In the 1970s disaster was big business; the ‘people in peril’ scenario carried to its zenith and extreme in Irwin Allen’s 1972 smash, The Poseidon Adventure, followed two years later by The Towering Inferno (1974). The formula was hardly new. In the late 1930s Hollywood had put its best foot forward on such immortal all-star catastrophes as San Francisco (1936), The Hurricane (1937) and The Rains Came (1939). Then, however, the focus remained more on the people than special effects; the nature of disaster situated as a dramatic highlight rather than at the crux of the melodrama. 1970s disaster movies were something quite different, however; a chance to resurrect the glam-bam glitter of old-time talent desperate to work in an industry that had already experienced its own seismic shift a scant decade before, the tremors of the old studio system and last gasp of the establishment still being felt and mourned throughout Hollywood.
The new Hollywood that had replaced it was grittier, more direct in its approach to story-telling, willing to take its gamble on the gratuitous sex scene and car chase to get people back into theaters. But there were still those eager to see the cultural touchstones from the old regime – namely, its stars – pull themselves together for one last hurrah. If these cheers came with a modicum of nudity, a brutal fist fight and/or race through the streets – either on foot or by various modes of mechanized transportation – and could also be counted upon to place such familiar faces in danger; all the better at the box office. Yet there is something faintly grotesque about the human desire to witness its own demise at the movies; our odd fascination with self-destruction fairly reeking of some bizarre voyeuristic need to destroy ourselves vicariously from the relative safety of an isle-seat with a bucket of popcorn firmly planted between our legs.
Producer Irwin Allen implicitly understood this cruel self-infliction and readily delighted in making his audience sweat out every last drop of fear by creating carefully plotted nail-biting labyrinths into which some very top-flight talent was put through the motions of survival – some making it, some not. The key to a successful disaster epic, particularly one from the 1970s, seems to have been its careful balance between establishing various characters and having the disaster (natural or man-made) break out relatively early on and thereafter continue to terrorize the survivors and the audience with that constant threat of total annihilation. This premise isn’t entirely licked in Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974); primarily because an earthquake – even the proverbial ‘big one’ - cannot be sustained for much longer than a few moments on the screen, leaving the plot of Earthquake – the movie – rather void of its penultimate cataclysm.
What we are left with then are bookends of melodrama, pre and post-quake; a soap opera about angry spouses, surly drunkards, embittered dreamers and dewy-eyed lovers torn asunder; all of them experiencing a ground-breaking (literally) moment of realization that their own lives are relatively small in comparison to the unexpected wrath of Mother Nature. Arguably Earthquake – the movie – would have worked better had it taken a cue from San Francisco (1936); a film celebrating that particular city and the star-crossed machinations of a pair of mismatched lovers (played by Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald) who ultimately realize the strength of sentiment and their importance to each other through surviving a natural disaster – the spectacular 1906 earthquake that leveled Frisco. But Robson’s Earthquake is trying too hard to be cut from the same loin as Irwin Allen’s aforementioned disaster classics; its star-studded roster mimicking both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
The only problem is that unlike either of these movies, Earthquake does not take place within the confined spaces of either a sinking cruise ship or burning high rise, but across the whole expanse of southern California – centralized for the film as downtown Los Angeles with a few visual nods downwind to Hollywood. This spread, or lay of the land, is arguably too vast; the disheveled and displaced left to wander the various crumbling streets and caved in byways in their feeble, tear-stained and bloodied disorientation, either with altruistic or cutthroat motives; the film heavily mired in its last act of vigilantism. There is another problem with Earthquake; chiefly its roster of stars; most utterly wasted in bit parts or woefully incapable of communicating the immediacy of their presumed peril in anything beyond fitful glimpses of faux shock and awe.
Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and Walter Matthau are great actors. But you would never guess it by watching Earthquake; each stumbling through what effectively boils down to a cameo amid the carnage. Geneviève Bujold probably gives the most heartrending performance in the movie, but even hers lacks the utter soul of conviction to keep us interested in what happens to either her character or that of her young son (played by Tiger Williams). And then there are the cringe-worthy misfires to consider; Richard Roundtree’s brutally jive heroism as a sort of failed Evel Knievel turned rescuer; George Kennedy’s bitter cop transformed into a blubbering mass of contradictions just before the final fade out, and, Victoria Principal, as an afro-wearing bimbette more concerned that her wig and form-fitting ensemble remain relatively wrinkle-free throughout the deluge as she coos and cowers from the peripheries of the screen.
Because the quake hits roughly in the middle of the movie we are afforded far too much time with these characters, easily allowing us to pick apart their flaws. Blame the George Fox/Mario Puzo screenplay this time; so inarticulately cobbled together that it barely holds our interest in-between tremors. Ava Gardner’s shrewishness as the brittle, scorned wife wears paper thin almost from the moment her character appears. Charlton Heston treats his performance as though at any moment he might part the Pacific with a wave of his hand. Lorne Greene has an even more curious difficulty attempting to maintain his composure in character without the fertile backdrop of a sprawling ponderosa to back him up.
