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Good Disaster Movies (1970-75): On Land, At Sea And in The Air

DavidA2Writers nostalgically describe the seventies as the Golden Age of disaster movies. In reality, that was pushing it.

Audiences may have flocked to see buildings burn, cruise ships turn, and planes crash, but reviewers had a grand ol’ time tearing plots apart. Because of its old-fashioned, American TV soap-opera style of character conflicts built around a commercial jet in jeopardy, famous New York film critic Judith Crist facetiously described the first big disaster movie of 1970 as the best film of 1944.

But audiences didn’t care. ‘Airport’ was a massive hit. ~ David Appleford

The First of Its Kind

Based on a book by Arthur Hailey, in ‘Airport’ everything that could possibly go wrong in a day in the life of a fictional, big city airport went wrong. Snow storms, frozen runways, stowaways, love affairs, marriages falling apart, and a bomb on a plane.

Surprisingly, unlike the disasters that followed, the actual threat in ‘Airport’ never occurred. In the end, it was a case of disaster averted – the plane lands safely. Not so in real life. Ironically, the Boeing 707 used in the film continued to fly until 1989 when it tragically crashed during a landing in Brazil.

Realizing that the popularity of westerns was on the decline and large-scale musicals no longer packed houses, Hollywood turned to disasters to repeat the formula that worked for ‘Airport.’

1972’s ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ placed an ensemble on a flipped cruise liner and killed them off one by one until a handful of survivors climbed up to safety. 1974’s ‘The Towering Inferno’ placed an ensemble in a tall burning building and killed them off one by one until a handful of survivors climbed down to safety.

And in the same year, ‘Earthquake’ placed an ensemble in the middle of a split in two Los Angeles and killed them off one by one until… well, you’ve got the idea.

If you haven’t yet, all the above-mentioned flicks need to be seen. Without them, it’s hard to appreciate the following five lesser known adventures.


Nutty Disaster Movie Recommendations

‘Skyjacked’ (John Guillermin, 1972)

The good thing about a disaster movie is you know what it’s about as soon as you hear the title. Originally called ‘Airborne’ then ‘Hijacked’, the producers finally decided to combine the two and called it ‘Skyjacked’, and that’s exactly what happens.

Charlton Heston plays the captain of a commercial jet under siege from a heavily armed James Brolin, a crazed Vietnam vet with psychological problems who demands that the plane alters course and heads to Russia.

At the time, hijacking planes was a very real threat. Even though the film was considered an adventure for all ages, not everyone saw ‘Skyjacked’ as entertainment. Australia took it seriously and initially banned the film, though later when it was re-submitted, the film was passed for regular showing but slapped with an ‘M’ rating for Mature Audiences Only, the equivalent of an American ‘R’ and, at the time, a British ‘X.’

The film’s principle star, Charlton Heston didn’t want to do the film but was coerced by MGM. Heston was directing his big screen version of ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ and he wanted to insert a few clips from his earlier, famous epic ‘Ben Hur.’ MGM agreed but only on one condition: the actor had to play the captain in ’Skyjacked.’

‘Juggernaut’ (Richard Lester, 1974)

A British disaster movie directed by the man who directed The Beatles in ‘Help!’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ ‘Juggernaut’ was the exception to the disaster movie genre; the title gave nothing away.
Based on a real-life event when the luxury liner QE2 received a bomb threat and the Royal Marines had to be parachuted in, ‘Juggernaut’ takes that theme, adds the Hollywood formula of casting a star ensemble with character conflicts and places them on an ocean-going liner called Britannic under threat from a bomber.

More a tense drama than an explosive action adventure, the film was generally well received by critics but due to the lack of action and a title that sounded as though it was really about speeding trucks, audiences stayed away, yet ‘Juggernaut’ is well worth your time.

Omar Sharif plays the captain, Anthony Hopkins, who called the film ‘underrated,’ plays a Scotland Yard detective searching for the bomber on land, and Richard Harris plays the Marine officer parachuted on board to find the bombs and defuse them.

Twenty-four years later in 2005, when a new UK DVD version of the film was released, someone must have finally realized that the title ‘Juggernaut’ worked against the film. It was eventually re-titled ‘Terror on the Britannic.’

