Disaster flicks

Part I

NBC’s hokey and occasionally hilarious two-night showing of "10.5" a couple weeks ago got me to thinking about all the disaster movies I’ve seen across the years in theaters and on television.

There are so many of them that I can’t even talk about them all. So I’ll stick to ones which mostly struck familiar places.

The first may well be the best: "San Francisco" (1936). This MGM offering is a classic that holds up well today. Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy with a solid story of life on the Bowery Coast, climaxing with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Some of the best montage sequences ever created.

"In Old Chicago" (1938) – Twentieth Century Fox’s tale of the 1871 Chicago fire. Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche and some good special effects.

"When Worlds Collide" (1951) – animator George Pal’s end-of-the-world tale and rocket ship escape. Good special effects on the destruction of New York City. "War of the Worlds" (1953) – George Pal again, this time with an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ book with Martians in southern California (and elsewhere). No relationship to Orson Welles’ version on radio, which was set on the east coast. Of special note: actual footage of the original Northrup B-49 Flying Wing, the late 40s predecessor of the 1988 B-2 Stealth Bomber. "Earthquake" (1974) – Charlton Heston and a cast of what seems hundreds (including an unbilled Walter Matthau) as Los Angeles is hammered by a monster earthquake. "10.5" borrowed freely from some of its moments, including the death of the leading character.

"Towering Inferno" (1974) – Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and an optically-altered Bank of America Building with an all-star supporting cast which included William Holden and Fred Astaire. A San Francisco high-rise is toast. Good effects, mediocre script. "Meteor" (1979) – Sean Connery and another all-star cast are wasted in a poor script with shoddy effects – but the germ of a good idea.

"Dante’s Peak" (1997) – Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton battle an awakening Washington state volcano (a la Mt. St. Helen’s). Great effects aren’t matched by its story – but still a real good popcorn movie. "Volcano" (1997) – Tommy Lee Jones and Linda Hamilton battle a volcano erupting under the LaBrea tarpits and lava oozing down Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. Underwhelming story but great effects.

"Deep Impact" (1998) – "Meteor’s" idea pays off in a film with a strong story, effects and cast, including Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood and Morgan Freeman as the U.S. President. A meteor fragment strikes the Atlantic Ocean and the east coast gets inundated. Good tsunami demolition of New York City.

What do all these have in common besides big budgets and general destruction? They all did good business – even the least of them. We’re fascinated by their devastation, be it models, computer generated effects, or just slick editing. We shudder delightfully at their threats to their stars – our surrogates. In some, like "Earthquake," the heroes succumb. They also help exorcise our nightmares of real events.

In other words, these films were box-office winners. Even TV’s "10.5" was a winner. On Sunday night, it pulled in 20,722,000 viewers for NBC (8th place), and on Monday, it drew 19,900,000 (9th place). Thus it helped the peacock network take both the first and second weeks of Mays Sweeps month, network television’s most critical rating period. And that means money, money, money!

So they’re going to keep making disaster movies in Hollywood. The latest, "The Day After Tomorrow," is already running ads. Brace yourself. New York City is going to get it again.


Part II

Sea disaster flicks


The most successful disaster movies have an inevitability which allows the film-maker to create characters we care about. What the characters do before the disaster can take on greater meaning. We empathize because we know what's coming. We root harder for the characters when it does.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Titanic story. Few other stories can match its fascination-- which explains why it's been retold on film and TV many times. A historical event, it's rich in themes (like the price of hubris) and real-life characters (like Unsinkable Molly Brown). As a result, the retellings of the 1912 Titanic sinking dominate the sea disaster movies of the past fifty years. The first of these is "Titanic" from Twentieth- Century-Fox in 1953. In this version, Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner play fictitious characters loosely based on real people. The screenplay won an Academy Award, but the visual effects are somewhat disappointing when viewed today. In 1955, author Walter Lord published a detailed book about the sinking called "A Night to Remember". The following year, "Kraft Theater" presented a one-hour teleplay on NBC based on the book. With seven cameras, 31 sets and 107 actors, director George Roy Hill told the last three hours of the disaster with Patrick Macnee (later co-star of "The Avengers") as the ship's designer and Claude Rains as narrator. What's more, it was all done LIVE and so well-received that it was repeated soon after. With the book and teleplay stirring renewed interest in the story, British producer J. Arthur Rank decided to do a movie version of the book, which he released in 1958. The cast was British, with Kenneth More top-billed; but the picture is actually an ensemble piece with around 200 speaking roles. The real star is the ship, and the visual effects of its sinking are excellent. Unlike the earlier movie, all the characters are real. In 1979, it was television's turn again with "S.O.S. Titanic". David Janssen and Cloris Leachman starred in a made-for-TV film which combines both real and fictional characters. The visual effects of the sinking don't surpass the 1958 Rank version, however.

In 1997, writer-director James Cameron produced what ranks as the ultimate version. Creating a fictional love story between Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet against a solidly factual background of events, Cameron won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, with a box office blockbuster. Thanks to computer-generated effects, this is the most accurate and terrifying of the Titanic pictures and took two studios--Paramount and Twentieth-Century-Fox--to bankroll it. But it made over two-billion dollars! Interesting fact: actor David Warner appeared in both this and "S.O.S. Titanic".

Three other films deserve mention in the sea disaster category. The best of them is "The Poseidon Adventure" (Twentieth-Century-Fox 1972) with Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and Red Buttons struggling to survive in a capsized liner. Based on a Paul Gallico novel, the story is good and the effects are superior.

"Reap the Wild Wind" (Paramount 1942). Cecil B. DeMille's epic about the 19th century salvage gangs of Key West won a special effects Oscar. Ray Milland and John Wayne vie for Paulette Goddard while Raymond Massey is the villain. Watch for the giant octopus!

"The Last Voyage" (1960) is noteworthy because producer-director Andrew L. Stone bought a real passenger liner to shoot aboard and then slowly sank it under the film's stars Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone and George Sanders. Afterward, he sold the wreck for scrap! The special effects are generally good, done as they are on a real luxury liner. The popularity of all these films is proved by the fact that all but the "Kraft Theater" version are available on DVD and video tape. They also play fairly regularly on cable. Break out the popcorn and rootbeer, mate!