Towering Inferno. Earthquake
Riches from ruins

by Fred Kaplan

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

In the past few years, several of the major Hollywood studios have been releasing a series of disaster films with astounding financial success. The plots are fundamentally the same. A lot of stars playing ordinary people like you and me coincidentally end up on a ship, or in an airplane, a high rise, or a city, and disaster strikes. The ship sinks, the plane is hijacked or damaged, the high rise burns, the city is attacked by an earthquake. The files presenting these grim plots are, respectively, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, AIRPORT, AIRPORT 1975, THE TOWERING INFERNO, and EARTHQUAKE. They have, compositely $108,000,000 in rentals accrued to the distributors alone. And these figures do not include receipts on TOWERING INFERNO, which was released in late December 1974 and has been, at last count (late January l975), grossing an average of $722,000 per day. Together then these films constitute what is known as a Mass Media Escapist Trend.

So obviously is this a Trend that entertainment editors have lately sought to tap the wisdom of the nation’s leading social-psychologists on the phenomenon. Erich Fromm and Ernest van den Haag, to name two of the more notable, have hypothesized that this is all intimately connected with Watergate and the current economic crisis. People are fearful of disaster, they claim, and so allow these anxieties to be sublimated through the cathartic but visceral experience of disaster on film. These movies are also said to tap a vital but suppressed masochism permeating our national consciousness.

This, I submit, is vague nonsense, and indicates only that these rightfully esteemed scholars know little about film history, less of the workings of the motion-picture industry, and probably haven't seen any of the movies in question.  

In order to get an analytical grip on this sort of mass media Trend, one should ask three key questions: (1) Who’s behind the production of the films constituting this Trend? (2) Why are these films so popular? and (a) Why now?

First, who’s behind these box-office bonanzas? What sort of things have they produced in the past? Going back to the beginning of this Trend (that is, the beginning of the particular phase—the disaster genre itself is ancient), the novel Airport was written by Arthur Hailey. He has made a lucrative career of writing schlock novels about diverse collections of people in big, exciting places (Hotel was another bestseller of his). Airport rose to the top of bookselling charts in 1968—several years, by the way, before anyone outside the D.C. area had ever heard of Watergate, during a time when almost nobody was feeling any sores of the economy or guilt over Vietnam. Ross Hunter, who produced the enormously popular film version of Hailey’s novel, has always turned out fluff, having drawn a veritable fortune from Doris Day Rock Hudson romance movies. Irwin Allen, who produced THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and, later, TOWERING INFERNO, has in the past been responsible for VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, the TV series LOST IN SPACE, and other adventure packages. Thomas Scortia, co-author of one of the books on which TOWERING INFERNO is based, used to be a physiochemist. He was just interested in what might happen if the electrical wiring for a high rise failed, did some research, and wrote a hack novel. That’s all.

In other words, these people are doing with the current slew of disaster films, the same sorts of things that they've been doing for the past twenty years. Ross Hunter, Irwin Allen, Jennings Lang and Mark Robson (the latter two being the executive producer and the producer director of EARTHQUAKE) are not, with their latest picture, trying to placate or cash in on any economic Zeitgeist. They are not students of social trends, and neither is anyone else in the higher echelons of Universal, Warner Brothers or 20th Century-Fox. They are, however, paid very well for keeping track of marketing trends in movie houses all over the country, these days even using sophisticated demographic computer techniques. Hunter produced AIRPORT from a novel that ten million Americans had read and found that he had a dynamite hit on his hands. Allen produced POSEIDON ADVENTURE shortly thereafter, which yielded the same results. Movie producers, not being people to let a good thing zoom by without hopping on, devoted lavish budgets, hoping to outdo each other at the box office with the biggest, most realistic, star-studded, cornball-heroic Disaster attractions ever. As Jennings Lang summed it up to EARTHQUAKE’s screenwriter, George Fox: “Our job is to make damn sure people know EARTHQUAKE is an event!”

If the new crop of U.S. disaster movies exists for the sake of their being “events,” the logical question to ask here, then, is Question Number Two: Why are people flocking to an event, particularly to these events? Fundamentally, the answer is one concerning the essential boredom of modern life as experienced by millions. People’s lives are drab at the core, their jobs routine and monotonous, their loves wilted, their attachments on the wane. Community ties are ephemeral, if not severed; many feel alienated from politics and culture. The dreams of their social conditioning have, in many cases, remained mere dreams, and often even the image has faded. All that’s left is the “phantom” within them, which they avoid facing at all costs.

