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Good Disaster Movies (1960-65): Worlds under Fire

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David Appleford itcherIt would not be until the seventies when a distinct formula for the disaster movie emerged. However, long before the good ship Poseidon flipped, the film industry had already delivered several disaster-themed movies to thrill audiences around the world, and they dated as far back as the turn of the last century. ~ David Appleford

In the Beginning, There Was a Disaster

Early records show that in 1901 a short, British silent film simply called ‘Fire!’ was released. It ran just a few seconds short of five minutes and portrayed a local fire brigade rescuing the occupants of a burning home in Hove. It was also notable for its cross-cut editing, one of the first of its kind.

Fires became popular and a continuing theme at the movies when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the 1935 disaster, ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’, while in 1937, the Great Chicago Fire of the previous century was recreated for the hugely popular, ‘In Old Chicago’.

By the fifties, disaster films were well established. Filmmakers combined genres to tell their stories, which is why movies such as ‘The War of the Worlds’ and ‘When World’s Collide’, both released in 1953, can be found headed under both Disaster and Science-Fiction lists.

One of the most popular films of all during this period came not from Hollywood but from Britain. In 1958, the story of the Titanic was told in ‘A Night to Remember’. There was an earlier version from Hollywood released in 1953 called simply, ‘Titanic’, but if you’re looking for both adventure and quality in your movies, look for ‘A Night to Remember’.

But it was the sixties when that element of fun entered the disaster movie. The formula that we now associate with the genre was still a decade away, but there were several films released during the swinging sixties worthy of rental or streaming. Consider the following five.


Swinging Disaster Movie Recommendations

‘Last Woman on Earth’ (Roger Corman, 1960)

“If you take things as they come, if you do them step by step, we’re going to be all right.”

Released in the days of double-features as the support for ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’, ‘Last Woman on Earth’ is a 71-minute campy adventure telling the tale of something mysterious that has wiped out most of human life on Earth.

After emerging from a swim while on vacation down in Puerto Rico, married couple, Evelyn and Harold, along with their lawyer friend, Martin, discover something odd; they can’t breathe above water without their scuba tanks. Somehow, something happened to the world’s oxygen while the three were swimming underwater.

Stranded on the island with everyone around them dead from asphyxiation, the three do what they can to survive. And it soon becomes apparent: Evelyn is now… the last woman on Earth.

During the sixties, you knew where you stood with a low-budget, Roger Corman film. They were the favorites of the American drive-in; perfect for curling up in your vehicle with a date, while a disaster – both figuratively and literally – unfurled on the screen before you.

And while you’re watching, look closely. Due to time and money, director Corman rarely shot a scene more than once, which is why you can see the first dead body encountered by the three main characters move her arm as they walk away. Plus, with all the oxygen gone, how come there’s a couple of birds flying around in the distance during a dramatic beach scene?

‘The Last Man on Earth’ (Sidney Salkow & Ubaldo Ragona, 1964)

“December 1965. Is that all it has been since I inherited the world? Only three years. Seems like 100 million.”

If you’re familiar with 1971’s ‘The Omega Man’ and 2007’s ‘I Am Legend’, then you know the plot to ‘The Last Man on Earth’. All three are based on the 1954 novel, ‘I Am Legend’, by Richard Matheson.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan, and much to his shock, he finds the world is infected by a plague that has turned all of his neighbors into vampire-like creatures. At night, the good doctor locks himself away, hidden from view. During the day, he hunts and kills as many of those creatures as he can. Later, he will meet others not affected by the killer plague, but most of the time, he really considers himself to be… the last man on Earth.

Writer Matheson also wrote the screenplay for the film but was never happy with the end result. He considered Vincent Price miscast. The writer had his real name removed from the credits, substituted for the fake name, Logan Swanson. When researching the role for ‘The Omega Man’, even Charlton Heston described the film as poorly written. But director George Romero thought otherwise.

He saw it as inspiration for his ‘Night of the Living Dead’, which is why this Vincent Price film deserves to be on the disaster list. And for fun, you may want to consider viewing it as a double bill with the above-mentioned ‘Last Woman on Earth’. That way, you’ll have both genders covered.

‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ (Val Guest, 1961)

“It caused a twelve degree shift in the earth’s orbit… and we’re moving toward the sun.”

Within movie circles, this British addition to the disaster genre is considered among the best of its kind. Well received by both audiences and critics, ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ is the classic you’ve never heard of.

When the United States and the Soviet Union release nuclear weapons at the same time, chaos ensues. There’s a change in the Earth’s axis of rotation. When the film begins, the disastrous event has already taken place. London is burnt to a cinder. What follows is the story as seen through the eyes of a lone newspaper journalist as he walks through the deserted streets of the city.

Tame by today’s standards, at the time of release, ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’ was considered too disturbing and scary for youngsters. The film was slapped with an ‘X’, meaning that no one under the age of 16 was allowed into the theatre. It was low-budget, but the film’s intelligent script elevated the movie to something special, and it still works, even by today’s standard of story-telling.

But there were issues. In a scene where a character was struggling with a Roneo stencil duplicator, she complained aloud that it was over-inking. Roneo threatened to sue for damage of product reputation. And look closely at the face of an actor playing a policeman near the end of the film. He’s uncredited and you’ll only catch him for a few seconds, but even though it was four years before making his big break in ‘Zulu’, you’ll never mistake the face of a youthful Michael Caine.

‘The Devil at 4 O’Clock’ (Mervyn LeRoy, 1961)

“It is hard for a man to be brave when he knows he is going to meet the DEVIL at 4 o’clock.”

Even though the accepted formula for the disaster movie was still a decade away, film historians regard this 1961 thriller as the template for all disaster films to come.

Written by author Maxwell Catto from Manchester, England, Hollywood bought the book and made a classic disaster thriller revolving around a priest (Spencer Tracy) and some convicts (Frank Sinatra leading the way) who help evacuate a children’s leper colony from a volcanic island before it erupts. 

A film as big as this with the kind of special effects required to make a volcano look realistic had its on-set problems, but perhaps the biggest conflict was the one between its two leading stars. Spencer Tracy was in ill-health and could only work in the morning. Frank Sinatra, who was in perfect health, wanted to spend the morning hours flying around campaigning for John F. Kennedy’s on-coming presidential election. As a consequence, by the time Sinatra was ready to work, Tracy had already left the set.

Most of the scenes between them were filmed with Tracy acting with a broomstick representing where Sinatra would be standing while a script editor read Sinatra’s lines. You can’t see the join, but it will certainly add that extra dimension of interest when you watch the movie.

‘The Crowded Sky’ (Joseph Pevney, 1960)

“I should be in the American flag business. Cigarettes turn me blue, whiskey turns me red, and women turn me white.”

A precursor to the seventies ‘Airport’ disaster movies in more ways than one, and, again, like ‘The Devil at 4 O’Clock’, this movie was released a decade earlier.

A passenger plane and a navy jet with a malfunctioning radio system are about to collide. Told mostly through flashbacks, we get know the passengers and their personal conflicts leading up to the big moment.

At the time of release, the cast consisted of some big names, including teenage heartthrob, Troy Donahue. Audiences were treated to a big laugh when Donahue, most famous for his leading man role in the romantic, ‘A Summer Place’, asks Efrem Zimbalist Jr. advice on an on-coming marriage proposal. In the background, the hit tune ‘Theme from A Summer Place’ is playing over the speakers.

Plus, how about this for going full circle? In ‘The Crowded Sky’, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. plays the navy jet pilot about to crash into the passenger plane flown by captain Dana Andrews. Fourteen years later, when the now-classic disaster movie ‘Airport 75’ was released, it was Dana Andrews who played the pilot who crashes into the giant commercial liner. It’s captain? Dana Andrews. Enjoy.


And the Disasters Never Stopped

Even though that famous disaster formula of big star-ensembles and a spectacular, impending doom was still a few years away, the latter half of the sixties continued to have great and maybe not so great films with similar themes ready for release.

With titles such as ‘Island of the Burning Damned’, you don’t expect Oscar material, but that was always the fun of the genre. Look for five more sixties movie disasters still to come.

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