‘70s disaster films: angst of an era

The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood will be rocking and rolling Saturday evening when the 1974 disaster flick “Earthquake” rumbles in its original Sensurround sound system that mimics a real cataclysmic event.

The campy flick featuring lantern-jawed Charlton Heston trying to save citizens of Los Angeles from a quake of ultra-seismic proportions is part of the Cinematheque’s disaster films of the 1970s festival, which begins Friday. Also featured are other real gems of the genre: 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure,” 1974’s “The Towering Inferno,” 1975’s “The Hindenburg,” 1977’s “Black Sunday” and 1979’s “The China Syndrome.” (Prints were unavailable for several others, including 1970’s “Airport” and 1974’s “Airport 1975").

The series is presented at the Cinematheque in association with the Producers Guild of America: New Media Council -- and the titles were selected by two of the latter’s members, special-effects producer James Fino and DVD documentary producer-director Laurent Bouzereau, both of whom became enthralled with disaster films when they were youngsters.

Fino saw “Earthquake,” which won Oscars for sound and visual effects, in his hometown of El Paso when he was in fourth grade.

“I went with my dad and uncle,” he says. “When the Sensurround began, I said, ‘Oh, my God. I want to do movies like this one that totally transforms the audience.’ I went to see it over and over again, and it inspired me to do research about earthquakes. It was just one of those movies we couldn’t have enough of watching -- the visual effects are just stunning.”


Brian Long of Meyer Sound Laboratories and Ron Surbuts at Dolby Laboratories are involved in bringing Sensurround back to life for Saturday’s screening.

Surbuts has a Sensurround box that “has been rehabbed to interface with the modern-day surround-sound system,” Long said. “I will be supplying [the same type of] high-powered sub-woofers that are currently on tour with Metallica -- so there is going to be firepower in the room.”

Bouzereau was a young teenager in a small town outside Paris when he saw “Earthquake” and “Towering Inferno.” And yes, he admits, he even screamed at particularly tense moments in those movies.

“The Towering Inferno” -- which was nominated for the best film Oscar and whose superstar cast includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden and Fred Astaire -- revolves around a fire that breaks out in a high-rise in San Francisco as a party is being held in the penthouse.

“ ‘Towering Inferno’ doesn’t feel as camp as ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ to me,” says Bouzereau. “I think that the horror of 9/11 and the Twin Towers brought that movie to some kind of realism for me.”

In fact, he says, the 1970s disaster films “spoke for a lot of fears at the time, a lot of angst. I think that is why they were so popular. All over the world they really stood for a fear of terrorism, a fear of a lot of things that were not necessarily in the news the way they are today.”

And as the decade progressed, so did the types of disaster films. Bouzereau says the terrorist thriller “Black Sunday,” directed by John Frankenheimer and based on the book by Thomas Harris, “to me really foreshadows 9/11.”

Just 12 days after the release of “The China Syndrome,” which centers on a coverup at a nuclear power plant, a real nuclear accident occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. That incident turned entertainment into news, Bouzereau says.

Disaster filmmakers, including directors Ronald Neame, Robert Wise and Frankenheimer and uber-producer Irwin Allen, “were thinking in terms of spectacle and entertainment, but they were really thinking in terms of storytelling about certain social angst that was going on in the world,” Bouzereau says.

These escapist films were a far cry from the groundbreaking dramas being made by the young Turks of the decade such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

“The other films at the time had these antiheroes,” Fino says. “These were for more of the masses. A lot of these films were taking you to this world which was far away from your everyday life -- a perfect kind of daydream adventure.”

And it was the films’ all-star performers such as Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, Jane Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes, Jack Lemmon, Robert Shaw and Michael Douglas that gave these disaster flicks some class.

That and the films’ budgets. These movies, Fino says, “are masterpieces of the cinema on a huge scale. They are beautiful tributes to the artistry and craft in every department of filmmaking at the time.”




of Disaster:

The Golden Age of Cataclysmic Cinema’

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: “The Poseidon Adventure” (Friday), “Earthquake” (Saturday), “The Hindenburg” (Sunday), “The Towering Inferno” (Jan. 9), “The China Syndrome” (Jan. 10), “Black Sunday” (Jan. 11); all at 7:30 p.m.

Price: $10 (general); $8 (seniors and students); $7 (Cinematheque members)

Info: www.americancinema