Earthquake (1974 USA)

Earthquake-hestonphoneCo-written by Mario Puzo, the man who re-defined the gangster genre, `Earthquake’ is the quintessential disaster movie. The elements are all there: the large, all-star cast, the pathos, the massive devastation, the many intertwined subplots, the Wagnerian heroes and the ultimate banality. For those who find nothing to enjoy in soap operas, trashy romance novels, or depictions of mass destruction there is nothing here. But for the rest of us this is art.

The kind of art where Ava Gardner can play the daughter of Lorne Greene (even though she was probably older than him). `Earthquake’ was the `Independence Day’ of its time. I remember kids talking about how thrilling it was to be `allowed’ to see this very frightening PG film (I was very young when it first was released). I remember the hype about `Sensurround’ and the sensations that this new sound system was meant to induce. The 70’s were an age of Disaster films, perhaps a return of the repressed fears that decades of the Cold War had inspired. Certainly the scale of destruction depicted in `Earthquake’ is of an apocalyptic scale. Larger quakes have since hit the West Coast several times, and it is now difficult to believe that anyone ever thought a 7.0 quake could devastate LA so completely.

earthquakeWhat is shown is not the real effects of a massive quake, but the Hand of God reaching down and destroying the impure – and testing the strong. Our heroes are heroic on a grand scale, and Charlton Heston is king of the heroes in `Earthquake.’ Again and again he sacrifices and risks himself to help or rescue others, but he is not alone in his altruism. Lorne Greene, George Kennedy (and what is a disaster movie without George Kennedy?) and Fred Williamson all do their part, some sacrificing their lives for others in the process.

Unfortunately the movie suffers from a lack of interesting villains for these heroes to offset themselves against (aside, of course, from relentless Nature herself), although Marjoe Gortner’s nasally National Guardsman does give George Kennedy a chance to note that “earthquakes bring out the worst in some people.” In terms of production values, I judge Earthquake at least as professional and detailed as Towering Inferno, if not even more realistic. Those who actually live in L.A. perhaps know how they faked the geography, etc, but the film does manage to draw the spectator into the scenery and create a certain realistic presence. The effects of the Towering Inferno were actually cheesier.

This goes especially for the skyscrapers scenes, which are definitely more convincing here. There is something strangely cathartic about watching an entire city be destroyed by nature (while knowing it’s only entertainment). And the film-makers were very thorough – offices, highways, universities, police stations… you name it, it gets flattened. And the film is appropriately somber (not like the silly “up-beat” disaster films they make nowadays). Forget “Armageddon” and “Volcano” this is a real disaster flick.

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