I know it’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when explosions weren’t so common in movies. Back then, big-budget movies had dancing and singing, and everyone had a merry time. After WWII though, things started to change. In newspapers and magazines, Americans were being exposed to terrible images of war-torn Europe and Japan. This imagery was haunting, yet it sparked some imaginations. At first, Hollywood was careful not to glamorize it. They figured out a way to show massive destruction and violence while making it fun and moderately profitable instead of soul-crushing and distasteful. The 50’s became known for its low-budget cheese-fests; sci-fi B movies featuring such staples as Martians invading and gigantic killer insects created by radiation leaks (completely plausible). Audiences got a glimpse of the excitement and peril associated with war, but since it was weird science fiction and not actual violence, it was fine. Hollywood has never looked back.
Slowly, studios found that audiences could stomach a bit more realism. Spectacles of violence became more common. Mindless entertainment started to poison seep its way into the more sophisticated productions. In the 60’s, audiences flocked to sprawling epic films and westerns which all glamorized more violence and mayhem than had previously been allowed in film. Ultimately, in the 1970’s that fascination for catastrophe emerged as a sub-genre all its own; the disaster movie. 70’s disaster movies often used bargain-priced special effects with varying degrees of success to depict large-scale disasters. They typically featured large ensemble casts of well-known actors making questionable career decisions, and can often have multiple story lines that follow a group of people as they either panic helplessly or man-up and deal with it. Audiences were at the edge of their seats as the big stars of the day found themselves up against insurmountable odds among often unintelligible disasters.
The 70’s were, to but it bluntly, the perfect time for disaster movies to get their footing and then become a major box-office force. In general, 70’s era films tended to be darker than in previous decades, and disaster films fit into that movement perfectly. In fact, they often exploited their mayhem to the extreme. Melodrama was the name of the game and it made the actions onscreen feel that much more desperate. Since this was the first time such stories had been shown in films, filmmakers didn’t know when to stop. Bigger, crazier, more extreme was the trend as the decade went on. Initially, they began as dramas, but over time they became more adventurous and action-packed.
Disaster films didn’t start right away in the 70’s. In the 50’s and 60’s, films revolving around a disaster were common, but they didn’t become the prelude to the modern blockbuster like in the 70’s. Movies like A Night to Remember (1958), which depicted the sinking of the Titanic, and On the Beach (1959), which depicted a post-apocalypse struggle to survive, were well received by critics and audiences alike. They showed that this type of film could be entertaining rather than emotionally draining. In the 60’s, the tensions created by the Cold War opened up a whole new topic of possibilities for disaster films. Movies like Crack in the World (1965), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), and Panic in Year Zero! (1962) told stories that dealt with the rather unpleasant idea of nuclear annihilation. Also, the 60’s saw a blending of the historical epic films that were popular at the time with disaster movies. Movies like The Lost World (1960) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969) blended exotic locales, special effects, and characters dealing with life-or-death situations.
But although disaster films had shown success and popularity leading up to the 1970’s, one film in particular provided the spark for the genre to expand and become a blemish of 70’s cinema. That film was 1970’s Airport, which depicted a hectic and circumstance-filled day at a fictional airport including the efforts of a terrorist trying to blow up an airliner in flight. Interestingly enough, Airport wasn’t inspired by films that came before. It was based on a book, and as such, the disaster film craze began as a lucky coincidence. It just happened to be the perfect film for the time. Audiences in the 70’s were beginning to look for more modern entertainment from their films, and this one delivered. It became the number two highest grossing picture of the year, and made Universal Studios a lot of money against a meager budget. Not only did audiences flock to theaters to see it, but it became nominated for nine Academy Awards simply because it was something unlike audiences had ever seen before; a madhouse spectacle with fan favorites Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin hamming it up. Indeed, critics did not praise the film, and today it is largely ridiculed. Still, it spawned three sequels throughout the rest of the decade and convinced studios that disaster films were an easy way to make (lots of) money.
Since Airport was such a new phenomenon that caught Hollywood by storm, it wasn’t until a few years later that studios began to release more disaster movies that followed a similar pattern. 1971’s Andromeda Strain was indeed a disaster movie, but not in the same pop-culture vein that Airport exploited, and it didn’t follow the low-budget/high star-power formula to become a commercial smash hit. It’s release was more a coincidence than a response to current trends. The first real follow up to Airport was in 1972 when The Poseidon Adventure was released to considerable fanfare. What this film did was add fuel to the fire. It was produced by disaster film mastermind Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen, proving that Airport was no fluke and indeed audiences were open to more. The Poseidon Adventure took a low budget film based on a book, added in considerable star power, and then, kudos to Allen, ramped up the entertainment factor. One thing that The Poseidon Adventure could boast about that Airport couldn’t was its use of a lot of special effects. This was an important turn for disaster movies. It showed how special effects could make a film even more entertaining. This idea that special effects could make a movie fun helped The Poseidon Adventure get nominated for 8 Oscars, winning one of them. It also became the number two highest grossing film of the year behind The Godfather.
Skyjacked was also released in 1972. As the title suggests, it focuses on a bomb threat on board an airliner (piloted by none other than Charlton Heston). After Airport’s success, disasters associated with airline travel would play a big role in the disaster film movement. Although Skyjacked followed the formula set by Airport with a low budget and a recognizable ensemble cast, it failed to become a big hit and receive awards accolades. However, it did prelude the second wave of disaster films that were direct responses to Airport. This included the sequel to Airport, 1974’s Airport 1975 starring (Capt.) Charlton Heston and Karen Black, and The Hindenburg (1975), starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. Both of those films became hits, but to a lesser extent than Airport. TV movies also cashed in, and subsequently began to water down the craze. There was 1973’s The Horror at 37,000 Feet, followed by 1975’s Murder on Flight 502 (with Farrah Fawcett!). Later in the decade there were other TV movies related to troubles with air travel, including Crash (1978), Mayday at 40,000 Feet! (1976), and Lost Flight (1979). TV was a great avenue for airline-related disaster films because they could be low budget and easy to make, yet high on drama and very engaging.
