AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 122 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Early one morning, an earthquake jolts the Los Angeles metro area. At the California Seismological Institute, graduate student Walter Russell,, using new methods, has calculated that Los Angeles will suffer a major earthquake within the next day or two. He frantically tries to reach his superior, Dr. Frank Adams, but Adams is buried alive in another tremor. The authorities refuse suggestions to evacuate the city because of lack of evidence. They are then powerless to do anything as the quake hits, devastating much of the city and affecting the lives of many people….
I’ve been meaning to see Earthquake for the first time in about 40 years for ages now, probably since the last time I watched The Towering Inferno which came out at almost the same time, so I eventually decided to take a chance and buy Shout Factory’s Collector’s Edition Region ‘A’ Blu-ray. The Towering Inferno remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Earthquake I’m not so sure about. Granted, one has go forget the nature of modern disaster movies which tend to keep the human interest stuff to a minimum and employ loads of extensive CGI work to depict disasters. These older ones tend to be much slower paced and focus as much on soap opera as what paying audiences really came to see, while the joins in the old school effects are often far more visible. But Earthquake peppers its ‘drama’ with so much over acting and shaky dialogue [sample: “Your brother could be dead, nobody left but me to take care of you”. “Well, I have another brother in San Francisco, and he’s in the Mafia”] that it’s hard to tell whether we’re intended to take the proceedings seriously or not, while technically things range from being very impressive to being pretty awful even for 1974….or maybe we should say 1954 judging by the poor quality of some shots. And yet I had quite a good time with it. I’m not going to call it a good film, but there were times when I was in suspense, when I actually cared about the fates of these people – which means that it was working at least during those times.
It was made in the wake of the success of Airport, and inspired by the San Fernando earthquake of February 1971. The Godfather‘s Mario Puzo delivered a script, but it necessitated far too large a budget as the action and characters were spread over a vast area, and Puzo was then recalled for The Godfather Part 2. Things then stalled until the The Poseidon Adventure was a hit, and George Fox and Robson rewrote the script eleven times, though Earthquake then found itself in a race against the clock with The Towering Inferno. Bizarrely, the location on the first day of shooting was rocked by an earthquake, as was the location where the last day of shooting occurred. A “shaker mount” camera system which mimicked the effects of an earthquake by moving the camera several inches side to side was developed especially for the film. The 141 stunt people being used set a Hollywood record. Injuries occurred, including one stunt person suffering a concussion during the flood sequence which was left in, while the crash that Miles Quade has wasn’t scripted either, but an actual spill worked into the film. To draw in viewers, Universal came up with “Sensurround” – large speakers that would pump in sound waves at 120 decibels, giving the viewer the sensation of an earthquake. In Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, it cracked the plaster in the ceiling, while in Billings, Montana, a shop next door to a cinema using the system lost part of its stock when items from several shelves were thrown to the floor. [SPOILERS Originally Stewart Graff [Charlton Heston] was to survive and Officer Lew Slade [George Kennedy] was to die, but Heston didn’t like the idea of his character surviving with his mistress, so he insisted that Graff die instead of Slade while trying to save his drowning wife SPOILERS END]. 30 minutes were cut after previews, involving moments involving most of the characters [Ava Gardner’s had an abortion, partly explaining why her husband resents her], and a lumberyard falling apart. It was the third highest-grossing film of the year, The Towering Inferno being the first.
The film begins with an argument that goes like this: “God damn it!,” “Your last words to me last night; your first words this morning. Ever thought about expanding your vocabulary?”. The row is between Construction Engineer Stuart Graff and his possessive wife, Remy, who every now and again tries to commit suicide from overdosing on pills. While I’m not advocating adultery, one perhaps can’t entirely blame Stuart for seeing more and more of Denise Marshall, the young widow of a co-worker whose death Stuart blames himself for because he gave him the job on which he died – though on their first night together she tells him he was “angry” while having sex. Remy tries to persuade her father, Sam Royce [Lorna Greene being only three years older than Ava Gardner who plays Remy], who’s Stuart’s employer, to use his influence to stop Stuart from seeing Denise. Meanwhile cop Lew Slade is suspended from the force for having punched an officer after a car chase led him to damage Zsa Zsa Gabor’s lawn, and considers quitting. And meanwhile [this film is full of “meanwhiles”] aspiring daredevil motor cyclist Miles Quade wants to be sponsored, unhinged grocery store manager Jody lusts after Rosa Amici the sister of Sal, Miles’s assistant, who wants her to be involved in publicity for Miles as she has the required big boobs, and a worker at Mulholland Dam finds the cleaner drowned in a flooded lift shaft. Only some of this is interesting and might be seen as pointless padding to some, but one can laugh at the lines and enjoy the acting styles which tend to veer from looking bored [Charlton Heston] ] to going over the top [Marjoe Gortner], though George Kennedy, who was in all four Airport movies, is always good value in these things, exuding a world-weary, natural kind of heroism, and you can’t help but like him.
