It’s Memorial Day Weekend, folks, and movie-wise you know what that means: nothing but the biggest, loudest, most astrogivastantical epics ever conceived of by humankind will be on display at your local movie palace. What will you see first? My choice to begin the weekend, full of fire, death, crazy stunts, and exploding helicopters, the biggest money-maker of 1974, nominated for Best Picture, two hours and forty-five minutes long, starring everyone ever to have starred in anything: The Towering Inferno. Who, exactly, stars in it? The cast includes, among a million others:
- Paul Newman
- Steve McQueen
- William Holden
- Faye Dunaway
- Fred Astaire
- Richard Chamberlain
- O.J. Simpson
- Robert Vaughn
- Robert Wagner
- Dabney Coleman
I’m still scratching my head over how they managed not to cast Ernest Borgnine or George Kennedy in this thing. I’m pretty sure disaster movies require at least one of them. And for that matter, where’s Heston?
Disaster movies! The blockbusters of their era. Before there were action hereos and aliens blowing up cities and major landmarks to the tune of $200 million budgets, there were ‘70s disaster movies, movies in which a plucky group of normal folks just like you and me face off against crippled airplanes, earthquakes, burning buildings, overturned oceanliners, swarms of deadly bees, faulty rollercoasters, hurricanes, avalanches, frogs, and giant rabbits. The genre took off (thank you!) with Airport in ’70, hit its stride with The Poseiden Adventure in ’72, and peaked in ’74 when over a two-month span The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport 75 opened. All three of them were huge hits. People loved escaping disasters.
Which given the times was hardly surprising. What with Vietnam falling apart, Nixon bugging hotel rooms, race riots, heiresses kidnapped, families of crazies hacking people to death in the Hollywood hills, and movies, the best ones, all focused on anti-heroes and outsiders and killers, none with happy endings, with all of that going on, it’s no wonder movies about hardy survivors overcoming impossible odds were big business.
The beauty of the disaster movie is that there’s no antagonist. In the olden days this genre was known as “Man vs. Nature,” where the enemy isn’t a person, it’s nature itself. Fire, ocean waves, earthquakes, even ants and killer bees all fall into this category. The world is a rough place, these movies tell us, through no fault of our own. If we pull together, and if, say, Heston or Newman or Lancaster is in charge of saving our asses, there’s no doubt we’ll overcome. Who dies in disaster movies? The scared, the selfish, the greedy. And the unlucky, too. Some good people have to die. But mostly it’s the greedy, selfish bastards, who, through their selfish, greedy actions, have either caused the disaster to take place, or have made it worse . Good riddance, you scum!
Getting back to The Towering Inferno, the main thing is that it’s really long. I think I might have loved it if it was forty-five minutes shorter. It impressed me with how little in the way of plot or even story it gets away with. A tiny electrical fire breaks out on the 81st floor within about seven minutes, and within a few minutes of that plucky architect Paul Newman discovers the building’s wiring is cheap crap, not the fancy stuff he specified. Richard Chamberlain got a bunch of kickbacks and took the easy way out, and now look what’s happening!
The opening party for the building is on the top floor, 138, surely the tiny fire won’t affect them. Will it? WILL IT?!
Well, yes, of course it will. You don’t have to yell.
That’s it. What follows is over two solid hours of people saving themselves and others, interspersed with shots of the building going up in flames, a couple of burning people falling to their deaths, and a rescue ‘copter blowing up. Which is indeed the mark of the disaster movie: hours of derring-do. I found it a bit monotonous, I must admit. Maybe The Poseidon Adventure holds up better? Airport is a bit of a slog, as I recall, and different in that much of it is the build-up to the disaster, a bomb blowing up on a plane. Airport 75 also has a long lead-in before the disaster (a small plane smashes into the cockpit), but that’s the best part of the movie, meeting all the ridiculous people (it doesn’t hurt that many of these scenes were used to comedic effect in Airplane!, including just playing the “nun on guitar” bit without changing a thing). Once Airport 75 goes into its rescuing half, it drags on and on.
Maybe I’m not the ideal disaster movie audience. I much prefer the kind where monsters or giant bugs stomp on cities. Which I guess is to say I like my nature represented metaphorically in the guise of Godzilla or Volkswagon-sized ants. Fires and earthquakes and pilotless planes don’t quite grab me the same way.
Disaster movies mostly sat out the ‘80s. Action movies and superheroes and science fiction kept us distracted. When they made a comeback in the ‘90s, the disasters weren’t burning-building simple. Instead we had volcanoes, meteors, ice ages, etc., disasters inspired by the latest achievements in special effects. But no matter how fancified the visuals, the plots never strayed far from The Towering Inferno.
Which, to be fair, isn’t horrible or anything. It’s written by Stirling Silliphant, whose best script was the great In The Heat of The Night. He also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm, and, bless his heart, Shaft In Africa. Newman and McQueen and everyone else put in credible performances. It’s shot well enough. It looks like a real movie. It is a real movie. It’s the ‘70s equivalent of Con-Air: stupid, full of famous faces looking for a little fun and a fat paycheck, and lots of shit blowing up. We humans are simple in our needs, are we not?