Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
A film historian analyses our perceptions of the term disaster by examining fictional and real-life examples and reveals some startling shared beliefs for both.
The Crown Season 3 – Scene Comparisons, Coffee & TV
One of my favourite film genres is the 1970s disaster movie. I love watching this disaster unfold on-screen and the seemingly disparate characters come together in the face of adversity be it fire (The Towering Inferno (1974)), flood (Flood (1976)) or the wrong kind of snow (Airport (1978)) or bees (The Swarm (1978)).
These films and TV Movies boasted amazing all-star casts with everyone – such as actresses, from Jacqueline Bisset to Shelley Winters – and everyone – such as actors from Joseph Cotten to Richard Widmark. But most of all I love how these characters’ more random personal attributes help or hinder the lives of the peers who share their plight.
These films include the most random of characters, and some had those skills for plot convenience and added drama such as Shelley Winters playing a one-time competitive swimmer in the capsized cruise liner in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Five years later, Christopher Lee played a businessman who also happened to be a deep sea diver in Airport 77 (1977) and this attribute was seen when his flight hit the Bermuda Triangle seabed.
It seems I’m not alone in this way of thinking about the allure of this genre, as in his book Disaster Mon Amour (2022), author David Thomson suggests that all human beings are drawn to both “real or fictional” disasters, and then adds with a touch of the macabre “but only if it happens to someone else”.
David Thomson looks at our thoughts and beliefs on the meaning of the word disaster. He examines the now blurred line between our responses to fictional disasters in films, television and books to how real-life disasters are perceived. Chapter titles include Overture for Two Staircases, In San Andreas, Pandemia Pandemonium and In Aberfan.
He adds that there is often a coming together of a frightening disaster and a moment of rapture or beauty. He illustrates this unsettling union in the opening paragraphs of the book, we learn that his book title refers to a movie, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1960) and describes a moment pairing disaster with lovemaking.
Thomson vividly “twins” this film’s beautifully filmed love scene – with a soundtrack to match – between two lovers with the fact that the pair are facing a shared impending doom, namely Hiroshima. Yet these characters are “so alive, near the end” and have found their moment of rapture or joy before they die, and this he says is both “so lovely, so terrible”.
The author then cuts to events during 2020, when in real life Europeans celebrated victory in Europe celebrating the end of the Second World War. Hiroshima Mon Amour mirrors a plot for a film analysed later in the book. This is in an intimate scene where two photogenic on-screen lovers – played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland – make love and this scene cuts to scenes as their daughter faces an untimely death in Don’t Look Now (1974).
Thomson defines the word disaster and suggests this concept – in both fact and fiction – can be either personal, pertaining to an event or affect us all universally as the meaning of this word is explored in both reality and fiction. Thomson shares his insights telling of our responses to these forms of disaster in entertainment and how these types of “disasters” are depicted on screen.
In fictional disasters, Thomson outlines and analyses relevant plot “disasters” from films such as Contagion (2011), San Andreas (2015), television shows such as The Crown (2016) and those fictional books made into films such as The Road (2009). His deep analysis explores the nature of the disasters within these mediums and he often adds supportive quotes from the literature and critics. Often he is seen to show apt dark humour as he describes these fictional movies.
This author says through these fictional movies or recreated television scenes, we see how a fictional disaster is relayed using convincingly realistic CGI. These research-backed scenes often demonstrate just how this event would occur should it happen in real life. He also praises those special effects “artisans” who made those convincing visual moments when they created on-screen moments where our real much-loved landmarks and monuments are destroyed.
He writes candidly about recent and historical news events and topics such as climate change, the pandemic and American politics that occurred while he was writing his book. Sometimes these three mediums overlap and the most revealing reference for this is as he writes about Aberfan, a true life Welsh coal mining disaster that happened in 1966. Here he adds his own experiences of visiting this Welsh town and his empathy adds to those poignant retellings of events when this historical disaster happened and how this disaster and its aftermath were recreated for television.