Excitement, then, is sought, and it comes almost exclusively through visceral means. This has nearly always been so, except in times of great war, when the spirits are lifted to common cause, and during the ages of religious vitality (or any quick substitute, such as romantic fascism), when everyday ennui doesn't matter because there’s always an afterlife or the Reich. But the church today is just another institution, Vietnam turned out to be a disappointment, and the national leadership has been a drag for more than a decade. This is in addition to the boredom already existing on a more immediate level. So, these disaster entertainments—or anything really big and action packed and exciting—sell in a very big way.

At this point, t would be useful to sketch the outlines of what goes on in the two most recent of this escapist batch. EARTHQUAKE begins with Charlton Heston trapped in a wretched marriage with Ava Gardner in Los Angeles. Heston used to be a big football star, but his wife is the daughter of the chairman-of-the-board of a huge architectural corporation, and so, through, various forms of domestic bribery, Heston has been promoted in the firm to the level, eventually, of President. His wife is still a stereotypically hateful, nagging, suicidal bitch, however. So he commences an affair with a charming widowed actress (played by Genevieve Bujold) who has a cute son.

We then cut to George Kennedy as a cop who wanted, when he was a kid, to be a policeman out of a desire to help people. Now he sees that it’s all a racket, and that policemen pay more attention to protecting Zsa Zsa Gabor’s shrubbery than to capturing violators of law ‘n order. We then cut to all sorts of different people. Marjoe Gortner is a small grocer enlisted in the National Guard, suffering from an extremely sadistic anal-drive (will Marjoe, the famous ex-evangelist, be playing devils and psychopaths forever?). Richard Roundtree is a black motorcycle freak who’s out to whip Evel Knievel, but who’s having a hard time working up his act. And a cast of thousands, living, loving, fighting, hoping, helping, hating, and so on.

Then, the Earthquake. At first, it’s just a mildly jolting tremor, typical of Los Angeles. But a graduate assistant at the Seismology Institute predicts a tremendous earthquake within hours. His superiors, The Experts, don't listen, however, thinking that he’s Overreacting. Also, the head of the Institute doesn't want to release the information because if it’s incorrect, the Institute will lose all credibility, and he expects a huge Foundation grant in a matter of months. (The audience moans in recognition.) Finally, the head of the Institute goes to the Mayor with the news, but he declines to issue an order of evacuation to the citizenry because it would provoke panic and, besides, he might look like an ass if the quake didn't strike. (Moans again.)

Finally, the earthquake hits. Everybody’s affected. The cop gets to help people. The grocer turns sadistic in militia action. Charlton Heston and his father-in-law, the chairman-of-the-board (played by Lorne Greene, with all the trustworthiness of Walter Cronkite), help their employees and the townsfolk. This goes on for nearly an hour, as the audience marvels at the astounding visual effects, the realistic and gory deaths, the close-up destruction of whole buildings, blocks, an entire city. And there is S-E-N-S-S-U-R-0-U-N-D, the film’s sound-effect gimmick that makes you shake in your seat while the tremors erupt on the screen.

Heroism is the keynote of the day, practiced by nearly everyone, except, of course, the top public-officials and one demented crazy. Toward the end, Charlton Heston and George Kennedy, working together, rescue eighty or so people from an underground medical shelter that’s caved in. Heston’s got just about everybody up to the surface. But then tons of water from the busted dam whoosh through the pipeway. Heston begins climbing up the ladder to safety, his lovely girlfriend lovingly awaiting him. But then he notices his wife struggling in the water about to drown. She had been climbing the ladder herself, but somebody (probably the girlfriend, but the editing is sloppy and it’s difficult to tell) stepped on the wife’s hands, causing her to fall. Anyway, Heston dives back into the water, going after his wife, and the two of them drown, together, in the process. Upstairs, L.A. has been transformed into a gruesome and smoking Gomorrah—“This used to be a hell of a town,” says one person. But the people will doubtless get things back together through self-help.

