, considering 1932’s Grand Hotel followed a similar casting style. Yet leading up to Airport, such casting was primarily relegated to war or biblical films. Airport fit into neither of those categories, which created the false, yet effective, idea that such an all-star cast was the first of its kind. Additionally, by casting an array of actors who collectively chronicled the history of cinema, Airport created an appeal for moviegoers by providing an actor that all age-groups could identify with.

Burt Lancaster and George Kennedy in Airport (1970)

When the cast and the concept of disaster is taken out of the conversation, this asks the question, why was Airport successful? The answer is character development and the ability for the characters to be relatable with moviegoers. Steven Kean, author of Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe, argues that Airport resonated with moviegoers because the characters were blue-collar, middle-class individuals, which formulated a connectedness between moviegoer and character.

Audiences cared for the characters due to their ability to identify with their hardships, to which their concern for their safety was heightened upon the introduction of the disaster aspect of the film. Steven Kean further writes that the successful disaster films of the 1970s “… were the ones who paid more or less equal attention to character and disaster, the compromise being that the characters developed through the action.” In that regard, Airport offered precisely that and it resulted in being the most profitable movie of 1970. With such positive reception and stellar box-office results, it was inevitable that the disaster genre was born.

From 1972 to 1974, the disaster film genre not only boomed, but demanded the attention of moviegoers. Taking the framework of Airport, the disaster aspect of the film was amplified dramatically. The two immediate films that redefined the focus of the genre was The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). When contrasting these two films with Airport, there are certain conventions that remained the same: Both were novel adaptations, the majority of the characters are working-class and somewhat flawed, and they are placed in a scenario they cannot escape and must work together.

Where they deviate is in exposition, with the film placing more emphasis upon the disaster. Yet the characters are still developed through the action that ensues through the disaster, sometimes having the severity of the disaster paused just long enough for the moviegoer to get a more comprehensive understanding of the characters and their relationships with each other.

The characters of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure may not have been as densely mapped out as the characters in Airport were prior to the disaster occurring, yet The Poseidon Adventure is an extraordinary outlier in how its characters continued to evolve and develop despite barely being introduced in the film’s opening twenty minutes. The Poseidon Adventure takes place on New Year’s Eve aboard a cruise liner that is suddenly, and horrifically, struck by a rogue wave that causes the ship to flip upside down.

Of the survivors in the ship’s ballroom, ten individuals choose to follow Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) out of the ballroom to climb their way “up” to the hull of the ship to be rescued. Reverend Scott is an unorthodox priest who believes in fighting for what one wants, opposed to waiting for it to happen. Given the scenario that has occurred, he channels that belief to lead those few willing to follow him to safety. Sadly enough, Scott’s faith in the situation turns out to be true; The survivors who stay behind in the ballroom drown, and he and those with him are the only remaining survivors by that point. The remainder of the film is comprised of watching these various characters striving to stay alive in a seemingly impossible situation.

What made moviegoers care for the characters in The Poseidon Adventure was in that the characters individually represented something that was at stake. Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters) are hoping to see their grandson for the first time, Mike and Linda Rogo (Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens) are newlyweds, Susan and Robin are children traveling to be with their parents, James Martin (Red Buttons) is a lonely bachelor who is tending to Nonnie (Carol Lynley) who is devastated by the loss of her brother, who died when the ship capsized.

All of these stakes are synced with Reverend Scott, who has to challenge his own faith in believing his path and faith in that path is correct. If he is wrong, they all die. While the characters didn’t have the same depth of backstory as those did in Airport, they still offered complexity to the moviegoer that translated into the moviegoer generating compassion towards them.

Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine in The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

What further allowed for The Poseidon Adventure to sharply differ from Airport was by actually allowing for its stars to die in the film. Airport’s only casualty is the bomber himself, which represents a sort of cautionary tale for those who turn to desperate methods. Within The Poseidon Adventure, characters who are innocent endure tragic fates. This further established to moviegoers that nobody was safe within the movie; name recognition could no longer guarantee the survival of an actor’s character within the movie.

This formulated an unpredictable tone within The Poseidon Adventure, which further heightened the anxiety of the moviegoer concerning who would actually survive by the disaster film’s conclusion. It ought to be noted that it was the characterization that provided the impact of the disaster. The disaster is thrust into the narration in a forceful manner, but it was the film having relatable characters that the moviegoer would sympathize with that strengthened the severity of the disaster.

While characterization played a tremendous role within The Poseidon Adventure, one cannot deny that special effects played a deeper role concerning the success of the film. Visual effects during the onset of the 1970s was a relatively new aspect for film. For producers of The Poseidon Adventure to offer the violent spectacle of seeing a cruise ship being struck by a rogue wave, flipping over, and then watch its subsequent sinking, this offered a new type of film experience to moviegoers.

