Earthquake (1970) Revisited

earthquake poster charlton hestonIt seems that every couple years or so, a film is released that defies expectations and inspires a wave of copycat films hoping to capitalize on the success of it’s predecessor. With the rise of monster films following the success of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, to the most recent succes of superhero films, beginning with Superman in 1978 and seeing a re-emergence with Batman in ’89, X-Men in 2000, and Iron Man in 2008, history has shown time and again that any movie that’s successful is worth copying. In the ’70’s it was the disaster film genre that swept through Hollywood, beginning with Airport in 1970 and ending in 1980 with the disaster spoof, Airplane. So popular was was the movie, Airport, that over 25 disaster-inspired films followed in the ’70’s alone, with the pinnacle year being 1974. Aiport 1975 (the sequel to Airport), The Towering Inferno (arguably the best of the disaster flicks), and Earthquake came out in that year alone.

Like the disaster films before it, Earthquake boasted a huge $7 million budget (a large amount at that time, although The Towering Inferno’s budget was nearly double that), a large ensemble cast of big stars, and the latest in special effects wizardry. While this formula worked for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, it didn’t work as successfully in Earthquake, mainly due to the story. Earthquake follows many characters, revealing throughout the first 40 minutes how they are connected. Charlton Heston plays Stewart Graff, a construction engineer, who is married to Remy, played by Ava Gardner. Remy is possessive of Stewart and therefore unhappy in her marriage, resorting to faking suicide in order to get his attention. Stewart in the meantime is spending more and more time with Denise Marshall, a recently widowed mother, who’s deceased husband was a co-worker of Stewart. Stewart and Denise slowly form a relationship, causing Remy to try even harder to compete for Stewart’s affection. There’s also Lew Slade, played by George Kennedy (who also starred in Airport and would go on to star in many other disaster films along with Heston), a cop who wants to do what’s right, bu lets his temper get the best of him. He is suspended after chasing after a hit-and-run driver, causing property damage in his pursuit of justice; eventually visiting the local bar to drown his sorrows. There he runs into Sam Amici, Miles Quade (a stunt daredevil), and Sam’s sister, Rosa. Sam is the manager of Miles, who is trying to hit up Lew for some cash, using Rosa and her tight t-shirt to influence Lew to hand over the cash. Meanwhile, there is Jody, who plays one of the more interesting characters in Earthquake. The manager of a small grocery store and National Guard reserve, Jody at first seems mild-mannered and reserved; helping out Rosa in a moment of need and later ignoring the abuse of three homophobic housemates, who assume the pictures of muscular men hanging on Jody’s wall are there because he’s gay. Jody goes through a transformation, however, becoming Mr. Hyde in his new position of authority after being called to service to assist in the disaster following the earthquake. One of the more important roles in the film is that of the nameless assistant caretaker at the Hollywood Dam. One of the few people in the film with any rationale and sound judgement, he foresees the imminent failure of the dam, urging city officials to evacuate those living in the valley below. His concerns are ignored, however, setting up the eventual destruction of those below and lives that will be lost.

earthquake charlton heston genevieve bujold

All this tension between the characters is designed to build up the suspense in the first third of the film, culminating at the moment the earthquake hits Los Angeles, and then continuing in the aftermath of the destruction. In order for the film to be suspenseful, however, one must care for the characters, and this is were the film falters. Mario Puzo, fresh off his success with the book and film version of The Godfather, was hired to write the script for Earthquake. However, due to contract obligations for The Godfather II, Puzo left to focus on the sequel. Puzo’s first draft was shelved for a short period of time, due to the fact that Universal viewed Puzo’s script to ambitious; becoming concerned that the movie would cost too much to produce. Following Puzo’s exit, George Fox was brought in to finish the script and excise some of the story elements to bring the budget down to a more manageable level. While Puzo was able to delicately balance all the characters in The Godfather, this unfortunately didn’t work quite as well in Earthquake. Whether this was due to Puzo’s early exit or changes made by George Fox, the characters are virtually unlikeable; even the characters we are meant to root for. This is due to the flaws many of the characters in the movie have, which when developed properly, allow for a more realistic portrayal of everyday people. However, there isn’t enough development, and therefore, their good traits fail to outshine their flaws. This may stem from the movie containing to many characters, therefore not allowing enough screen time for each story to be better developed. Before the release, Universal cut out 30 minutes of footage, and with it went much of the character development before the quake hits.

Where the film is successful is in the execution of the earthquake itself. It should be noted that the film’s special effects are dated when compared to today’s standards, implementing techniques that are rarely used today. Having said that, when viewed in context to what was popular during the time in which it was made, and compared to other disaster films from that period, Earthquake is quite impressive. The use of scale models, matte paintings, large scale sets, and forced perspective are brilliantly executed. And while these techniques aren’t always successful, a majority of the effects seen in the film are pretty impressive. However, one technique used quite often that isn’t as effective, therefore leading to a dated feel, is the overuse of the camera shaking to convey the movement of the earth shifting. This could be due to the limitations at the time as well as a way of cutting corners. The most ludicrous scene, however, involves an elevator breaking free and plunging downward, leading to the death of those involved. It seemed that the best way to convey their death was to slap a cartoon splatter of blood on the screen. It’s not only horribly obvious how fake it is, but jolting enough to pull you out of the events surrounding it. Overall, though, the film is an interesting example of special effects, and after seeing Man of Steel which employed the lastest in special effects wizardry, is great to compare to. However dated they may seem now, they were good enough to win a Special Achievement Academy Award for visual effects that year.

earthquake_matte_painting special effects

One of the many matte paintings (above) used in the final film (below)

With melodramatic acting, stale characters, and dated but ambitious special effects, Earthquake doesn’t hold up too well, even when compared to The Towering Inferno, which manages to be much more effective even though it released the same year. Another interesting note is that John Williams did the score, having also scored The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, leading to his nickname for a brief time, “The King of Disaster Scores.”  If you’re interested in checking out disaster films, I’d start with The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno. This isn’t to say that Earthquake is a horrible film, it’s just not the best the disaster genre has to offer.

3 stars rating


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