This disaster was reflected upon in The Crown television series. He illustrates the subtle and more obvious differences in events shown on screen in this TV serial and compares this to real-life events through historical facts, anecdotes and quotes from the time. He notes some disturbing insights into our perceptions of both these mediums. In both mediums, beautiful true stories were discovered and shared when reporting these stories and these often disguised and muted the true horror of the event.
This book comments on how we view disaster with a startling comparison of a film disaster befalling Laurel and Hardy and a real-life one in two scenes involving staircases. In the former, the comic double act navigates moving a piano up a staircase in The Music Box (1932) and Thomson adds that “intrinsically” with these comic characters, we expect “mayhem”.
Thomson vividly describes this comic scene and then he cuts then compares it to an actual staircase which was a scene of violence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). There are seen to be a number of plot coincidences and character types in both, yet the former film was made for laughs and the second recreated a chilling moment in Soviet history. This Soviet propaganda film elaborated on a true real-life Odessan skirmish on a staircase. However, the ending of this film was fictionalised – for dramatic effect- as it then became the setting for a massacre.
Thomson adds that “damage can be awesome” and believes this is seen in many American action movies. He claims that “well being doesn’t sell” newspapers or films. He argues there is also a dissolve in both the fictional and real-life disasters showing this disaster always happens at the same time as other events or it cuts to other scenes. In the former, Thomson relates to this theory as he describes the events that occurred as he recorded a diary of key moments during the pandemic. This he illustrates in examples found in entertainment, in films where scenes of disaster cut to other non-related events.
He claims through movies such as this one we are now desensitised to the true horror of real-life disasters. Often in films and TV and news reports in the press and on TV, we are compelled to see the beauty in these situations through striking or possibly manipulated photographs. He adds that in films, the beauty of these occurrences portrayed in film often doesn’t tally with real-life events.
“It’s as if in crisis, we can feel crisis we can feel history rolling over us like a gorgeous wave”
An example of this is seen in San Andreas, the Rock’s earthquake “empathetic” themed disaster movie and in the Holocaust-related movie Sophie’s Choice (1983). Thomson explains in the former film that he believes this film instils a happy ending and gives us hope that the family unit will remain intact and be able to move on. In the latter, he claims this character was made more beautiful.
When he analyses San Andreas, Thomson explains the reality of the San Andreas fault, its real-life dangers and his own personal experiences during an earthquake in this area. He relates to other true historical events in this area such as an earthquake that occurred in 1906 and he compares this to a fictional disaster film, San Francisco (1936) made about this event.
This 1936 film – starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy – added this real-life disaster as part of the storyline and it happened off-screen. But the on-screen action concentrated on a romantic theme in an attempt to make those cinema-goers happy during the Depression.
After writing his tongue in cheek, amusing retelling of San Andreas, he compares the final scenes of this film to our real-life current pandemic. He shared some startling coincidences seen in both. The Rock’s character tells his family with the hope that they will “rebuild” in those final scenes. This eerily echoes the real-life bolstering of the masses during the pandemic as a former President hoped to make America great again.
Thomson also deftly compares the contrast between the media versions of fictional life and the reality as seen news. In this, he tells of India, as seen in the film and fictional version of Slumdog Millionaire (2008). He outlines this cinematic “version” of this country and compares it to the reality of the country as reported and seen in televised news reports.
But the reporting of facts and those plots from fictional disaster movies get now more and more blurred and this impacts both us and our children in surprising and shocking ways. Thomson tells about how often those unexpected events in the news often mirror a disaster movie plot. He highlights that young children have a tenuous understanding of the truths that blend fiction and reality.
He illustrates this with a personal moment when during a news report about the Twin Towers disaster his child asked what film he was watching. And this blending of those more surreal disasters affects us as adults, as more and more seemingly crazy moments have happened in our lives – be it worldwide, countrywide and personally – as more recently we’ve found that real life is stranger than fiction.
A disclaimer and personal thank you to Yale University Press and NetGalley for giving me a copy of Disaster Mon Amour by David Thomson. Financial compensation was not received, however, I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you would like your book to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.