The decade of the 1970’s is known for many things in the film industry. It was the decade where new filmmakers overtook “old Hollywood” and made less conventional films. It was the decade when the summer films became as important as the Christmas films. It was a decade when a low budget movie could play drive-ins for a few weeks and reap a tidy profit. And it was the decade of the disaster movie.
The disaster movie was not unique when it exploded onto the scene in the 70’s. As far back as the 1930’s the disaster played a role in movies such as “San Francisco” and “The Hurricane” (remade, incidentally, in the 70’s). But it wasn’t until producer Ross Hunter decided to mix the spectacles of the 1950’s with an all star cast that the disaster movie truly took off and stayed in the culture for ten years before finally burning itself out.
It all started in March of 1970 when the most influential movie of the entire decade opened. Based on the popular novel by Arthur Haley, “Airport” came into theaters with an all star cast headed by Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy and Helen Hayes and became the second highest grossing film of the year making a whopping (for its time) $45 million. Armed with a slightly thin script, “Airport” was supported by its huge cast, decent if not spectacular visual effects and a well composed musical score. Audiences were so impressed by its storytelling that jumped back and forth between the myriad of characters that you barely notice that the main disaster, a madman detonating a bomb on board a jumbo jet, doesn’t occur until 1 hour and 45 minutes into the 2 hour and 17 minute movie.
“Airport” came out at a time when movie studios were changing hands and films were being made for the teenage crowd. People over the age of 30 were largely ignored at that time. “Airport” was entertainment made for people of all ages. Teenagers were attracted to the disaster elements while older crowds were attracted to the casting of Lancaster and Martin. There was something for everyone and everyone turned out in droves to see it. People who were going to movies once or twice a year admitted to putting “Airport” at the top of their must see list. The film was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture of 1970 and won one for Helen Hayes for Best Supporting Actress.
Universal Pictures also created a brilliant ad campaign for the film. Small boxes with pictures of each actor appeared on the poster and this campaign would be repeated many times over the decade. The disaster movie was born and for the next decade there would be over 20 more to hit theaters. The movies were essentially the same. Almost always a large cast of known actors are placed in peril be it man-made, Mother Nature or at the hands of a villain, and we watch for two hours as they struggle to survive (some of whom did and some of whom didn’t). To the tunes of a blasting musical score, most of the actors would make it with a select few casualties per movie. Some of these movies were very entertaining while others are downright terrible and even laughable. For the most part audiences ate it up until the ideas wore thin and new genres had taken over the box office.
Here is a look at the other disaster movies from the 70’s up to its demise in 1980. If you were a moviegoer back then you no doubt went to several of them yourself. Any movie fan was guilty of that.
1972 – The first film to try to make a profit from the “Airport” gravy train was a movie called “Skyjacked,” whose title says it all. Its basic premise was that of a commercial airliner that is hijacked to Russia and featured a large cast including Charlton Heston (who would revive his career in the disaster movie genre), Yvette Mimieux, James Brolin, Claude Akins and Walter Pidgeon. The mildly entertaining movie is forgotten today, buried beneath more famous disaster movies.
“The Poseidon Adventure,” a Christmas release that year, sealed the popularity of the disaster movie. Producer Irwin Allen, who would become known as the “king of disaster movies,” essentially did what Ross Hunter did with “Airport” and put a group of well known actors in a small setting (luxury liner), created a disaster (tidal wave causing the boat to overturn), and watch as they try to climb to the top (actually the bottom) to reach safety. Allen boasted a cast including a number of Academy Award winning actors (Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelly Winters, Red Buttons, Jack Albertson) with other familiar faces (Carol Lynley, Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowall, Leslie Nielsen) and added top notch visual effects to the mix. The result was a blockbuster as “Poseidon” became one of the highest grossing films of the year ($42 million) and was nominated for 8 Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actress – Shelly Winters; Cinematography; Art Direction; Sound; Song; Score; Film Editing; Costume Design), winning for Best Song for “The Morning After.” The film would spawn a terribly needless sequel in 1979 when disaster movies were on their way out, and an even more needless remake in 2006.
1974 – This was the biggest year for the disaster movie as three movies came out and each one was a big hit, out grossing the one before it.
Up first was “Airport 1975” (oddly named as it was released in October, 1974), Ross Hunter’s long awaited sequel to his 1970 smash hit. The story this time found a jumbo jet in peril after it is hit head on by a small plane whose pilot has been felled by a fatal heart attack. With the pilot seriously wounded and the co-pilot and navigator dead, it is up to the head stewardess (Karen Black) to try and fly the plane to safety. Charlton Heston, George Kennedy (reprising his role as Joe Patroni from the original film), Susan Clark, Helen Reddy, Linda Blair, Sid Caesar, Myrna Loy, Gloria Swanson (in her first film in over 20 years), Dana Andrews and Efrem Zimbalest, Jr. all co-star in this average but watchable sequel. Though not nearly the hit the original was, “Airport 1975” would go on to gross over $25 million.
