The disaster movie is almost as old as Hollywood itself but it didn’t became a genre unto itself until the 1970s with such offerings as Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and countless others, so by the end of the decade its no surprise that this genre was ready for a parody. Of course, the most notable parody of this genre would the Zucker and Abrahams comedy masterpiece Airplane! but they were not the first, four years prior to that comedy classic we had The Big Bus.
Directed by James Frawley, The Big Bus is a 1976 comedy that follows the story of the first nuclear-powered bus on its maiden voyage, an articulated mammoth christened the Cyclops that is equipped with all the amenities of a luxury cruise liner. As it embarks on it non-stop maiden voyage from New York to Denver its crew and passengers will undergo a variety of dangers, from a gun-wielding madwoman to an earthquake obsessed saboteur and various hijinks. Heading the cast of oddball characters is disgraced bus driver Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna), accused of cannibalism when his busload of passengers was trapped up in the mountains, then we have Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing) who is the Cyclops designer and is not at all happy about being forced to turn to her old flame Dan Torrance when the planned drivers are injured in an explosion. And just what caused this explosion? A sinister individual known as “Ironman” (José Ferrer), who works alongside various sheiks, needs the Cyclops to fail as its nuclear powered engine threatens their oil-based businesses and thus a saboteur (Stuart Margolin) is tasked with destroying the bus before it reaches Denver.
As was the case with most disaster films of this era the cast of characters was immense, littered with big names and wonderful character actors, we have “Shoulders” O’Brien (John Beck) as Dan’s narcoleptic co-driver, Shorty Scotty (Ned Beatty) as Cyclops’ engineer but who seems more concerned about his partner (Howard Hesseman) quitting than he is with anything bad happening aboard the bus, then on the passenger side of things we have a priest who has lost his faith and wants to start dating (René Auberjonois), a woman who accuses Dan of eating her father (Lynn Redgrave) and a sexual charged couple on the eve of divorce (Richard Mulligan and Sally Kellerman) and a man with just six months to live (Richard B. Shull) and that’s just a few of the many wild and crazy characters that populate The Big Bus and is what makes the journey so much fun.
• The use of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss as a fanfare for the “launching” of Cyclops was a cute nod to the music used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
• Richard Mulligan and Sally Kellerman play a divorced couple whose relationship is rekindled by the disaster, a trope that is still used to this very day in Hollywood disaster movies.
• Ruth Gordon plays a little old lady that is almost an almost complete lift of the character Helen Hayes played in the original Airport.
• The pickup truck colliding with the front of the bus was an obvious homage to the premise of Airport 1975.
• Stockard Channing becomes trapped in a flooding compartment which is a nice reference to Dorothy Malone’s character in The Last Voyage (1960).
• I like to imagine that Murphy Dunne’s piano-playing lounge lizard later changed his name to form Murph & the Magic Tones in The Blues Brothers.
• The premise of a bomb on a bus was central to the hit action film Speed starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. If only Jan de Bont had given the wheel to Joseph Bologna.
• The climax of the film, where the bus teeters over the edge of a cliff, is not a disaster movie reference but borrowed from Michael Caine’s film The Italian Job (1969).
One of the standout elements of the movie is the impressive special practical effects, especially considering the film was made over four decades ago and the scenes of the bus driving through various locations across America are well-shot and visually impressive. The Cyclops was actually two International trucks and the body was a two-part fibreglass shell connected by 500 bolts, each bolt weighing one pound while the four rear wheels were each five feet in height and weighing 1,100 pounds. The Big Bus is not without its flaws as the humour can be hit or miss, and some of the jokes have not aged particularly well. Additionally, the film’s pacing can be uneven at times, with some scenes feeling overly long and others feeling rushed. Despite these issues, it remains a charming and enjoyable comedy that is sure to appeal to fans of classic ’70s cinema.
Note: People who have not lived through the 1970s will get a good idea as to how garish clothing and interior designs were during this era. The producers of this movie didn’t have to exaggerate for comedic purposes.
While this movie does not have the rapid-fire joke a minute intensity of Airplane! it more than makes up for its shortcomings with its offbeat humour and fun premise, resulting in an entertaining movie that provides plenty of laughs. The film’s premise is undeniably unique, and it is clear that the filmmakers had a lot of fun coming up with all of the different features that Cyclops has to offer, from the swimming pool and bowling alley to the Captain’s dining lounge. The cast is also excellent, with standout performances from Joseph Bologna as the bus’s determined driver and Stockard Channing as his sassy love interest, even if the filmmakers almost drowned Channing in the process.
Despite some of the humour misfiring The Big Bus remains a charming and enjoyable comedy one that is sure to appeal to fans of classic ’70s cinema and especially fans of disaster movies. While it may not be the most polished or sophisticated movie out there, it more than makes up for its shortcomings with its offbeat humour and fun premise. If you’re in the mood for a lighthearted and zany comedy, then this entry is worth the trip.
The Big Bus (1976)
Movie Rank - 7/10
The comedy in The Big Bus is definitely not for everyone, as it relies heavily on slapstick humour and absurd situations, however, if you’re a fan of classic 70s comedies like Airplane! or The Naked Gun, then you’ll definitely enjoy this film.