Boffins predict that an earthquake is probably coming, but we all know that those in charge are often irresponsible idiots, so nothing is done except having the police and the National Guard put on stand-by. Eventually it does indeed occur, eerily proceeded by dogs barking and birds flying around, with skyscrapers collapsing, debris falling on people, freeways caving in, gas lines exploding, houses on stilts tumbling down hills, and so forth. There are some fantastic miniatures and matte paintings, the latter from the expert in that field Albert Whitlock and sometimes hard to spot. But then you also get buildings being photographed off what seems like a curved mirror to give the impression that they’re bending [how was this okayed?], houses on stilts falling off their perches without breaking up, falling materials disappearing behind matte lines, terrible acting by extras who just stand there waving their arms in the air while things fall on them [one woman turns around to the camera just so we can see the bits of glass sticking on her face], and a jaw-droppingly bad bit when people are crushed in a falling lift and some cartoon blood seems to be splashed on the camera lens. Apparently they couldn’t get the original effect to work, but I’d bet a fair bit of money that it looked better than what we ended up with. After only six minutes [though it does seem longer, and in a good way], it ends and we focus on rescues and folk trying to cope with what’s happened, though some aftershocks do occur and the Mulholland Dam finally gets it, just three years before the Hoover Dam was wrecked in Superman: The Movie, while other types of danger are everywhere. Sometimes these are contrived, like when Denise’s little boy is surrounded by flickering cables, but I certainly wouldn’t say that things were dull here.
Intentional humour is limited to Walter Matthau [billed as Walter Matuschanskayasky!] as a drunk in a bar unaware that an earthquake has arrived. There’s maybe a slight social/political message, a vague carry-over from the anti-authoritarian vibe of much late ‘60s/early ‘70s cinema, in the way the meek, the losers, the “ordinary” seem to inherit the earth, businessmen and CEOs having to die in their towers of glass and steel. Stuart even renounces his job, saying “I’m ashamed of my profession”, though this seems odd [what, we’re not supposed to build any more?], and you shouldn’t look for too much in a film which, for example, has characters constantly tell us what’s happening [though granted, this seems to be annoyingly common today too, filmgoers treated as idiots]. But the climactic self sacrifice by one character kind of hits home, though we’re left in the dark as the fates of some others in the studio cut that we now have. Miles is last seen trying to outrun a wave on his motorbike. The preview edit did fill us in on what happened to some of these people, and I think that some of this material should have been left in and maybe other bits removed instead. The Shout Blu-ray also includes the 142 minute TV version of the film. Earthquake came out in a period when longer versions of films [the most famous probably being Superman and Superman 2] turned up on American TV so more ads could be shown. But the TV cut of Earthquake only restores two deleted scenes; an introduction about the San Andreas fault, and a tiny bit of Rosy on a street. The majority of the added material was newly shot. It’s good to have a bit more of Rosy and the increasingly menacing Jody, as their story did seem a bit truncated. However, several scenes featuring a married couple on a plane heading for Los Angeles airport add nothing and feature terribly written dialogue, even though there’s a bit where the runway cracks up that’s quite well put together. Overall, I can’t say that the TV version is essential, but it’s nice to have and I hope that Shout’s inclusion of it may start a trend.
John Williams’ music score for Earthquake was the second of his trio of scores for disaster films, having previously done The Poseidon Adventure and following with The Towering Inferno. Both the latter score and this one have a very similar main theme with the same first eight notes. As with much early Williams, the score is arranged for a smallish orchestral combo despite the severity of the events depicted, though there are a few effectively sombre cues, along with a foreshadowing of his great Dracula theme. Earthquake overall is, when seen today, a really rather curious mixture of naffness, slight quality and rather guilty entertainment value in spite of itself in roughly equal measures. I think that it may bore some youngsters today weaned on the likes of San Andreas and 2012, and it would probably get a ‘PG-13’ or ‘12’ rating rather than a ‘PG’ if newly released now, seeing as it has lots of blood, the word “fag” used as a slur, and sexual threat. But I do feel that it at least attempts some heart, its overstretched special effects technicians probably did the best with what they could in the film’s short production schedule, and I can’t help but admire the typically ‘70s downbeat vibe it leaves us with. There’s no supposedly uplifting “now we rebuild” crap to hypocritically send people out of the cinema feeling good despite the awful things that they’ve just witnessed – just some sober reflection.