Back in 1970, Universal Pictures released their star-studded disaster film Airport, a film based on Arthur Hailey’s popular novel that arguably kicked off the 70s’ disaster boom by pulling in $100 million dollars. Then, in 1972, good ol’ 20th Century Fox released their disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, which amped the carnage up and earned Fox a whopping $40 million dollars at the box office; so in response to this, Universal rushed their next disaster film, Earthquake, into production. To illustrate how much better at spectacle their film was, Universal Studios developed an audio system called Sensurround which would give audiences the feeling that they were actually experiencing a genuine tectonic disaster and was released just ahead of 20th Century Fox’s follow-up disaster flick The Towering Inferno, so by 1974, the disaster movie battle had officially gone into full swing.
With the release of Earthquake, Universal Pictures had cemented the disaster formula that they’d created with their film Airport, where moviegoers would be introduced to a variety of characters who eventually find themselves suffering at the hands of whatever particular disaster is on the menu. So, going forward, the studios would pick a particular disaster and then fill the cast with actors ranging from big-name movie stars to ones mostly known for small-screen work — which would all go towards making these films feel a little like big-budgeted soap operas — and then we’d watch these characters fumble around until it was time to roll the end credits. A key reason for this, of course, is in the padding of the run-time, as the special effects required to pull off buildings collapsing and dams bursting are quite expensive, while scenes of characters arguing about infidelity are relatively cheap. There is no bigger example of this dichotomy than in the film Earthquake, whereof the two-hour-plus run-time is about ten minutes of actual earthquaking.
Our main cast of players includes building engineer Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) who strongly believes that buildings in Los Angeles should be constructed above code if they are to survive potential earthquakes; then we have his shrewish wife, Remy (Ava Gardner), who fakes suicide to get her husband’s attention because she believes he’s having an affair which he is having with aspiring actress Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), who has a young boy of her own whose sole purpose is to be endangered by the upcoming earthquake. Next, we have Graff’s father-in-law Sam Royce (Lorne Greene), who is also Graff’s boss, and he will be pressured by Remy to offer Graff a promotion so as to hopefully stop the affair with Denise. Then we have motorbike stunt rider Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), who wants to be the next Evel Knievel; sadly, the earthquake puts the kibosh on his latest stunt by ruining his equipment. Next, we have Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal) who is the sister of Miles’ business partner, Sal Amici (Gabriel Dell), and her whole deal is that she is very attractive and is being stalked by a psycho National Guardsman named Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner). Finally, we have George Kennedy who has become a disaster staple with his appearances in the Airport films, but in this movie, he plays veteran police officer Lou Slade, a disillusioned city cop who gets suspended for wrecking a celebrity’s hedge while chasing a hit-and-run driver.
Some of these characters will cross paths during the course of the film, with disgruntled Slade teaming up with Graff and saving Rosa from Jodi, then Miles and Sal will rescue Denise and her son from a flooding spillway and deliver them to Dr. Vance (Lloyd Nolan) at the aid station, which had been set up in the lower parking garage of the Wilson Plaza shopping center — don’t ask me why you would set up a triage center in the lower levels of a high rise after the city has already been devastated by an earthquake once and aftershocks are more than likely to occur. This parking garage, of course, eventually suffers a cave-in resulting in Slade and Graff having to dig their way in to rescue Denise and Remy, who is also there because her father suffered a heart attack during the initial quake.
This disaster epic is also peppered with a random collection of supporting characters, such as young geologist Walter Russell (Kip Niven) whose theory calculates that a major earthquake is imminent — as this is a standard disaster movie he will, of course, be ignored — and up at Mulholland Dam, we repeatedly cut to one of the dam’s security men (Scott Hylands) constantly arguing with his boss over the integrity of the dam and whether or not it’s going to break, which it does because you can’t have a movie about a massive earthquake without also throwing in some sort of flood as well.
Directed by Mark Robson, Earthquake has everything fans of the genre could ask for; we get widespread death and destruction, heroes to root for and villains to jeer at, all supported by some of the best stuntmen in the business — the most-ever assembled for one project at that time — and the work by legendary matte artists Albert Whitlock as well as some of the best miniature work ever put to film all went towards making this particular disaster film a case of the sum being better than its individual parts. Not to mention the fact that the film also has an amazing score by the great John Williams. Now, modern audiences may find the soap opera elements of Earthquake to be rather cheesy, or even boring at times, but as the film is only a modest two hours in length, it’s an element that is easily forgiven, and when the action hits and the city shakes, it’s really an impressive showstopper.
I saw Earthquake during its original release and eight-year-old me was blown away by what unfolded on screen — especially helped by the Sensurround element which had the theatre vibrating to beat the band — and though modern films like San Andreas may have more fantastic displays of wholesale destruction, with CGI allowing filmmakers to depict anything to their little heart’s desires, there is something to be said for the practical effects used in these films and is most likely the key reason that disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and this entry have stood the test of time.
Earthquake’s Disaster Pedigree:
Note: Disaster stock footage from Earthquake has popped up in several movie and television productions over the years, such as Damnation Alley, where some of Earthquake’s flood sequences were used to depict the earth shifting on its axis, but most notably in Galactica 1980, where footage from Earthquake was used in a simulation of a Cylon attack on Los Angeles, which, funnily enough, also starred Lorne Greene.
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
The drama that fills up the bulk of Earthquake’s running time can come across as rather cheesy – though all the stuff with George Kennedy is pure gold – it’s the amazing special effects and stunt work that makes this film well worth checking out.