The 1970s: decade of the disaster movie

Contributed by
Apr 26, 2017

The golden era of the disaster movie kicked off in 1970 and came to a screeching halt almost exactly 10 years later.

Disaster movies have been with us almost since the birth of cinema itself -- the earliest is probably a silent short titled Fire!, made in 1901 -- and films about humans facing calamities both natural and man-made have cropped up in every decade since. A number of silent films addressed real-life incidents like the sinking of the Titanic, while the 1930s brought us floods (Deluge, 1933), earthquakes (San Francisco, 1936) and cyclones (The Hurricane, 1937).

Hollywood turned toward giant monsters and nuclear apocalypse during the height of the Atomic Age, but films like The High and the Mighty (1954), The Crowded Sky (1960) and The Doomsday Flight (1966) paved the way for Airport (1970), a massive crowd-pleasing hit that opened the disaster floodgates for the next decade.

Why did the genre take off in the '70s? Several early big-budget hits, the general unease of the decade and a spike in bombings, hijackings and other terrifying incidents arguably provided the perfect climate for a seemingly endless string of cinematic catastrophes. Some were good, some were laughable, but most ended up being entertaining -- even some of the bad ones. Here is a look back at the decade of the disaster movie.

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Airport (1970)

Airport kicked off the peak years of the disaster movie craze, although the movie was more about the intertwining stories of airport personnel, crew members and passengers during a difficult, snowy day at fictional Lincoln International Airport. But that all comes to a head when a suicidal bomber sets off an explosive on a Rome-bound 707, forcing the plane to make a desperate emergency landing. The all-star cast (led by Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin), interconnected stories and suspense-filled story of catastrophe set the template for future disaster movies to come, including three Airport sequels.

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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

One of the best-remembered disaster films of the decade is also one of the finest. Based on the somewhat more allegorical novel by Paul Gallico, The Poseidon Adventure barely introduces us to its rather stock assembly of characters before a tidal wave capsizes the massive Poseidon cruise ship at midnight on New Year's Eve, forcing a small band of survivors to climb out through the bottom of the ship. The movie is undeniably gripping, with an excellent cast led by Gene Hackman as the fiery Reverend Scott and Shelley Winters as the courageous but doomed Mrs. Rosen.

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Airport 1975 (1974)

Having polished off his string of dystopian/post-apocalyptic sci-fi films (Planet of the Apes/Beneath the Planet of the Apes/Soylent Green/The Omega Man), Charlton Heston turned his attention to the disaster film genre, beginning his run with this sequel to the 1970 hit. Airport 1975 knows what its audience wants and gets right to it, sending a small plane on an accidental collision course with a 747, pulverizing the flight crew and forcing ol' Chuck to skydive into the cockpit and land the damn thing himself. The usual boatload of guest stars is aboard, including Linda Blair from The Exorcist and Helen Reddy as a singing nun so hysterically parodied six years later in Airplane!

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Earthquake (1974)

1974 was surely the most prolific year ever for disaster films, as Airport 1975 was quickly followed by this would-be epic. The now standard "all-star" cast -- led by, you guessed it, Charlton Heston -- are going about their rather uninteresting lives in five-minutes-into-the-future Los Angeles when a massive quake hits, starting the betting pool on who will make it out of the movie alive. Earthquake's big gimmick was "Sensurround," a special sound system set up in selected theaters that used jumbo bass speakers to make the theater rumble like a real temblor was happening. The system was only used for two more movies (Midway and the semi-disaster film Rollercoaster) but nowadays you can recreate it at home with any decent subwoofer.

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The Towering Inferno (1974)

This blockbuster hit marked a high point for genre kingpin Irwin Allen, who brought Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox together (the first time a film was jointly produced by two major Hollywood studios) for this nearly three-hour super-spectacular that actually garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It also featured perhaps the best cast Allen had ever assembled: Steve McQueen! Paul Newman! William Holden! Faye Dunaway! Fred Astaire! (and, uh, O.J. Simpson.) The plot is simplicity itself: on the eve of its grand opening in San Francisco, the world's tallest skyscraper catches fire, trapping people throughout its 110 floors and at the celebrity-studded opening party on the roof. Fast-moving and often terrifying, The Towering Inferno remains the cream of the crop and probably the best movie of its kind.

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Tidal Wave (1975)

Toho Studios filmed this in 1973 as Submersion of Japan, then repeated its old trick from 1954's Godzilla by shooting additional scenes with an American actor -- in this case Lorne Greene -- for U.S. release under the name Tidal Wave. Despite that title, there are all kinds of calamities occurring in the movie, including erupting volcanoes, earthquakes and even a crack in the Earth's crust, all happening directly below and around Japan and literally sinking the island nation into the sea. The scale model work is good for its time but the movie doesn't give you any real characters to empathize with, focusing mainly on the authorities. The U.S. version gives you even less: it was cut to under 90 minutes from the Japanese running time of 143 minutes.

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The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

This Italian/British production was a wild one indeed, featuring a train full of passengers, potentially infected by a new form of biological weapon, speeding toward a bridge that may or may not collapse as the locomotive crosses it. The joke (as it is) is that the authorities in charge might be okay with letting the train fall and cover up the fact that the weaponized bacteria has gotten loose. Mildly suspenseful but unabashedly mediocre, The Cassandra Crossing features one of the genre's weirder casts, including Richard Harris, Ava Gardner, a young Martin Sheen as Gardner's boy toy, and O.J. Simpson again, this time as an undercover FBI agent disguised as a priest.

