A disaster film is a film genre that has an impending or ongoing disaster (such as a damaged airliner, fire, shipwreck, or an asteroid collision) as its subject. These films typically feature large casts of well-known actors and multiple plotlines, focusing on the characters' attempts to avert, escape or cope with the disaster and its aftermath.
The genre had its greatest box office success during the 1970s with the release of Airport (1970), followed in quick succession by The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
Disaster themes are almost as old as the film medium itself. One of the earliest was Fire! (1901) made by James Williamson of England. The silent film portrayed a burning house and the firemen who arrive to quench the flames and rescue the inhabitants.
Origins of the genre can also be found in Night and Ice (1912), about the sinking of the Titanic; Atlantis (1913), also about the Titanic; Noah's Ark (1928), the Biblical story of the great flood; Deluge (1933), about tidal waves devastating New York City; King Kong (1933), with a gigantic gorilla rampaging through New York City; and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), dealing with the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption in 79 AD.
John Ford's The Hurricane (1937) concluded with the striking sequence of a tropical cyclone ripping through a fictional South Pacific island. The drama San Francisco (1936) depicted the historic 1906 San Francisco earthquake, while In Old Chicago (1937) recreated The Great Chicago Fire which burned through the city in 1871. Carol Reed's 1939 film, The Stars Look Down, examines a catastrophe at a coal mine in North-East England.
Inspired by the end of World War II and the beginning of the Atomic Age, Science fiction films of the 1950s, including When Worlds Collide (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), routinely used world disasters as plot elements. This trend would continue with The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and Crack in the World (1965).
As in the silent film era, the sinking of the Titanic would continue to be a popular disaster with filmmakers and audiences alike. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the 1953 20th Century Fox production Titanic, followed by the highly-regarded United Kingdom film A Night to Remember in 1958. The British action/adventure film The Last Voyage (1960), while not about the Titanic disaster but a predecessor to The Poseidon Adventure, starred Robert Stack as a man desperately attempting to save his wife (Dorothy Malone) and child trapped in a sinking ocean liner. The film, concluding with the dramatic sinking of the ship, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Additional precursors to the popular Disaster films of the 1970s include The High and the Mighty (1954), starring John Wayne and Robert Stack as pilots of a crippled airplane attempting to cross the ocean; Zero Hour! (1957), written by Arthur Hailey (who also penned the 1968 novel Airport) about an airplane crew that succumbs to food poisoning; and The Doomsday Flight (1966), written by Rod Serling and starring Edmond O'Brien as an airplane passenger with a bomb wired to explode
The Golden Age of the Disaster film began in 1970 with the release of Airport. A huge financial success earning more than $45 million at the box office, the film was directed by George Seaton and starred Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy and Jacqueline Bisset. While not exclusively focused on a disaster, in this case, an airplane crippled by the explosion of a bomb, the film established the blueprint of multiple plotlines acted out by an all-star cast. Airport was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning Best Supporting Actress for Helen Hayes.
With the 1972 release of The Poseidon Adventure, another huge financial success notching an impressive $42 million in rentals, the Disaster film officially became a movie-going craze. Directed by Ronald Neame and starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and Red Buttons, the film detailed survivors' attempts at escaping a sinking ocean liner overturned by a giant wave triggered by an earthquake. The Poseidon Adventure was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for Best Music, Original Song and receiving a Special Achievement Award for visual effects.
The trend reached its zenith in 1974 with the release of The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and Airport 1975 (the first Airport sequel). The competing films enjoyed staggering success at the box office, with The Towering Inferno earning $55 million, Earthquake $36 million and Airport 1975 $25 million.
Arguably the greatest of the 1970s disaster films, The Towering Inferno was a joint venture of 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. and was produced by Irwin Allen (eventually known as "The Master of Disaster", as he had previously helmed The Poseidon Adventure and later produced The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran Out...). Directed by John Guillermin and starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden and Faye Dunaway, the film depicts a huge fire engulfing the tallest building in the world and firefighters' attempts at rescuing occupants trapped on the top floor. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Music, Original Song
Earthquake was also honored with four Academy Award nominations for its impressive special effects of a massive earthquake leveling the city of Los Angeles, winning for Best Sound and receiving a Special Achievement Award for visual effects. The film was directed by Mark Robson and starred Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy and Lorne Greene. It was noted as the first film to utilize Sensurround, where heavy bass speakers were installed in theaters to recreate the sounds of an earthquake.
Airport 1975, directed by Jack Smight and starring Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Karen Black and Gloria Swanson (in her final film role), essentially discarded the multiple plotlines of Airport in favor of focusing almost exclusively on the disaster itself as a Boeing 747 is crippled in flight by a small plane crashing into the cockpit.
By 1976, the Disaster film cycle had left its mark on the list of all-time box office champions, with The Towering Inferno ranked 8th, Airport 14th, The Poseidon Adventure 16th and Earthquake 20th. Such success spawned a flood of similar films throughout the decade.
