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 In Nacht und Eis (1912), about the sinking of the Titanic; Atlantis (1913), also about the Titanic; Noah’s Ark (1928), the Biblical story from Genesis about 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) recreatedThe 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). Volcanic disasters would also feature in films such as The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961) starring Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra, and the 1969 epic Krakatoa, East of Java starring Maximilian Schell.
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 British 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; Jet Storm and Jet Over the Atlantic, two 1959 films both featuring attempts to blow up an airplane in mid-flight; The Crowded Sky (1960) which depicts a mid-air collision; and The Doomsday Flight (1966), written by Rod Serling and starring Edmond O’Brien as a disgruntled aerospace engineer who plants a barometric pressure bomb on an airliner built by his former employer set to explode when the airliner descends for landing.
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, Jacqueline Bisset and Helen Hayes. 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 Awardsincluding Best Picture, winning Best Supporting Actress for Hayes.
With the 1972 release of The Poseidon Adventure, another huge financial success notching an impressive $42 million in theatrical 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, including Best Supporting Actress for Shelley Winters and 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 in theatrical rentals.
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 Adventureand 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, Geneviève Bujold, George Kennedy and Lorne Greene. It was noted as the first film to utilize Sensurround, where massive sub-woofer speakers were installed in theaters to recreate the vibrating sensation of an earthquake. Several made-for-TV movies also capitalized on the craze including Heatwave! (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 Barry Newman.
Skyjacked (1972) was a lesser 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 Kennedyportraying 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), Hurricane (1979), The Concorde … Airport ’79 (1979), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and When Time Ran Out… (1980) performed poorly at the box office signaling declining interest in the disaster film product.
Although The Big Bus (1976), an earlier disaster film spoof, had failed to be a hit, 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.