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Airport '77 (1977)

From the studio that gave you two previous Airport flicks and Earthquake, this third chapter in the airplane disaster "saga" features a hijacked private 747 full of art and wealthy guests crashing and sinking into the Bermuda Triangle. It's up to the surviving passengers and crew, led by captain Jack Lemmon, to stay alive and somehow get a signal to the surface. The story is soggier than most but the cast is full of well-known faces as usual: Lee Grant, Brenda Vaccaro, Olivia de Havilland, James Stewart and Christopher Lee all get soaked in this one.

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Avalanche (1978)

If an avalanche slides down a mountain and nobody hears it, did it happen? That's the question one might ask about this low-budget entry in the disaster sweepstakes produced by Roger Corman, who -- bless his heart -- never met a genre he didn't want to work in for 1/100th of the cost. The cut-rate cast doesn't exactly stack up to the big Hollywood disaster films either, with Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, Robert Forster and a handful of others slumming it under director Corey Allen (who went on to direct a number of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, including the former's pilot). The plot? An avalanche -- or at least stock footage of one -- buries a ski resort. What else did you expect?

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Gray Lady Down (1978)

They sunk an airplane in Airport '77, so how about a submarine? Chuck Heston gets back into disaster mode as the commander of a U.S. submarine accidentally struck by a freighter and sent hurtling down into the depths. The crew, of course, is running out of air and time as various rescue attempts end up failing. A minor entry in the disaster movie field, Gray Lady Down was notable for being the feature film debut of Christopher Reeve, just nine months before he would become a worldwide star as Superman.

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The Swarm (1978)

Falling hard and fast from the heights he reached with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, producer Irwin Allen took the directorial reins himself for this big-budget bomb about a swarm of killer bees stinging its way across Texas. I have to confess that the idea of killer bees (which was a real thing in the mid-1970s for a while) scared the crap out of me, but those fears were put to rest by this ludicrous mess, which has its entertaining B-movie moments but is brought down by rotten special effects, unlistenable dialogue and all-over-the-map performances from a cast that inexplicably includes the likes of Michael Caine, Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark.

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Hurricane (1979)

This remake of John Ford's 1937 film is really more of a romance between the daughter (Mia Farrow) of a hard-nosed Navy Captain and a native (Dayton Ka'ne) of the island her dad is stationed on, set in 1920s with all the racial overtones you could expect. But like the original film, no one cares about that stuff once the showstopping title storm kicks in. Producer Dino De Laurentiis originally hired Roman Polanski to direct, but the latter's ongoing legal problems forced De Laurentiis to put somebody named Jan Troell on the picture instead.

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City on Fire (1979)

Canada made its bid for disaster film glory relatively late in the game with this clunker, in which a disgruntled worker sets fire to an oil refinery and consequently sets the whole city ablaze. Fading stars Henry Fonda, Ava Gardner (did she make anything but disaster movies in the '70s?) and James Franciscus found themselves stuck in a low-budget campfest -- complete with heavy stock footage usage -- that would have vanished into obscurity if not resurrected by Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1989.

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The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979)

The fourth and last of the Airport series sent the franchise out on a low note, being the first of the batch to not connect at the box office. And with good reason: the even more ridiculous than usual plot is about an arms dealer (Robert Wagner) trying repeatedly to bring down the famous supersonic jet to kill a reporter who's on board. Hokey as hell and not even getting the benefit of the usual galaxy of "stars," The Concorde is not even one of those "so bad it's entertaining" movies. It's just bad.

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Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)

Michael Caine, apparently a glutton for punishment, once again starred for producer/director Irwin Allen in this misfire despite having suffered through The Swarm. Here he plays a tugboat captain who comes across the wreck of the Poseidon and wants to claim salvage rights until he finds himself rescuing more survivors ... and fighting off pirates, to boot. Even the Poseidon brand name couldn't save this one from critical and box office failure, although the original Poseidon Adventure was remade twice, first as a 2005 TV movie and then again as a 2006 feature film.

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Meteor (1979)

Filmed in 1977 but held back for two years due to the delayed completion of its special effects, Meteor finally took the disaster genre into space as the title object hurtles on a collision course with Earth. Sean Connery (in his post-James Bond career struggle days) leads a decent enough cast (Henry Fonda is back!) and the movie is not all that bad as it focuses on a joint U.S.-Russian mission to divert the big rock. And of course Meteor provided the template for later apocalyptic asteroid blockbusters like Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998).

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When Time Ran Out ... (1980)

You couldn't find a more appropriate title for this cliche-ridden cheesefest about an island threatened by a gigantic volcanic eruption. This was the last film from producer Irwin Allen, one-time disaster movie king, and it flopped spectacularly, signaling the end of the genre. Even on his last hurrah, Allen managed to land some big names, including his Towering Inferno stars Paul Newman and William Holden as well as Poseidon Adventure alumni Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons. But time was not on this dud's side.

The inevitable disaster movie spoof, Airplane!, appeared that same year and more or less closed the books on the decade of disaster, although the genre would be revived in years to come with films like the aforementioned Armageddon, Deep Impact, Twister (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), Into the Storm (2014) and San Andreas (2015). Somewhere Irwin Allen is smiling ...