What we are left with then, is ‘the quake’ – rather spectacularly staged under Frank Brendel’s command; most of the matte work exceptional and still holding up under today’s closer scrutiny in hi-def. During the last third of the story Earthquake also attempts – rather inanely – to insert a dam-busting deluge into the proceedings – the flood sequence all done in miniature, but with too brief cutaways that neither heighten the impact of the narrative nor come to much of anything in the final edit; the waters from the crippled Mulholland Dam never reaching the already beleaguered city, but merely filling the underground sewers where several key survivors are trapped and will likely drown.
After some impressive aerial shots of L.A. with Hollywood in the background, lensed by Philip H. Lathrop, we settle into the feuding and fussing of one Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) and his significant other, Remy Royce (Ava Gardner); a socialite harpy prone to bouts of suicide because she suspects her husband of philandering. Stu has just returned from his morning jog and is in the process of topping off his workout with some resistance training when Remy barges in to terrorize. Long since unmoved by his wife’s constant badgering, Stewart takes a shower and prepares for work, discovering Remy unconscious with a bottle of pills nearby. But before he can induce vomiting a violent tremor rattles the bedroom and Remy’s nerves. No, she’s not dead – just faking and Stewart is not impressed.
We shift focus with the briefest of purpose or motivation; first, to the nearby Mulholland Dam where a worker (Clint Young) on a routine inspection is drowned inside one of the drainage shafts that has filled with water after the tremor – an ominous prelude to the movie’s penultimate flood sequence. Next, its’ on to downtown Hollywood where Sgt. Lou Slade (George Kennedy) and his partner Emilio Chavez (Armendáriz, Jr.) are in hot pursuit of a suspect. The chase ends badly (actually, in the front hedges of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house…no, really!). Back at the precinct, county sheriff's deputy (George Sayawa) chews out Lou for the mishap and Lou, a hothead with a very short fuse, knocks him on his proverbial pride. In his own defense, Lou attempts to justify his actions by explaining to his supervisor (Lonny Chapman) that the suspect he was chasing had stolen a car and even run over 6-year old Mexican girl without stopping: all very convincing – except that Lou is still placed on temporary suspension.
On his way to work Stewart decides to play ‘weekend daddy’ by popping in on Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), his lover and an actress who is also a widow with a young son, Corry (Tiger Williams). In the meantime, panic alarms have begun to go off at the California Seismological Institute after junior staffer Walter Russell (Kip Niven) has calculated that Los Angeles is on a collision course with ‘the big one’ destined to hit the city in the next few days. Too bad Dr. Frank Adams (Bob Cunningham), the chief seismologist, has already discovered this for himself, having been buried alive by another tremor while out in the valley conducting research. Acting supervisor, Dr. Willis Stockle (Sullivan) stubbornly refuses to place the city on alert, suggesting that if Russell’s predictions are wrong the institute will lose its funding. He also points out that the obvious panic of an unorganized full-scale evacuation of L.A. would be as devastating as the quake itself. Instead, Stockle places the National Guard and police on high alert to help deal with the fallout.
Moving on: Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal) has reached the checkout of her local grocery store only to realize she does not have enough money to pay for all her items. The benevolent manager, Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner) insists Rosa keep her things. She can make up the difference the next time she shops. Learning of the mobilization of the National Guard reserves Jody hurries to his dilapidated boarding house to change into his NCO uniform; a bit of ridiculous gay-bashing ensuing from his housemates shortly thereafter. We now shift gears to a seedy downtown watering hole where Lou has ambitions to get quietly drunk and where the resident wino (Walter Matthau) has momentarily stirred.
Aspiring daredevil Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), his manager, Sal Amici (Gabriel Dell) and Rosa convince Lou to a loan of $50 so that Quade can perfect a new motorcycle stunt. In the meantime the previous tremor has cancelled Denise’s shoot so she decides to surprise Stewart at work. With presumably nothing else but free time on his hands, Stu takes Denise back to her place where they make love. Later, he invites her and Corry to spend the summer with him in Oregon where he has been assigned to oversee a new development project. It’s all so perfect – except that Stu’s boss, Sam Royce (Lorne Greene) also happens to be his father-in-law, with a wily penchant for keeping his spoiled daughter happy. He’s even willing to hand over the presidency of his company to Stu at a moment’s notice. The offer has merit. But all of it goes out the window when Stu spied Remy coming up the stairs. Has she orchestrated the whole thing just to keep her hooks in him?
It would seem that way. So Stu storms out of the office, pursued by Remy into the street where mercifully the major quake suddenly strikes. In its ‘every man’ – and woman – for him/herself scenario, Earthquake suddenly shifts into high gear for a fleeting nine minutes of unparalleled mayhem. Buildings crumble, gas and water mains rupture, roads crack, church steeples topple, cars drive off the suspended highway, and a hapless populace flees on foot in all directions. Rosa, who had gone to the movies to see High Plains Drifter is nearly trampled by the panicked theater patrons, her pointless stumbling about the streets while everything comes crashing down around her making one wish that a big chunk of brick and mortar would just take her out too. The quake also destroys Quade’s stunt track and flattens a bridge over a spill way that Corry was riding his bike across, leaving the child unconscious.