In other words, you have in EARTHQUAKE a natural box-office smash. You have some of the most realistic flames and tremors on film, encompassing all of Los Angeles. You have two great heroes who save hundreds of lives. You have good guys, bad guys, a fast car chase (!), falling buildings, crashing glass, people running and screaming and dying all over the place. The film is big, it is fast, it is action drenched and star-coated.

Furthermore, it’s not really a disaster film in any upsetting sort of way. All of our traditional values are upheld. Charlton Heston, playing a modern Moses and Jesus Christ rolled in one, can climb up to his girlfriend but instead sacrifices himself to the duties of The Family. Self-help and sacrifice are continually exhorted as the Keys that can unlock any problem in which we seem to be trapped. The anal-retentive, sexually crazed, maniacal madman in this film is antireligious to boot; a lot of other, more decent folk silently pray. Business executives are kind and self-sacrificing, as Lorne Greene and Charlton Heston munificently illustrate. In the meantime, certain traditional U.S. antagonists are hoisted onto the whipping post again. Experts in particular. All of the high-ranked at the Seismology Institute find speculation of huge earthquake to be nonsense; it’s a modest graduate assistant who perceives the truth. The public officials who operate the dam at the edge of the city scoff when told that the dam might burst; it’s a common laborer who detects reality.

In other words, EARTHQUAKE has numerous points of appeal to a broad audience. There is enough action to keep the 9-to-5 crowd in a supreme high for weeks. There’s disaster, exciting disaster, but all of the middle-class values reign victorious and enshrined in the end. And the causes of negligence and exacerbation are the very enemies of these values. Domestic havoc, official arrogance, anti-religiousness, and politicians’ cowardice are associated with the quake; marital values upheld to the death, the little man (but, note, always played by a famous Hollywood movie star, and self-reliance (naturally, on unrealistic terms) culminate at the climax at the quake’s subsiding.

In THE TOWERING INFERNO, the symbolic devices are not quite so blatant, but the tale contains many of the same ingredients. Every important official and socialite in San Francisco is celebrating the dedication of the city’s new 138-story office-and-apartment tower, the tallest building in the world, in the ballroom at the tower’s top floor. But a fire has been blazing in the storage room on the 81st floor, due to faulty wiring, and it soon explodes, engulfing several floors above in violent flames. We learn that Electrical Contractor Richard Chamberlain, with the implicit sanction of Architectural Firm President William Holden, wickedly cut costs by $2 million. They deliberately compromised Chief Architect Paul Newman’s electrical specifications, lowering them just to the point where they meet the hopelessly inadequate City Code. Result: The deaths of hundreds.

In the meantime, the heroism in the fire-fighting and attempts at survival are outlandishly, but stiffly and respectably, noble. Paul Newman and Chief Fireman Steve McQueen save lives, swing through the air thousands of feet above ground, gallop all over the towering inferno, risk their lives time and time again. Finally, by detonating a bomb that will explode same water tanks at the top of the tower and extinguish the fire, they save hundreds more. And they do all this without so much as wrinkling their ties or even sweating, remaining absolutely Cool—and dead serious—at all times. The guests at the top—Mayor, Senator, Con Man, Glamour Girl, etc.—panic a bit, true, but their patience and calm are in the main admirable. The only real coward is that Electrical Contractor, who skips his turn in line to get out and sends half-a-dozen to their plummeting deaths besides. He gets killed, too, and the audience applauds appreciatively.

Finally, after several missions of derring-do, comprising the bulk of this three-hour extravaganza, the survivors get back down to earth. Lovers Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway are sitting on some steps. Newman, who wrestled with a grizzly bear at age nine and who expressed at the beginning of the movie his desire to move out to the wilderness, points to the tower and says that it ought to be left standing “as a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.” Chief Fireman Steve McQueen comes over and says that he knows how these firetraps should be built, and to call him in the morning. All the other characters are hugging and kissing, or suffering with a stiff upper lip, and going back to life.

This is a Big Big Movie-Movie. There is mindless excitement, thrills and spills, perhaps beyond—quantitatively—anything that’s ever been put on screen, thanks to Hollywood’s advanced technology. And still, all the old disaster clichés are dished out again: the affairs and new loves that get wiped out in flames; the evil bad-guy who’s responsible for it all; the two sweet kids who are saved. There are even lines of dialogue, such as those recited by the couple that can't get through to their daughter by phone in which the wife laments, “She doesn't even know the number of our safety deposit box.” The hubby, chuckling. with the humor and love that has marked a happy marriage of many years, replies, “Oh, the things, dear, you sometimes say.”