‘The Day the Earth Moved’ (Robert Michael Lewis, 1974)

As with any successful movie formula, television was not going to be left behind. ‘The Day the Earth Moved’ was a 74 TV movie with practically no budget, but when it was first aired it thrilled audiences.

Starring Jackie Cooper, Stella Stevens and Cleavon Little, ‘The Day the Earth Moved’ is a race against time. A couple of aerial photographers who see the big picture realize that an earthquake is about to hit a small desert town. Knowing that what’s about to happen will decimate the area and its population, the photographers race against time to get everyone out of there, if only people would listen.

There’s an inherent sense of fun in most disaster films, and even though ‘The Day the Earth Moved’ comes nowhere close to the quality or grandness of its large scale, big-screen counterparts, it’s still an entertaining 75 minutes of nonsense. The film is difficult to find – fans have often asked why the movie vanished from the video shelves – but here’s a tip and it costs nothing. Go to You Tube. Someone uploaded the whole film.

‘Tidal Wave’ (Shiro Moritani and Andrew Meyer, 1973)

There are two titles to this Japanese disaster epic. It’s original 1973 title is ‘Tidal Wave’ but you’ll probably find it under ‘Submersion of Japan’. First, the plot.

Everything in Japan is falling apart, literally. Earthquakes, tidal waves, firestorms, the whole shebang. Cities are burning to the ground; volcanic eruptions are pouring lava all over the place, and worst of all, the country is falling down. Soon, if the forceful power of Mother Nature can’t be stopped, Japan will sink to the bottom of the ocean.

The original Japanese release of ‘Tidal Wave’ directed by Shiro Moritani had quite the cult following on its home turf, but famed American producer Roger Corman saw the potential for an even wider audience and came up with an idea. He purchased the film’s distribution rights, cut sequences that slowed things down, hired American director Andrew Meyer to hastily re-shoot some new ones and included a recognizable face to star among all the unknown Japanese ones.

Lorne Greene from TV’s ‘Bonanza’ played an ambassador to the United Nations and spent the whole time looking deeply concerned. Grab the popcorn and enjoy two hours of watching every possible known natural disaster depicted in one film. Roger Corman knew what he was doing. It was a financial success in America.

‘The Andromeda Strain’ (Robert Wise, 1971)

Out of all the films on this list, you’ve probably heard of ‘The Andromeda Strain’. It was based on a novel by the man who wrote ‘Jurassic Park’ – Michael Crichton. The problem is, despite the big 1971 budget, and the fact that it’s easily the best film out of these five recommendations, it did poorly at the box-office. Most viewers have either forgotten it or never realized that Crichton’s novel was ever a film. Now’s the chance to play catchup.

When a small town in New Mexico is wiped out, scientists believe that a returning satellite from space might be the cause. Once the satellite is retrieved, a crack team of experts is assembled in a top secret underground government bunker to find out what happened. Believing that the satellite may have brought back an unknown virus from space, the experts race against time to solve the mystery, until their theory is proven correct and that deadly virus that turns blood into dust leaks in the bunker.

Most of the drama takes place in the confined area of that underground bunker. Audiences expected more action, less mystery. Regardless, this is a terrific piece of entertainment, with special effects and all the whiz-bang machinery courtesy of Douglas Trumball, the man who created the effects for the best sci-fi of them all, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’

And for trivia buffs, consider this: when author Michael Crichton was given a tour of Universal Studios while his film was in production, the tour-guide was a teenager named Steven Spielberg, the same Spielberg that later went on to be a director and filmed Crichton’s most famous novel of all, ‘Jurassic Park.’


And That’s Not All, Folks – There’s More!

That was just the first half of the seventies. Never one to let a profitable idea go to waste, Hollywood disasters continued to flow, but seeing the same formula continually repeated took its toll at the box-office. Ideas thinned, plots became more absurd, and audiences waned, but look closely in the latter half of the decade and you’ll still find a gem or two buried among the rubble of another natural or manmade big screen catastrophe.

Coming up – more disasters from 75 to the eighties!

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