Movies such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure marked Irwin “The Master of Disaster” Allen as a big-budgeted disaster film artist. But he also brought some of his movie mayhem to the small screen with his 1976’s made-for-television movie Flood. Of course, the problem with taking the disaster genre to the small screen was in creating all that thrilling carnage on a small television movie budget.
Due to a lesser running time, 1976’s Flood has a smaller cast of characters, at least when compared to what you’d find in the typical disaster movie of the time – had to make room for those commercial breaks – so the numerous soap opera subplots that we would normally be forced to suffer through were cut down dramatically, but not completely. We are first introduced to charter helicopter pilot Steve Brannigan (Robert Culp) as he ferries well-paying tourist Mr. Franklin (Roddy McDowall) up to the lake for some fishing, but when town councilman Paul Burke (Martin Milner) learns from Steve that another leak has sprung in the earthen dam, the massive one that overlooks the town, he organizes a quick council meeting to demand they open the sluice gates before the dam fails. Mayor John Cutler (Richard Basehart) is quick to point out that the town of Brownsville’s economy depends on tourist fishermen, and if they drain the lake the town could die. Thus, we have a mayor who is your standard cliché of a politician weighing the safety of his constituents over economic forces, that he is wrong and the hero is right is pretty much his only defining characteristic.
Despite Paul’s passionate arguments, the council vote against opening the sluice gates – having not yet received the official word from the geological surveyor who examined the dam – and thus, Paul is forced to handle things his own way. He races to the local hospital, where his fiancée Mary Cutler (Barbara Hershey) works, to warn them to prepare for massive casualties when the dam breaks. The Mayor is Mary’s father, and despite Paul’s fact-based claims, she doesn’t believe her father would endanger the town, but luckily the hospital’s doctor (Whit Bissell) agrees to evacuate patients that couldn’t survive if the hospital were to lose power. Lucky for him, that is only old Mrs. Parker (Gloria Stuart), who Brannigan is able to helicopter over to another hospital, one that is not endanger of being washed away.
Things get even more complicated when Paul learns from Sam Adams (Cameron Mitchell), the guy who manages the dam’s operations, that the Mayor did in fact get the geological report, and that he lied to the council because he doesn’t believe in the surveyor’s findings. So basically, the mayor is a raging asshole, and worse is the fact that Mary won’t take a stand against her dad, ignoring all the evidence that Paul lays before her, stating that even if there was such a report, her father probably does know better. Mary’s insane trust in her dad seems stuck in a 1950s “Father Knows Best” attitude, and it is truly ludicrous, especially considering the fact that if he is wrong, many people will die.
As this film is called Flood, and not The Chronicles of Honest Mayor Cutler, the dam does fail and a torrent of raging water races to town. The film’s remaining thirty minutes is spent dealing with Paul and Brannigan as they race from one end of the town to the other rescuing various idiots, culminating in them having to dynamite a bridge, which had been clogged with debris, and was preventing the flood waters to run off. This also results in the saving of Mary’s idiot brother Andy (Eric Olson), who was found washed up against the bridge just as they are about to blow the thing. The film also has a ridiculous subplot of expectant mother Abbie Adams (Carol Lynley), wife of the soon to be dead dam manager, who goes into some kind of bizarre debilitating labor that causes her to fall to the floor and repeatedly pass out.
As Flood had no reasonable budget for a disaster film – going by what we see on screen, I’m guessing it couldn’t have been more than $45 dollars – we don’t see much in the way of flood carnage. The collapsing earthen dam is a pathetic looking model — shot at night to hide how lame it really is – and aside from the rare shot of water rushing around, which somehow kills the town hall secretary like some kind of stealth flood, there isn’t much on hand to offer fans of the disaster genre. We do get idiotic moments such as the rising water drowning Mary’s even dumber mom (Teresa Wright), as she tries to save Leif Garrett, thinking he was her missing son, and that she fails to save the kid – though he does show up alive later, rescued by someone else – is just another weird moment in the movie, and her death is basically payment for her husband’s hubris.
The only real positive thing I can say about Irwin Allen’s Flood is that the camaraderie between Paul Burke and Steve Brannigan comes across as quite genuine, providing a few decent laughs, and the chemistry between the two is even more believable than that of Paul and his fiancée Mary. Richard Basehart’s pompous “I know I’m right” mayor may be the film’s chief human antagonist, but his daughter Mary was so infuriatingly stupid that I had hopes the flood would wash her away as well. The film ends with Paul and Steve flying off into the sunset, apparently to get medical supplies, but I’d like to believe that they never return to that stupid, stupid town.
• Roddy McDowell and Carol Lynley were aboard The Poseidon Adventure.
• Whit Bissel was in the 1974 Alex Hailey’s Airport.
• Richard Basehart was aboard the 1953 Titanic.
• Gloria Stuart was aboard the 1997 Titanic.