#1950s #1960s #1970s #2010s
A Book that Brings You the Masters and Mistresses of Disaster Movies…
Nik Havert gives an extensive account of those times from the 1950s until 1979 when disaster struck of all kinds, in both films and TV movies.
The Towering Earthquake Adventure: Five ’70s disaster films rolled into one, Fredflix
As an entertainment blogger, one of my favourite genres has to be disaster movies in all their forms. In a disaster themed feature film or TV Movie, nothing can be more entertaining than watching an all-star cast in peril, chewing the scenery or meeting their on-screen doom in a thrilling way.
Be it from a natural disaster such as an invasion of bees in The Swarm (1978) or a snow catastrophe at a snow sports resort in Avalanche (1978). Or indirectly due to that skyscraper architect, in The Towering Inferno (1974), I thought I’d seen it all. That was until I received a copy of The Golden Age of Disaster Cinema: A Guide to the Films, 1950–1979 by Nik Havert.
Over 256 pages, Havert effortlessly and enthusiastically details these films – on TV and in feature films – over three decades. With films from the fifties, sixties and seventies, this book easily became my new best film guide. It’s my companion for recalling those greats I’ve watched over the years and a great reference book for future watches.
I was transfixed by those often crazy casts, outlandish plots and complex characters in Havert’s always affectionate look at this genre. Entries surprisingly included children’s films such as Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and a mystery film I reviewed recently, Mysterious Island of Beautiful Women (1979). It also had film entries telling of doomed planes, trains and automobiles and those “when nature attack films” with terrifying groups of birds, dogs, insects and wild animals.
Up until now, I’d mainly watched – and reviewed a shed load of seventies films from America, in both TV movies and films. This book provided me with some illuminating new finds of all sorts. It was also a useful introduction to where many of the stalwarts of seventies disaster movies – such as Charlton Heston and Robert Wagner, started their disaster movie careers. So will be checking out these actors in The Naked Jungle (1954) and Titanic (1953) for starters…
The introduction to this book sets the scene – and immediately I’m identifying with Havert – as he tells how his love from this genre was passed onto him by a parent. Like my father, Havert’s mother was a fan of these films. And like Havert, says his introduction to these films was to those made in the 1970s. He eloquently adds that;
the 1970s offered a smorgasbord of movies featuring brainy kids figuring out survival techniques, one-word natural disaster titles (i.e., Fire, Flood), ensemble casts, and scenery chewing.
He then briefly looks at the history of this genre and advocates it started with a Danish film Verdens Undergang (The End of the World (1916)). Havert then tells how this genre increased in popularity in the 1950s and that it was in its heyday in the 1970s. This is reflected in the corresponding increasing content for each of the decades within his book. He advocates that this genre’s popularity may be as “sex sells, but so does fear.”
After he discusses the historical ways Hollywood tapped into the cultural zeitgeist for each decade. He then discusses the disaster genre in more depth and defines it as;
The basic answer is that it features an ongoing or looming disaster as the main plot device or impetus for the story. These disasters range from animal rampages and hijacked airliners to natural disasters and runaway celestial objects.
Havert outlines those familiar tropes for this genre explaining how the tales have everyday characters and blue-collar workers as the survivors of the disaster. He adds that the disaster is often caused by the “rich and powerful” who usually perish. Havert also stresses that this genre does not include lone animals, war films, aliens and giant creatures.
Then it’s onto his rich content, starting with the film Morning Departure (1950). He then discusses a wide range of movies for every year using a linear approach in each section. Havert adds the relevant cast, characters and crew information for each film.
After giving the year he adds the movie title, with a relevant quote from the film and its alternate titles. Basic information of the crew is listed, with the movie’s director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor. This is followed by an extensive outline of all the cast and their characters in the film. These basic details are not just a delight as an entertainment blogger, but a useful illuminating guide for anyone who can’t remember who’s who in those great ensemble cast lists or can’t keep up with those many opening explanatory scenes when the characters are introduced.
Havert shows his passion for the subject in his deep analysis of the film. He not only describes many of the pertinent character’s roles and characteristics in the film but beautifully weaves them into his vivid account of those opening scenes. From my experience, this is the most difficult part of a disaster movie review, as characters have often backstories and link with other characters more often than in any soap opera.
This author then adds a detailed description of the disaster in the movie, but not on the casualties. He ends each plot description, again not with spoilers but more appropriately with some cliffhanger questions. These questions have you compelled to see the movie in its entirety. Havert easily and effortlessly guides us in his succinct and accurate descriptions.