The rest of Earthquake is basically a tale of survival with a few truly silly oddities along the way. Together with Stewart, Sam manages to rescue many of his employees before he suffers a fatal heart attack (shades of Shelley Winters from The Poseidon Adventure). Denise discovers her son lying on the ground near some live high voltage wires and, after crawling down to him via the damaged bridge, gets Quade and Sal to assist in their rescue moments before the spill way floods from water being diverted from the nearby Mulholland Dam.
In what is perhaps the movie’s most overblown and undernourished subplot, Rosa is arrested for nibbling on a donut inside a ruined diner. Having been made a sergeant in the National Guard Jody separates Rosa from the rest of the detainees, but then inexplicably turns homicidal when another faction of the guard arrives with his former housemates as prisoners. Jody cold-bloodedly executes them, presumably to avenge his wounded pride for having endured all their long-time bullying. Terrified, Rosa now recognizes that she hasn’t been rescued so much as she is being taken prisoner. Stewart goes in search of Denise and Corry, picking up Lou along the way. The two just happen to stumble upon Jody and Rosa. She attempts a getaway, but Jody holds Stewart and Lou at gun point until they agree to leave the scene. Later, Lou doubles back, thwarting Jody’s attempted rape of Rosa and killing him in self-defense.
Stewart hears on the radio that an aftershock has destroyed Wilson Plaza where he left Remy and Sam, and hurries to the scene with Lou and Rosa in tow. They attempt a perilous rescue of the survivors still trapped in one of the underground parking garages, using a jackhammer to blast their way into the air pocket where the survivor remain. Too little too late the Mulholland Dam gives way, its raging waters filling the underground sewer system. Denise and Corry survive, but Remy and Stewart are swept away. The film ends with Lou surveying the wreckage that is L.A. – a smoldering ruin in utter decay; an apocalyptic finale to what has already degenerated into a badly worn downer.
As pure entertainment, Earthquake is truly a disaster – its storytelling a veritable claptrap of mangled melodrama. Characters come and go throughout the story, none making much of an impact beyond their cardboard cutout characterizations. Given the fact that a lot of the film’s run time is wasted on telling each person’s back story this remains a curiosity. Perhaps the fault is in the performance, although I suspect the screenplay to be the culprit bearing most of the brunt. It’s dull, uninspired and episodic at best, moving its stars about the desolate post-quake landscape like chess pieces and with even less connective motivation between each sequence.
The worst moment in the movie is undeniably Rosa’s captivity under Jody’s maniacal rule. In her afro-wig Victoria Principal – an actress of extremely limited talent and appeal – becomes a figure of camp fun. George Kennedy doesn’t do the finale any favors either by attempting to stave off emotions he is incapable of expressing. It’s sad to see actors like Lloyd Nolan – herein looking doleful as a little lost puppy and reduced to mere sound bytes, presumably to express the pervasive sense of loss everyone is feeling in the aftermath. No, Earthquake doesn’t work at all. In fits and sparks it has moments of interest – mostly in the SFX that are spectacular to say the least. The only problem is that at 129 minutes the film has outstayed its welcome by at least 120; its chief marketing feature – the quake – lasting less than 9 minutes on the screen and taking with it all hope and chance for a great disaster classic to emerge. Buried somewhere under the rubble of this wasted opportunity is director Mark Robson’s pride, whose illustrious pre-Earthquake career included such classics as The Seventh Victim (1943), Home of the Brave (1949), The Harder They Fall (1956), Peyton Place (1957) and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). In this company Earthquake seems either a colossal joke or to have been made by another film maker entirely. If you’re looking to get the shakes I can think of a few other ‘better’ ways to satisfy. Pass.
Universal’s Blu-ray gets more than a passing grade however. The 1080p rendering is first rate with solid contrast and color and an excellent smattering of grain and fine details throughout. A few of the matte shots still look obvious, particularly close ups of Heston as he makes perilous attempts to rescue Sam and others trapped inside the office building. Here, color looks slightly off – the backdrop strangely purplish, and grain advances to a level grossly out of register with the rest of the visuals. Otherwise, this is a very competent transfer that will surely not disappoint. Earthquake won an Oscar for its sound mix and Universal has loving preserved its own patented ‘Sensurround’ experience on Blu-ray where, I must admit, it still manages to pack an aggressive wallop. Your speakers are in for a work out…well…at least for 9 minutes. Otherwise Universal as afforded this disc all the accoutrements befitting a clunker – none! We don’t even get a theatrical trailer. It’s probably just as well. I really didn’t see anything in Earthquake that would warrant a ‘making of’ documentary or audio commentary. Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)