It’s a movie that—except for the fact that non-value-laden references are made to non-marital sex—might have been written 25 years ago. But now it’s touched up by a grandiose technician who knows that the Bigness that Americans so love can finally be shown, explicitly, with awesome technical skill. We are made to gape in wonder at all the deaths, human fireballs and magnificent flames we set eyes on—without knowing anything more than what a comic-book might reveal about the people entrapped. The film has no explicit message, except perhaps,   “Give to your local firemen’s association.” Newman’s allusion to the “bullshit in the world”—what is it? Is it huge high rises? cities? kickbacks and government-business dirty deals? Nothing is elaborated or even generalized. It’s just, you know, bullshit.

But this doesn't matter. Substance is not what has caused this film, after all, to have made more than $28 million in its first 39 days of release. It’s the pyrotechnics, the huge spectacle of it all—the enormous tower, the grand two-dimensional heroism, the explicitly typed characters, the big stars. And it is, on a pure nonsense level, fairly exciting and suspenseful. You don't have to think about anything. You merely have to respond to the spinnings of this giant machine’s cogs and levers. Indeed, the implicit bourgeois orientation—and this can be said for EARTHQUAKE and all the others as well—serves less as propaganda than as a sort of neutralizing device that allows the crowd to enjoy the ride without being mentally distracted. Middle-class values have became so embedded in the classic Hollywood mentality over the years that they have come to be used, like soporific Muzak, as a backdrop—loaded as it is—to the action.

There’s talk of kickbacks and government deals; but you don't have to think, you are not invited to think, about this, either. The arrangements and payoffs of this scheme aren't spelled out in the least. You aren't supposed to wonder why nobody checked up on the wiring before the day of the gala affair, for eample. All you have to do is to respond to evil Richard Chamberlain, easily the most loathsome sonofabitch on screen in ages. When he gets hurled to his death, it’s a relief (though, since the film is so stiff, not really cathartic). There are no more evil people, at least not here. And now all you have to do is be on the lookout for slicksters like Richard Chamberlain. If you can stop them, our troubles will be solved. Life is made simple. And terribly thrilling.

To the third and final question, then: Why are these films finding such a huge market now? A historical sort of analysis is appropriate here, though nothing so obtuse or immaterial a concept as that pondered by Fromm and van den Haag. The film, AIRPORT, recall, was released in 1970, at a time when many of the more traditional moviegoers were dropping out of the ranks because the big hits, the giants that the studios were trying to imitate, were films like BONNIE & CLYDE, EASY RIDER, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, THE GRADUATE. These were films for a whole new audience, films derived from the European films that were beginning to receive popular attention from Americans in the 60s. These films furthermore were rooted in the Sixties youth movement. Many of the traditional moviegoers did not understand any of this, were xenophobic of foreign film elements, confused about contemporary youth, could not identify with these films’ characters, could not understand what they were saying. And then came AIRPORT. The old times did live after all! And people flocked to embrace them, brought their kids along, and immersed themselves nostalgically. Studio execs got the message, and—as described above—started making ‘em “bigger ‘n better.” This revived audience, knowing what to expect from these movies, and now joined by others looking for “old fashioned” (i.e.. simple) thrills, and still others simply curious as to what all the lines and ballyhoo ads are all about, queue up nightly for their towering opiate.

It is not the current economic or political crisis that is spurring these films on to box-office success. Nor does “stagflation” or Watergate have anything to do with the inspiration that created them. These films would have succeeded in any time (as, indeed, many similar films have succeeded), so long as there existed a sizable portion of the population that is bored. They were made because the studios were going broke, saw success sizzling in a surefire—and absolutely familiar—formula, and latched on before the flames died out.

Escapism in mass media flourishes in all times, through all periods of prosperity and decline, for all social classes, in various forms. The success of these disaster films lies not so much in the fact that they are disaster films, as that they are stupendous films. It is through showing earthquakes, fires, crashing buildings, and on and on, that the Hollywood moguls can show off all their technology all the more blatantly. It’s like the old Cinerama rollercoaster rides, but in this case, some of the biggest box-office stars of the past decade are riding in the rollercoaster along with us.