More off-screen details about the film with often unique and relevant information on the making of the film and its cast members are added to each review. Many of these often new facts will delightfully tell you little surprising facts. For example, Havert outlines that the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) could have involved the same cast and characters in a train accident on the way to a court hearing about that boat tragedy. And that Mickey Rooney hoped to get a role as a passenger in Airport (1970).
Havert often includes his personal interviews from both the cast and crews connected with these films and these seen throughout this book. Many of these interviews tell stories about the on-screen happenings, stunts or give behind the scenes anecdotes of those reviewed movies. In these interviews, you learn of both the dangers and joys of making these films. These interviews were like finding gold dust. Often the answers were quite lengthy, but this, not a gripe as they were full of lovely remembrances from the cast and crew.
These interviews often had stories of the cast members as told by another cast member often with little gems with new stories. The late actress, Shirley Knight told many lovely stories about Omar Sharif on the set of Juggernaut (1974) – her toddler daughter was on set and called him Omar the Sheriff after misunderstanding his name – and Michael Caine in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) who seemed to have a mischievous fun side on the set of this film.
Actor, Monte Markham told of his joy of working with Joseph Cotten and Olivia DeHavilland in Airport 77 (1977). Havert was also lucky in that he got to speak with crew members such as those who worked in visual effects – such as James Shourt – or as stuntmen for these films.
A wide range of films from America, Great Britain and other countries such as Japan, Yugoslavia and Croatia were written on. To my expat joy, Havert included a Scottish film, The Brave Don’t Cry (1952) with Fulton McKay part of a sterling cast. This plot was based on a real-life Scottish coal mine disaster. I discovered a shed load of British films in this genre which I’m now seeking out for their casts alone, these names including Denholm Elliott, Michael Redgrave and William Hordern.
Havert shows his love for both feature films and those TV movies with often different approaches to the same calamity. These illustrating the dangers of planes, buildings and packs of animals in unique ways but with those familiar tropes. I learned one Canadian film, Flight into Danger (1966)- starring James Doohan and a blink and miss it moment from his Star Trek co-star, William Shatner – has been remade more times than most. this film more recently inspiring a German remake and the homage comedy Airplane (1980).
There are familiar names from this genre that you’ll recognise. These include directors Ronald Neame, Irwin Allen, writers such as Arthur Hailey and Rod Serling and casts including George Kennedy, Charlton Heston, Donna Mills and Barabara Stanwyck. You will easily add more films to your watch pile and I’ve added the film Marooned (1969) – with my favourite actress Lee Grant – and the intriguingly titled The Day the Fish Came Out (1967).
However, The Naked Jungle is now topping my review list. The film is described by Havert as a “torrid romance hidden in a disaster film”. It was the first of Charlton Heston’s forays into this genre and his on-screen love interest was The Sound of Music‘s Baroness Eleanor Parker. Havert totally sold it to me, after adding that
“Heston chews so much scenery there’s barely anything left for the ants”
After this main content, the book content continues with his top 10 lists of these films in a number of categories. These movie lists will appeal to every kind of disaster movie fan, with categories such as aerial and nature gone wild lists. Or if you are like me – and my Darlin Husband – those “Unintentionally funny made for TV movies”.
This author concludes with some thirty four “close call” movies with an extensive list of short reviews of films that were on the verge of being added to the main content. But for a reason didn’t make the grade for a disaster movie. These films including The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (1977) and The Neptune Factor (1973). Havert then adds a list of notes referring to each decade and his personal phone and email interviews with an enviable list of disaster movie luminaries.
Throughout this book are what I suspect is the top of the iceberg as just some of Havert’s stunning collection of visual movie memorabilia. These are used as illustrations in a lovely unique touch. I must admit to squealing with delight at this material with previously unseen treats such as visual information gleaned from press kits, publicity stills, film call sheets and teaser advertisements.
Those stills included my favourite shot from those movies, with Martin Sheen doing that handstand on his on-screen lover, Ava Gardner’s bed… in The Cassandra Crossing (1976). And if you don’t get that movie reference, you clearly need this book to find out more on this not so deliberate cliffhanger.
So I implore you to discover Havert’s book which has an avalanche of good and so good its bad movies from the big and wee screen… I personally hope this book will be followed one day with a sequel, as he continues his adventure with the films from the decades that followed making another book to remember.
A disclaimer and personal thank you to McFarland books for asking me to write this post. Financial compensation was not received for this post. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you are involved in the entertainment industry and would like to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.