We all have our guilty pleasures. I admit that one of mine happens to be watching disaster films from the 70s and 90s. I can’t seem to resist them when they show up on TV.
Here are seven of my favorite movies from the 1970s that fall into that category (next month I’ll list my faves from the 90s):
AIRPORT (1970) – Directed by George Seaton; starring Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, Jacqueline Bissett, Jean Seberg – and too many more to name; based on the novel by Arthur Hailey
This star-studded epic kicked off the disaster film craze of the 70s and spawned two sequels (’75 and ’77). Not only do the plane’s crew and passengers have to deal with tricky romantic entanglements and dirty politics, they also have a bomb on board. A snow storm complicates matters even more, causing major problems at the airport where they need to land. Oh, and air traffic personnel find themselves mired in sticky issues, too.
I heard that if you’re a fan of Hailey’s complex book, then you would no doubt be disappointed in the film. Since it’s one novel I’ve never gotten around to reading, I’m blissfully unaware of the movie’s shortcomings.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) – Directed by Ronald Neame (Irwin Allen production); starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, Jack Albertson; based on the novel by Paul Gallico
Another star-studded (CGI-free) adventure that holds up well – I’ve probably watched this movie more than any of the others on my list. I was in high school the first time I saw it on TV – and I remember being really pissed about the fate of my favorite character. Every cast member gave it their all – no bad actors here, folks.
You probably know the story: An aging passenger ship on her last voyage (before being scrapped) is hit by a rogue wave on New Year’s Eve, flipping her upside down. Reverend Scott (Hackman) attempts to lead a small group of survivors up through the damaged bowels of the ship to the hull – and possible salvation.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) – Directed by John Guillermin (Irwin Allen production); starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Robert Wagner, Fred Astair, Faye Dunaway (and many others … even O.J. Simpson); based on two novels: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson.
During the dedication ceremony and reception for a new skyscraper in San Francisco – now the tallest structure in the world – a fire breaks out in the poorly constructed building, putting hundreds of lives at risk. It’s up to the architect (Newman) and the fire chief (McQueen) to come up with a rescue plan. This three hour film is a nail biter once the action begins – with plenty of impressive pyrotechnics/special effects. The cast is superb, so I found the characters emotionally engaging as well.
EARTHQUAKE (1974) – Directed by Mark Robson; starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold
Another huge, impressive cast playing dysfunctional characters who come together when disaster strikes. In this story, a tremendous earthquake levels Los Angeles. (Charlton Heston and George Kennedy already know the ropes, since they both starred in previous disaster flicks.) There are some entertaining close calls and daring rescues worth seeing, which helps make up for the earlier melodrama.
THE HINDENBURG ((1975) – Directed by Robert Wise; starring George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith
I was intrigued by this movie because it’s based on historical events, which I know you are familiar with: the German (hydrogen-filled) zeppelin (largest in the world at the time) that bursts into flames above a New Jersey airfield in May of 1937. This story mixes truth with conjecture, fictionalizing the events leading up to the tragedy. Rather than using the original theory of electrical issues as the cause for the blaze, this film chooses sabotage. A stellar cast makes it interesting to watch, even though you know what’s coming at the end.
THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976) – Directed by George P. Cosmatos; starring Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Martin Sheen, and O.J. Simpson (again)
I love “train stories” – intrigue and danger and a mystery to solve means I’m hooked from the start (thinking of Murder on the Orient Express?). I’ve always been a big fan of Richard Harris, so that’s another reason this film is on my favorites list.
In this story, terrorists let loose a deadly virus among the passengers traveling on a European train. No one is allowed to get on or off to avoid spreading the disease. Of course, military officials plan to destroy the train to prevent an outbreak. When it was released, many critics called the movie ridiculous. But with the way the world is today, I can totally see this scenario happening.
THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979) – Directed by James Bridges; starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, Peter Donat
An intrepid television reporter (Fonda) stumbles on a cover-up involving safety hazards at a nuclear power plant. She wants to make certain incidents known to the public, but is put in danger by those who are protecting a sinister conspiracy. (“China Syndrome” is a term used to describe a fictional result of a nuclear meltdown, where reactor components melt through structures into the earth, “all the way to China.”)
Incidentally, this film was released only twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. I find the story suspenseful and scary because this sort of tragedy could easily happen again and again. (I’m glad I wasn’t anywhere near Chernobyl in 1986.)
I’ve listed only seven disaster movies from the 1970s here, but there are dozens of others. I decided to narrow it down to the ones I’ve watched the most. Next month, I’ll reveal my favorites from the “second wave” of disaster flicks released in the 1990s.