Jul 3

1970 was a good year. I came into the world, and a film called Airport was released. This movie about an attempted hijacking of a passenger jet made $100 million at the box office, and re-ignited a film genre that would rule the big screens throughout the seventies. The modern disaster film was born.

I can’t improve upon the Wikipedia definition of disaster films as “a movie genre that has an impending or ongoing disaster as its subject. These films typically feature large casts of well-known actors and multiple plotlines, focusing on the characters’ attempts to avert, escape or cope with the disaster and its aftermath.”

I was too young to catch Airport at the cinemas. I also missed The Poseidon Adventure (a film about a capsized ocean liner) which came out in ’72. It was also hugely popular, won two Oscars, and formed a template for many disaster films to come.

When I was a kid I would often get dragged along to the movies with my family, usually clad in pyjamas and dressing gown. I would always fall asleep sometime in the first reel and then wake up at home in bed, having been carried through the cinema lobby, put in the car, lugged into the house and tucked in. I guess I slept more soundly in those days.

One of the first movies I ever saw at the cinema also happens to be what I consider the greatest disaster film of all time: The Towering Inferno.

I was four years old when The Towering Inferno hit Australian cinemas in 1975. It’s a good thing it was only rated PG. (Though Dog Day Afternoon, rated M, was an eye opener for a five-year-old, let me tell you.) Obviously I can’t recall much from my first viewing of The Towering Inferno, apart from alot of fire and explosions and people falling to their death. I have seen it several times since then, but I would love to see it again on the big screen.

For those that don’t know, The Towering Inferno is essentially the tale of the Titanic rewritten. It is the opening night party for an enormous new skyscraper – the so-called Glass Tower, in San Francisco. This building is the tallest in the world, and has been designed with all the latest in modern gadgetry, and is supposedly failsafe. Of course, disaster befalls The Glass Tower in the form of a fire, which quickly spreads, threatening the lives of the party-goers on the top floors. We follow the struggles of the people inside to escape, and of those outside to rescue them and put out the raging fire.

Here is the trailer:

Don’t be fooled into thinking that these classic disaster films were poorly made. They were major Hollywood productions featuring the biggest names in the business. The Towering Inferno starred both Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, alongside a supporting cast that included everybody from O.J. Simpson to Fred Astaire. Audiences of the day were amazed by the realism of the special effects.

My favourite moments in The Towering Inferno come at the very end, as Fire Chief Steve McQueen stands before the smouldering hulk of the Glass Tower, and says:

“You know, one of these days, you’re gonna kill ten-thousand in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build them.”

He then asks architect Paul Newman what will happen to what remains of the building. Newman, thousand yard stare intact, gazes upwards and says:

“I don’t know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

Roll credits. Applause & cheering.

Disaster films adopt a set of rules, which anyone familiar with the genre could recite.

  • the film begins on “a day like any other”
  • we start by spending a few moments with each major character as they go about their business
  • the audience must be the first to see the impending disaster (e.g. huge wave building, tiny spark in a broom closet)
  • the kid with the dog will live
  • the dog will disappear, assumed dead, but will pop up at the end of the film
  • the pregnant woman will live
  • the hero (e.g. fire chief, pilot) will live
  • the angry man who wants to do things his way will die
  • the rich, whiny woman will die
  • the person responsible for the disaster will die most horribly of all
  • at least one person will give his life to save others
  • something profound must be said at the end, preferably by the hero
  • the film must have a good song (e.g. “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure)
  • the basic premise for the film must be wholly implausible

While on Christmas holidays in 1977 I went with my sister to see the current disaster film Airport ’77, the third in the Airport franchise. In this movie, a large private jet crashes into the ocean – but, remarkably, remains intact – then sinks to the sea floor with the passengers trapped, still alive, inside.

Sounds good, right? Sadly, this shoddy piece of film-making was the beginning of the end for the genre. New disaster movies were being produced by the dozen, with ever more ridiculous themes. Heat waves, avalanches, earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, epidemics, chemical and nuclear disasters, swarms of killer bees; by the end of the ’70s the genre had been well and truly covered. The end was clear when the spoof disaster film Airplane! was released in 1980 (it was called Flying High in Australia) to enormous success.

Sure, the occasional disaster film still makes it to cinemas these days, but it’s not the same. So if you haven’t seen The Towering Inferno, go out now and rent the DVD, you won’t regret it. By the way, you’ll also need a big bucket of popcorn, warm blanky and total suspension of disbelief. Enjoy.

One Response

  1. Rachy Says:

    This post reminded me of the time I combined those two great disaster cliches:

    “Disaster waiting to happen” and “A recipe for disaster”…

    They metamorphosed into ” A recipe waiting to happen”.

    hee hee