Roger Corman purchased the 1973 Japanese film Nippon chinbotsu, filmed some additional scenes with actor Lorne Greene, and released it to American theaters in 1975 as Tidal Wave.
The British film Juggernaut, a suspense thriller about the hijacking of an ocean liner, was promoted as a Disaster film when released in 1974. The 1969 film Krakatoa, East of Java, revolving around a volcanic eruption, was renamed Volcano and re-released to theaters in Europe while playing in America on prime time television.Several made-for-TV movies also capitalized on the craze including Heat Wave! (1974), The Day the Earth Moved (1974), Hurricane (1974), Flood! (1976) and Fire! (1977.
The trend continued on a larger scale with The Hindenburg (1975) starring George C. Scott; The Cassandra Crossing (1976) starring Burt Lancaster; Two-Minute Warning (1976) starring Charlton Heston; Black Sunday (1977) starring Robert Shaw; Rollercoaster in Sensurround (1977) starring George Segal; Damnation Alley (1977) starring Jan-Michael Vincent; Avalanche (1978) starring Rock Hudson; Gray Lady Down (1978) also starring Charlton Heston; Hurricane (a 1979 remake of John Ford's 1937 film) starring Jason Robards; and City on Fire (1979) starring Henry Fonda.
Skyjacked (1972) was a lessor entry into the Disaster film canon, following on the heels of Airport, though preceding its sequel Airport 1975. The Airport series would continue with Airport '77 (1977) and The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979), with George Kennedy portraying the character Joe Patroni in each sequel. The Poseidon Adventure was followed by the sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979).
The genre began to burn out by the late-1970s when the big-budget films The Swarm (1978), Meteor (1979) and When Time Ran Out... (1980) performed poorly at the box office signaling declining interest in the Disaster film product.
The end of the trend was marked by the 1980 comedy Airplane! which fondly spoofed the clichés of the genre to surprising box office success, producing a sequel of its own, Airplane II: The Sequel, in 1982.
However, all of the above western disaster movies paled in significance compared to the blockbuster disaster movie that was produced in 1980 by Haruki Kadokawa of Japan named Virus. Although never attaining commercial appeal, the movie used leading actors from both East and West to depict a catastrophe on a scale as yet unimagined by all prior disaster movies. The sense of universal horror and hopelessness was palpable in the movie. Virus is also notable for depicting the ultimate result of what could be the Swine Flu from the year 2009.
With the rise of computer graphics (CG), the genre revived during the mid-1990s. Applying 3D computer graphics to special effects in films, producers and directors had the ability to create increasingly spectacular disasters in less time.
The revival began in 1996 with the release of Executive Decision, an action thriller about the hijacking of an airliner and a team (led by Steven Seagal and later Kurt Russell) attempting to take control of the plane before an onboard bomb can explode over the U.S. This was followed by the blockbuster hit Independence Day (ID4), which is about a hostile alien invasion of Earth, and the Poseidon Adventure-esque Daylight. In 1997, two films about volcanic eruptions debuted, Volcano and Dante's Peak.
Also in 1997, inspired by not only Hollywood's continued fascination with the Titanic disaster but the 1985 discovery of the ship's remains by Dr. Robert Ballard, James Cameron produced, wrote and directed the most recent version of the epic story Titanic. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane and Kathy Bates, the film combined romance with special effects to become the greatest box office success in motion picture history earning $1,845,034,188 worldwide. The film won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The revival continued in 1998 with the summer releases of the two comet/asteroid-impact films Deep Impact and Armageddon. The Perfect Storm achieved surprising success in 2000, followed by The Core in 2003. The Day After Tomorrow did strong business in 2004, building upon fears of global warming and climate change with a varied assortment of disasters. In 2005, the genre went back to Poseidon, a 2006 remake of The Poseidon Adventure, which proved to be a failure with both audiences and critics. In 2007 Sunshine was released, depicting a group of astronauts' attempt to restart a dying sun.
2009 brought two apocalyptic films. Knowing sees Nicolas Cage as a teacher who discovers a set of numbers on an ordinary piece of paper that are actually the dates, death tolls and locations of disaster events, both in the past, and in the near future, while 2012, a ultimate disaster film based on the real life supposed doomsday prediction by the Mayans, sees various ultimate disasters bring the world to an end.
Movies from the Disaster film genre are often based on novels. In many cases, the novels were bestsellers or critically-acclaimed works. Three of the genre-defining Disaster films of the 1970s were based on best-selling novels: Airport (based on the novel by Arthur Hailey), The Poseidon Adventure (based on the novel by Paul Gallico), and The Towering Inferno (from the novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson). Some critically-acclaimed novels that were turned into Disaster films include On the Beach (by Neville Shute), The War of the Worlds (by H. G. Wells), Failsafe (by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler) and A Night to Remember (non-fiction by Walter Lord).
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