Disaster movies peaked in the middle of the decade. Late 1974 saw the release of two huge productions which followed the now-familiar recipe. Earthquake came first in November. The natural disaster film starred Charlton Heston (and no, he’s not done with disaster movies yet), Ava Gardner, George Kennedy (who also knew his way around a disaster film), and Lorne Greene. On a budget of $7 million, the filmmakers used an interesting combination of both innovative/good and cheap/terrible special effects to create mayhem and destruction. It also used a unique sound effects technique with extra bass to help immerse the audience further, or maybe keep them awake. Regardless, it showed studio’s efforts to create an even more entertaining product for their audience. Earthquake was a hit at the box office and earned four Oscar nominations, and won a special achievement award for its special effects. The Towering Inferno followed a month later and was the second biggest hit of the year. The Towering Inferno put together a all-star cast including Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astair, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn, and even O.J. Simpson. This film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four of them, which made it the most award-winning disaster film. This was the highlight of the disaster film era.
After 1975, studios started getting more creative. Disasters weren’t just relegated to airplanes, or natural disasters. They could happen anywhere, even at a football game. 1976’s Two Minute Warning told the story of a madman threatening to open fire at a championship football game. The film featured….drum roll please…Charlton Heston as well as other stars, and it was nominated for an Academy Award, but it showed the first real decline in audience acceptance of disaster films. The Cassandra Crossing was a European attempt at the disaster film, which featured terrorists planting a deadly virus on a train, which can’t stop or else it would risk infecting the populace. Despite a huge international cast (Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen, Ava Gardner), the film was not commercially successful. As the failures started piling up, studios got more desperate and turned to cheap gimmicks to help prolong the genre. One gimmick was to try and make the films feel more plausible, and to weave in more current events. In practice this sounds like a good idea, but in reality the efforts of adding meaningful content to films designed for pure entertainment was outside of the capabilities of writers at the time. 1977’s Black Sunday was unremarkable similar to Two Minute Warning in that it featured a terrorist wanting to cause harm at a football game. This time it was more real because the game in question was actually referred to directly as the Super Bowl, and one of the people trying to cause harm is a Vietnam War veteran trying to escape his distress following the horrors he witnessed in the war (which is an idea that was already explored in Skyjacked). Rollercoaster (1977) had a terrorist blowing up amusement park rides, and featured special sub-woofers in select theaters which would vibrate the movie seats during select sequences of the film to simulate riding on a “rollercoaster”.
After 1975, even venerable champion of disaster films, Mr. Man vs. Nature himself, Irwin Allen had trouble getting people back in theaters to see disaster films. His 1978 film The Swarm told the story of killer bees invading Texas, but it only lasted two weeks in theaters. Despite checking all the right boxes as far as having a recognizable cast (Michael Caine’s self-described worst film), interesting special effects, and decent production values, no one cared. Part of the problem was that the idea for this film had already been done on TV a few times. Audiences felt that they didn’t need to pay to see something that the had already seen. Indeed, repeating ideas became a big problem for disaster films as the decade went on. 1978’s Avalanche is, as you would probably expect, the story of a ski resort being subject to a massive avalanche. Although that movie was not successful (big surprise), studios couldn’t help borrowing ideas and even footage from the film the following year. 1979’s Meteor may have been a precursor to modern day disaster films like Armageddon or Deep Impact, but in 1979 it was just another shoulder shrug in a time of audience ambivalence to the genre. It had an interesting idea of Earth struggling to reach a solution due to poor international relations regarding the Cold War, but studio’s inability to invest in quality writing talent did them in. The film even recycled some of the footage from Avalanche (which was stock footage to begin with) in order to creatively depict its disasters on a dime. 1979’s Avalanche Express showed how desperate studios had become. Framed as a cross between a spy movie and a disaster flick, it was set amongst the tension of the Cold War. It depicted a defected Soviet agent who agrees to help catch Russian terrorists by luring them to attack a train. This one included both terrorist-created disasters as well as natural disasters (hence the avalanche in the title).
But although studios tried new ideas and blending of genres, they didn’t really deliver the same type of excitement that more modern films had begun to offer. Movies like Jaws and Star Wars showed new directions that popular films could take. As a result, audience interest in disaster films began to waiver. As the decade went on, disaster films became tired retreads rather than new sources of excitement. Lazy writing and recycled ideas just couldn’t get audiences into theaters. There were last-ditch efforts to reconnect audiences to popular disaster films of the past, including 1979’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, which re-teamed Irwin “The Destroyer” Allen with a star-filled cast to try and make the formula work again. Audiences were rightly skeptical, which unsurprisingly resulted in the film being a commercial failure. The fact that studios put all the right pieces together only to have the project ultimately fail proved once and for all that the time of the disaster movie was over. They just did not have the same creativity that audiences of the time were looking for. Even the Airport franchise could not continue their campy success. The Concorde…Airport ‘79 was the last in the series, and attempted to cash in on current trends by edging a bit towards science fiction. Audiences edged their way elsewhere.
Although disaster movies continue to be made to this day, the heyday culminated in 1980 with the film Airplane!, which, while being a traditional disaster film itself, made fun of how excessive and weakly constructed these films had become. That film was a hit with audiences and critics alike, which proved that these traditional disaster films could no longer be taken seriously. After Airplane! there was no going back to the low-budget high-drama approach of the 1970’s.
Check back next week as we examine another interesting trend in…70’s Cinema!
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