Just three weeks after “Airport 1975” was released came “Earthquake” which told several soap opera-ish stories of characters in Los Angeles on the day that a devastating earthquake hits, virtually destroying the city. “Earthquake” not only boasted a huge cast including Charlton Heston and George Kennedy (both of whom shot this and “Airport 1975” simultaneously) along with Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree and Barry Nelson, terrific special effects (which were given a special Academy Award), but an extra added “gimmick” gave the film additional appeal. A new sound system called Sensurround was created which gave the effect of feeling the earthquake tremors in the theater as they occurred in the movie. Audiences ate it up to the tune of $36 million and the film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards (Cinematography; Art Direction; Sound; Film Editing), winning one for Best Sound. Besides the special award given for its visual effects, the team that created the Sensurround sound system was also awarded a special Academy Award.
Christmas of 1974 brought the biggest disaster movie hit of the decade with “The Towering Inferno,” based on two novels (The Tower; The Glass Inferno) about the tallest building in the world that erupts into an out of control fire with hundreds of people trapped above the fire floor. Irwin Allen set out to make the film an event and insured box office success by casting two of Hollywood’s most famous leading men, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, in the lead roles. A stellar supporting cast including William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn, Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson and Jennifer Jones ably supported them. Despite its 2 hour 45 minute running time, Allen made sure to keep the film moving to its spectacular conclusion. Viewers will note that the actual fire begins no more then 20 minutes into the film and gradually worsens. McQueen doesn’t appear until nearly 45 minutes in and, frankly, it’s a surprise when we do see him as the film has carried on well without him. Newman would tell a reporter during filming, “We all know the star of this film is that damned fire.” “Towering Inferno” would bring in almost $50 million at the box office and was nominated for 8 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Supporting Actor – Astaire; Cinematography; Art Direction; Sound; Song; Score; Film Editing) while winning 3 (Cinematography; Song – “We May Never Love Like This Again”; Film Editing). This film would mark the last time a disaster film was nominated for Best Picture and the last time a disaster movie was considered a blockbuster at the box office. From then on the number of pictures would increase but the quality would decrease.
1975 – With the success of the three films of 1974, a small independent film company bought the rights to a 1973 Japanese disaster movie called “Submersion of Japan” and added footage to it with Lorne Greene to make their own film called “Tidalwave.” The resulting film was a mish mash of decent effects from the original film blended with new footage that had cheap effects and terrible dubbing of the original dialogue. The film was barely released in theaters and most drive-ins opened it as a second feature.
Christmas of 1975 brought the big budget “The Hindenburg,” featuring an all-star cast including George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning, William Atherton and Gig Young. The film took the premise that the tragic explosion was caused by sabotage but made two major mistakes. The first was trying to add suspense to the story by supposing that hero George C. Scott could prevent the explosion so over 90 minutes is wasted getting to a conclusion the whole audience knows already. Second was the disaster itself, which combined actual footage with special effects, occurs in the last 15 minutes making the whole movie awfully tedious up until then. Audiences apparently agreed, as the $15 million dollar film was a major flop.
1976 – With three films in production for the following year, the disaster film genre was represented by its first spoof titled “The Big Bus,” which told the story of passengers on a deluxe, super spectacular Trailways bus which runs into every disaster cliché imaginable. The film was mildly clever and often quite funny in its first 30 minutes but it became evident that the filmmakers were bereft of ideas, especially in the final act. A cast of mostly television and movie character actors including Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, Lynn Redgrave, Jose Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Ned Beatty, Sally Kellerman and Larry Hagman made up the film’s roster. The film was a box office failure.
1977 – This was a big year for the disaster movie. Three films would be released and two would do moderate business. This would be the beginning of the end for the genre even though it would continue a few more years.
First up was the International thriller “The Cassandra Crossing” about a train full of people exposed to a deadly plague while the train races toward a bridge that is no longer in operation. The all-star cast included Burt Lancaster, Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, Lee Strasberg and O.J. Simpson. Critics found the film silly and the film was only mildly successful.
Next up was “Airport 77,” the third installment in the popular series. This time a luxury private jet is sabotaged in mid-flight and crashes into the Bermuda Triangle leading to a daring rescue mission. Why the Bermuda Triangle? It was just a ploy to plug the movie via ads on television, radio and in print. Nothing “other worldly” occurs nor is there a hint of anything supernatural as you may expect when hearing the plane has crashed in the Bermuda Triangle. It may as well have crashed in a deep pond. Still the all-star cast headed by Jack Lemmon, George Kennedy (back again as Patroni), Lee Grant, Christopher Lee, Brenda Vaccaro, James Stewart, Joseph Cotton, Olivia DeHavilland, Darren McGavin and Robert Foxworth add credence to a silly story and make it mildly entertaining. The film was moderately successful enough to get the go ahead to put another sequel in the works.