This was something The Poseidon Adventure producer, Irwin Allen, realized. He came to the conclusion that audiences wanted bigger, grander film experiences and that was entirely indicative of the visual effects. He realized the formula to a successful disaster film was properly utilizing visual effects in a disaster scenario, possessing a stellar cast to guarantee moviegoer appeal, and setting an unpredictable tone with the threat of having any of his big-name celebrities perish within the film. This newfound formula led to the pinnacle and climax of the disaster genre by 1974 with the release of The Towering Inferno.

1974 film poster for The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno centers around the fictional Glass Tower, which is the world’s tallest building at 138 stories. The building for The Glass Tower has been recently completed and its inaugural evening is to occur that night with much of the city’s elite celebrating in the building’s top floor. The building’s architect, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) realizes faulty wiring that is not up to code hours prior to the celebration and despite voicing his reservations to the millionaire contractor and owner of the building (William Holden), the evening continues as planned. Of course, Roberts’ concerns prove to be correct when the wiring incites a fire on one of the 80th floors, which rapidly spreads and travels upwards where the party guests are now trapped.

Then enters the film’s secondary plotline: The fire department arrives, led by Mike O’Halloran (Steve McQueen), to attempt to extinguish the fire. It is through the O’Halloran character that the film’s moral message is conveyed by emphasizing the severity of high-rise buildings and the necessity to keep them at a high standard to ensure the safety of those inside them. The film ultimately converges the plotlines of Doug Roberts and O’Halloran, having them work together to solve the situation in a dramatic manner.

Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno (1974)

In regards to formula, The Towering Inferno is a special effects heavy film, so much so that the cast became more complimentary to the visual effects instead of them leading the narrative. It is the actual fire within the film that leads the narrative, causing the cast to be reactionary towards it. This is quite a contrast from Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, who both emphasized characterization over visual effects. Nonetheless, The Towering Inferno spawned a new mentality with moviegoers with the big-name cast; there was now an expectation to see actors be genuinely part of the filming process.

This was an era where the cast couldn’t hide behind CGI or green screens, as actors can today with contemporary filming. In order for filming to be done adequately in 1974, the actors had to actually be part of the grueling conditions, many times their reactions of pain or surprise being real. For film viewers, this was an exciting new concept when watching their favorite actors. As Steven Kean describes it, “The allied draw was watching famous film stars really working for their money.”

However, the big-name cast was used minimally outside of the two leads: Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. In fact, much of the cast was relegated to stock characters who didn’t offer much to the plot other than being a notable face. Yet The Towering Inferno didn’t entirely waste its cast, but merely used each individual actor to represent a single aspect within the film. The acting roles were reduced to archetypes that were tailored to fit the actors portraying the characters. In contrast to Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, the characters do not develop through the action of the disaster.

Yet there are some small exceptions to this that gave the film some heart and that came in the form of Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones. Fred Astaire stars in the supporting role of Harlee Claiborne, who is attempting to woo Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones). The film barely allows for the viewer to understand their relationship before the disaster aspect kicks in. Once news of the fire enters the ballroom, Lisolette leaves to rescue the deaf family she knows who lives in the building, nearly losing her life in the process. Eventually Harlee and Lisolette are reunited to which he confesses to her he really is a con artist who had been hoping to manipulate her, but he now realizes he loves her. To his surprise, Lisolette confesses back she had already been aware of his intentions, but had found him to be endearing and cared about him.

It was these brief, but small, exchanges that provided some much needed heart to The Towering Inferno. Outside of these two characters, the remainder of the cast is merely reactionary to the fire, thereby they provide minimal performances. It is further no surprise that with Astaire and Jones being the heart of the film that Jennifer Jones was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance and Fred Astaire was nominated for an Oscar (he won the Golden Globe for the role).

Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno (1974)

With the big-budget of The Towering Inferno (backed by two studios: 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.), the bigger and more elaborate special effects, and its huge big-name cast, it is no surprise the film was a sensation and a hit. The Towering Inferno can also be accredited for the originating the term “disaster film,” which is what critics labeled it as and would further label the remainder of films that entered this canon. The Towering Inferno was nominated for eight Oscars, including one for Best Picture. While such award nominations weren’t entirely groundbreaking (Airport was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and The Poseidon Adventure was nominated for 9 Oscars), this ensured that the disaster genre had made its mark in film.

Irwin Allen famously said the entire purpose of making a big-budget film was to have it achieve enough success and money so that the next disaster film will be even bigger and more extraordinary. Unbeknownst to Irwin Allen, The Towering Inferno would be considered the last of the great disaster films of the 1970s. By 1980, six years after The Towering Inferno, the disaster genre will have crumbled under its own weight.

Sources Cited:

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

Sanders, John. Studying Disaster Movies. Leighton: Auteur, 2009. Print

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