When it’s on: Saturday, 7 February (1.20 am, Sunday)
Channel: Channel 4
Ah, the 1970s disaster movie. Whilst films based around catastrophes have always been around, there was something about those made in the seventies that set them apart – the style, the big budgets, all-star casts, the gleeful willingness to kill off heroes and villains alike. They focused on anything that played on viewers’ real fears – air travel (the Airport films, which kicked off the whole sub-genre), skyscrapers (The Towering Inferno), ocean liners (The Poseidon Adventure). I have the guilty pleasure of rather liking The Swarm, the Michael Caine starrer from 1978 about pissed off killer bees from Africa (obviously) that terrorise America. Looking back at them now, these films may appear laughable, with their special effects that have dated as badly as the fashions, but they were big deals, especially during the first half of the decade. From a sociological perspective, it’s possible to argue they did well due to the sensibilities of audiences, rocked by the political catastrophe that was Watergate and uncertain of their country’s future, though I think that’s hogwash and the films just made a lot of money.
The king of the 1970s disaster flick was of course Irwin Allen, responsible for some of the era’s biggest apocalyptic treats, and Earthquake was Universal’s riposte to his antics. The ante was upped as Allen could very well produce tales of tall buildings or ships running into peril, but what if calamity was to befall an entire city, and not just any city but Los Angeles? That was the premise of 1974’s Earthquake, which promised to lay waste to LA courtesy of the San Andreas fault. The notoriously angry faultline last produced a ‘mega-quake’ in 1680 and is apparently overdue a repeat performance (there’s a film due out this year, San Andreas, which will tell precisely that story). The story goes that the film was conceived as a consequence of LA experiencing the tremors from the San Fernando earthquake of 1971, the delicious premise being of a disaster movie on a far larger scale than those conjured by Allen.
Canadian director-producer Mark Robson was the creative force behind Earthquake, the culmination of three decades within the business that had seen him learn his trade from the likes of Orson Welles and Val Lewton. Robson approached no less a figure than Mario Puzo to write the screenplay, though the script was too character driven and large in scope for the film’s $7 million budget; magazine writer George Fox helped Robson to tone down its level of ambition. Big name stars like Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and disaster mainstay, George Kennedy were attached to the project.
The story follows a number of ‘ordinary’ Los Angelistas as they go about their business, oblivious of the impending doom beneath their feet. Now and then, cutaways to workers at the Hollywood dam looking a bit concerned show exactly where the film is headed towards, but we open with Stewart Graff (Heston) and his wife, Remy (Gardner). Theirs is an unhappy marriage. He’s seeing the young widow of a dead work colleague, played by Genevieve Bujold, and she has long since turned to booze and pills to cushion the pain. A subplot written by Puzo made more sense of this, going on to explain that Remy at some point in the past had an abortion, which undermined the couple’s relationship terminally; however this was cut out by the time the script made it to the screen, meaning she just comes across as an old soak and he an adulterer (and he’s the film’s main hero). Meanwhile, Kennedy plays a grizzled cop who’s insubordinate ways have just earned him a suspension. He does the obvious thing and hits a bar, which is playing funky 70s tunes, where he shares space with an uncredited Walter Matthau as a permanently sozzled denizen in a pimp hat. He’s joined by Richard Roundtree’s stunt rider, along with Victoria Principal as, well, eye candy really. She’s lusted after by Jody (Marjoe Gortner), a convenience store manager, who also happens to be a fascistic National Guard volunteer.
Of course all this is preamble, slightly unnecessary preamble as surely no one turns up to watch a film called Earthquake in order to follow character development, let alone a motley crew of largely unlikeable people and besides, the narrative of introducing the cast and then letting them handle disaster was, by 1974, entirely routine. That said, when the quake hits it’s a doozy, dealing out death and judgement to the good and bad in a ten minute sequence of spiralling destruction. Some of the effects deployed are great, such as the collapse of the freeway; others, most notably the plummeting lift with its cartoon blood splashed onto the screen in order to preserve the film’s PG rating, are terrible. To jaded twenty first century eyes, much of it looks like the clever use of models, matte paintings and simply shaking the camera that it obviously was, though a note of admiration goes to an era of film making when they couldn’t just spit this stuff out of a computer. Sure, the shots of buildings spewing masonry onto antlike people below doesn’t compare with the CGI-induced Armageddon of something like 2012, but Robson and his crew didn’t have access to anything like the current technology forty years ago, had to resort to every trick up their sleeves and did a creditable job most of the time.
What works well is the random selection of who lives and who dies. Too often, these films worked on a moral selection process, allowing the heroes to make it whilst the villains suffer a terrible death, but the quake makes surprisingly nonjudicial choices over who cops it. It builds to a surprisingly bleak conclusion, in which there are no real winners, just those left to speculate over the ruins that were once a sprawling metropolis. Heston is a solid enough lead, as always, and the corrosive spark between his and the Gardner character work better than his wooing of Bujold, perhaps because the pair had memories of a difficult working relationship on the previous decade’s 55 Days at Peking, when she spent much of her time on set drinking and subsequently earning his ‘professional’ ire. No such problems here, with Gardner (looking much older than Heston, despite the year’s difference in age between them) working hard to create a character who elicits some sympathy.
Missing from televised versions of Earthquake is the Sensurround process that came as part of the film’s box office draw. In cinemas, Sensurround used various sound devices to boost the effect of the quakes, making it feel as though the audience was experiencing tremors along with the stars. It must have been a lot of fun, certainly adding to the events taking place on the screen.