George Kennedy and Charlton Heston in Earthquake.
It's funny how movie genres go in cycles. Screwball comedies were popular in the 1930s, Westerns were the rage of the 1950s, and these days if you throw popcorn at a theater screen, the odds are you'll hit a superhero movie. In the early 1970s, before Star Wars would spark the Sci-Fi genre boom, it was the disaster movie that ruled the box office.
Although it would continue for several more years, 1974 was perhaps the zenith of the trend with the triple whammy release of The Towering Inferno, Airport 1975 (the first sequel to the movie that started the trend) and Earthquake. All three were huge box office hits and The Towering Inferno and Earthquake were both nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
While most disaster movies keep the action in one confined location like an airplane, a skyscraper, or a luxury liner, Earthquake expanded the concept to include an entire city. This wasn't a brand new concept of course, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy dealt with an earthquake way back in 1936's San Francisco and there were several silent movies even earlier that also featured tremblers. It was however, the first big budget movie of the modern era to explore the subject.
If you're familiar with disaster movies then you'll already know how this one works. A group of recognizable stars are introduced, headlined by Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Richard Roundtree, an old Ava Gardner and a young Victoria Principal. We learn just enough about their characters to make them human and then disaster strikes. In this case it's the BIG one hitting Los Angeles. Following the disaster we then watch the stars try to cope and survive.
Of course, it's not just the familiar faces that are the stars. The disaster itself also takes center stage and it is fairly impressive, especially for the time, being filmed long before CGI was an acronym that meant anything to anyone. Despite the obvious use of models and the occasional cement block that's clearly made out of Styrofoam, the destruction of Los Angeles is well filmed, even if it is a bit over-the-top. This isn't just the biggest earthquake to hit the city, but also the longest. Even if you assume that the events of the earthquake are meant to be happening simultaneously, it still must be the longest quake on record, given that they normally only last for less than a minute.
The biggest problem with the movie is Charlton Heston's character. Technically he's the lead, but he's not a very sympathetic one. The script by Mario Puzo provided plenty of backstory, but much of it was edited out after he left the project to work on The Godfather Part II. Heston's character is married to Ava Gardner and as the movie opens they're arguing and she even fakes a suicide attempt. Reportedly, we learned more about their marital problems in the earlier drafts of the script, including the fact that she had an abortion against his wishes (an idea Puzo would put into The Godfather Part II). Without that crucial bit of information, you're just left with the idea that they're angry with each other, but given that Heston is having an affair, it's not surprising that his wife would be angry.
George Kennedy's character is more sympathetic as the LAPD officer who gets suspended from the force before the earthquake hits. A young victoria Principal shows off her budding talents in a tight t-shirt and some massive 1970s hair. Richard Roundtree provides some comic relief as a motorcycle stunt rider. He gets the movie's funniest line when he says after the quake strikes, "I hope to God Evel Knievel was in town today." The other notable character is the very sexy Genevieve Bujold, who plays a young mother, aspiring actress and Heston's mistress.
Earthquake isn't the greatest Disaster movie of the period, but it is still a fairly entertaining one. The spectacle remains impressive even if some of the dated aspects are unintentionally funny now. Camp mixed with catastrophe can be entertaining as many movies of the period proved.
Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in Earthquake.
The disaster movie absolutely reached its zenith in 1974 and Earthquake marks its epicenter. You might say it put the “disaster” in the genre. Not only does it have the longest quake ever recorded (as Scott said it just goes on and on) but they also threw in dangerous aftershocks, a sadistic National Guardsman who shoots down innocent civilians in cold blood, citizens trapped in a burning, dilapidated highrise, and even a dam that breaks flooding the already decimated city. Clearly they were attempting to make the disaster movie to end all disaster movies.
I agree the special effects hold up pretty well. It really looks as if the entire city is being shaken apart. Call me old fashioned but I much prefer the old technical cinema trickery on display here to today's overused CGI technology.
I disagree with Scott that the relationship between Heston and Gardner needed more backstory though. At nearly two hours the movie is already long enough. He's having a midlife crisis and dumping his aging wife for a newer model. We don't need the details. This is summed up beautifully in the final ironic scene. Heston is climbing up from a flooded storm drain towards the street. His mistress is waiting for him up top and his wife is also climbing up the ladder when she falls into the raging water below. Heston has to make a choice. Does he risk his own life to save the woman he no longer loves or instead does he merely continue to climb the ladder to enjoy a whole new life? You've got to see the movie to find out.
What the hell was Walter Matthau doing in that bar? Sure he is worth a few chuckles but I'm not sure why the director chose to insert some comic relief in such an obvious and corny way. He sways on his bar stool completely unfazed as the building he is sitting in rattles down to its very foundation. Camp mixed with catastrophe indeed.
George Kennedy, who appeared in the most disaster movies of the 1970s, is the hero. He appeared in Airport and all its numerous sequels. He plays a jaded cop. At the beginning of the movie he's involved in a high speed car chase. When he inadvertently drives through a hedge during the chase another police officer stops him to tell him he just damaged property belonging to Zsa Zsa Gabor. Kennedy beats the shit out of the other cop, which gets him suspended, but not before he delivers the movies' best bit of dialogue.
“That kid stole a car. Then he got stoned and he slammed into a little girl. A little Mexican girl about six years old. That little girl was thrown about fifteen feet in the air. She was probably dead before she hit the sidewalk. Blood covered three whole cement squares -not splattered- solid, just like paint. The driver never even slowed down. And he almost got away because some peckerwood rich man's whore in a cop's uniform was worried about a hedge!”
As Scott mentioned, the once stunningly beautiful Ava Gardner's looks had long since begun to fade when she made this movie (see photo). Still, at 51 the old broad was a trooper. She gamely insisted upon doing her own stunts, including dodging concrete blocks and heavy steel pipes, and climbing around in that flooded storm drain.
Scott's right. Earthquake isn't the greatest disaster movie of the period but it is undoubtedly the most devastatingly disastrous.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1974)