Irwin Allen returned to the disaster movie front with his big budget version of “The Swarm,” about an invasion of killer bees. One thing Allen proved is that swarms of bees are not particularly dramatic on screen but he does give it his best shot by including a top notch all-star cast including Michael Caine, Richard Chamberlain, Katherine Ross, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Olivia DeHavilland, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Lee Grant and Slim Pickens. The film has no thrills or excitement and basically proves that a talented cast cannot overcome terrible material. The film’s astounding $21 million budget doesn’t show up on screen and appears to have gone to the actor’s salaries. The summer release became the butt of jokes all over the film industry and in the press and made back just over $10 million. This was the beginning of the end of the disaster movie.
1978 – Charlton Heston made one more disaster film this year with “Gray Lady Down,” the story of the rescue of a nuclear submarine whose occupants are trapped below the surface after a collision with another submarine. The cast also featured Ned Beatty, David Carradine, Stacy Keach and Ronny Cox. The slow moving adventure received negative critical reaction and was largely ignored by audiences.
An even bigger bomb at the box office was “Avalanche,” about a newly opened ski resort befelled by the title disaster (whose cheap effects are almost laughable). Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow starred in this ill-fated film that received release mostly in second run movie houses and drive-ins and disappeared after just one week.
1979 – This year was the true final hurrah for the disaster movie as five more films were released, all of them terrible and all of them box office bombs.
First up was “Hurricane,” a remake of the 1937 film whose title says it all. Jason Robards, Mia Farrow, Max Von Sydow, Trevor Howard and Timothy Bottoms starred in this island adventure featuring love, death and disaster. This $22 million dollar movie was lambasted by the critics and barely made $3 million.
Next up was “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” which followed the story of a group of people trying to loot the turned over ship before sinking. Critic Roger Ebert once jokingly suggested to Irwin Allen that if he indeed ever made a sequel the story should be about another group of survivors on the ship who reach the top (bottom) just in time for the ship to right itself and they have to start over again. Allen reportedly hated the idea but might have changed his mind after seeing the results of this film. Allen did gather another stellar all-star cast including Michael Caine, Sally Field, Telly Savalas, Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Karl Malden and Shirley Jones, who all appear to know what kind of dud they were appearing in.
“City On Fire” came next and if you blinked you missed it. This was a low budget disaster film about a citywide fire started at an oil refinery by a disgruntled worker. The game cast includes television actors Barry Newman, Susan Clark and James Franciscus with small roles to named stars such as Henry Fonda, Shelly Winters, Ava Gardner and Leslie Nielsen. It was in and out of theaters in one week and made less then $1 million.
“The Concorde: Airport 79” continued and ended the successful series about a crooked businessman who tries to kill a reporter by firing missiles at the Concorde instead of killing her when he has her alone in his room the night before. If that isn’t ludicrous enough look for the classic scene when George Kennedy (this time piloting the Concorde) sticks his hand out the window with the Concorde at full speed. Adding to the laughs is this “top notch” cast featuring Sylvia Kristel, David Warner, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, John Davidson, Martha Raye, Cicily Tyson, Charo, Avery Schreiber and Jimmie Walker. This film was so bad and it’s $6.5 million gross so low that Universal scrapped the next film, “Airport 1981,” which had already been written.
“Meteor” featured an impressive cast including Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Martin Landau, Henry Fonda (who, evidently, was willing to take on any role for money) and Brian Keith in a lame brained film about a large meteor heading for Earth. Every ten minutes or so we get a shot of a cardboard rock in space and see stock footage of avalanches and floods caused by the meteor crashing. The $16 million dollar film made just over $4 million.
1980 – The last of the disaster movies was from the king himself – Irwin Allen. “When Time Ran Out,” told the story of an impending volcano eruption on a Pacific Island. This deadly dull film was the final nail in the coffin for the genre that had been so successful. Even a terrific cast including Paul Newman, William Holden, Jacqueline Bisset, Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine and Burgess Meredith couldn’t breathe any life into this film. The film was budgeted at over $20 million and made just $1.7 million.
That summer came “Airplane,” a spoof of disaster movies that proved quite clever and funny and was the box office sleeper of the year. Despite that, the disaster movie was now dead for over a decade. Even a sequel to “Airplane” was a flop.
In the 90’s the disaster movie was somewhat revived with the hits “Twister” and “The Day After Tomorrow” but others including “Volcano,” “Dante’s Peak,” and “Poseidon” flopped, proving that the disaster movie may not be dead but, in all likelihood, has seen its heyday.