Producer Irwin Allen made a name for himself in television with such classics as Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, and The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and in the 70s he earned the nickname “Master of Disaster” by bringing to the big screen such epic disasters as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Then along came 1978’s The Swarm, a film that Irwin Allen not only produced but also directed — a movie so colossally bad that it hearkened to the beginning of the end of the 70s disaster boom.
“It is more than speculation … it is a prediction!” This boastful tagline was typical of the larger-than-life producer Irwin Allen, taking the supposed threat of African killer bees and making a movie that is “not science fiction but science fact” while of course getting absolutely nothing correct when it comes to the actual Africanized bee. The film has to throw in lines like, “mutant strain” to cover up the fact that the sting of the Africanized bee is no more potent than any other variety of honey bee, they are just a more aggressive species. The real threat to life and limb in this movie is the idiot humans, as their moronic actions result in jacking up the death toll beyond what even a swarm of killer bees could accomplish.
The movie opens with a bit of dramatic mystery as we see soldiers storm a missile base only to discover that all of the occupants have been killed, and we immediately wonder what kind of force could so easily take out a military installation, but as we are watching a film called The Swarm, we are pretty sure it has something to do with bees. Unfortunately, General Slater (Richard Widmark) and Major Baker (Bradford Dillman), the two idiots commanding these soldiers, who — having not read the script — spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened, even when explicitly told by etymologist Dr. Bradford Crane (Michael Caine) (who they discovered wandering around the base), that he’d followed a swarm of bees to this location. The General even fosters suspicions that Crane could somehow be responsible as if he sent the bees to attack the missile base. Now, this idea is clearly insane, but a movie where Michael Caine plays a mad scientist, one who controls killer bees, well that’s a movie I want to see.
Sadly, that is not the kind of film we are in store for. From the opening moments of The Swarm, we are quickly introduced to what kind of movie we are watching, with characters shouting inanities at each other until the film gets around to having another bee attack sequence, and because this is a 70s disaster film, it is just jam-packed with big-name stars, who not only suffer these bee attacks but also career lows by appearing in this monstrous epic. The film was released into theatres as a 116-minute cut but has since been extended to 156 minutes for its video release, and this padding expands on already needless subplots.
In the nearby town of Maryville, which of course is having its annual flower festival, we are introduced to the town’s mayor Clarence Tuttle (Fred MacMurray), who is in love with the school principal Maureen Schuester (Olivia de Havilland), and retiree Felix Austin (Ben Johnson), who has also proclaimed his love for Maureen. This trio seems to have wandered off the set of Follow Me, Boys, as this romantic subplot of Maureen being unable to decide which of these men she should marry is not only completely pointless, it’s not even bloody well resolved. She promises to make a decision by the end of the school year, but during the evacuation of the town, the killer bees attack the train that our love-tangled trio are on — do not ask me why the bees are attacking trains, I haven’t a fucking clue — and all three of them are killed when the attack causes the train to derail, tumble down a mountainside, and explode.
A love triangle between septuagenarians was not enough for Irwin Allen, because we also have to spend time with a very pregnant waitress (Patty Duke), whose husband died during the initial bee attack at the missile base, and she goes into labour before boarding the doomed train — lucky for her, not so lucky for us — for right after giving birth, she says to her doctor (Alejandro Rey), “I guess it’s true what they say, that a woman sort of falls in love with her doctor at this time.” And who exactly is the “they” she is referring to, I certainly had no idea it was common for a woman to fall in love with her obstetrician, especially in this case where she’s been a widow for about four days, and this is all made worse because of the fact that earlier in the film he was totally hitting on her.
Now, those were the two extraneous love stories that we are subjected to during this film’s bloated run-time, but we also have to endure the developing relationship between Dr. Crane and the military base’s doctor Helena Anderson (Katharine Ross), who promptly abandons her patients — the six soldiers who managed to survive the bee attack but were stung several times, and when they eventually die she is completely unaware of the occurrence — all so that she can tool around in Crane’s van. In fact, both she and Crane show complete disregard for their respective jobs in favour of driving in and around Marysville, for even after Crane repeatedly states that “Time is of the essence,” he and Helena spend almost all their time visiting young Paul Durant (Christian Juttner), whose parents were killed during a picnic bee attack, instead of working on solving the whole “Bees are going to conquer the world” problem. Now, this does lead to one of the film’s most iconic moments, where Crane and Helena visit Paul in the hospital — having been stung during the picnic, he managed to drive the family car into town before passing out — who is now suffering from hallucinations of a giant bee attacking him. Crane calmly informs the boy that “There’s no bee here. I promise you, there’s no bee here.”
The Swarm is simply loaded with these kinds of bizarre moments, such as Slim Pickens playing a grieving father who shows up at the missile base demanding to see his dead son, or world-renowned immunologist Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda) testing his cure for the African bee venom on himself, for some bizarre reason. And then we get a scene of Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain) warning the nuclear power plant manager Dr. Andrews (José Ferrer) of the dangers of the approaching killer bees, only to be told, “Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants fail-safe! The odds of anything going wrong are astronomical.”
What is truly odd here, is that though Bradford Crane is the film’s apparent hero, and he does eventually save the day, for almost the entire film’s run-time, he is completely ineffectual. He and General Slater are constantly butting heads and with the death toll mounting and Crane refusing to allow attacks on the swarm, you kind of side with the General at times. But when Crane isn’t failing, he’s in a constant state of inaction. We can laugh at Slater for suggesting after Dr. Walter Krim has collected thousands of African Bees for study, that “When that swarm finds that their friends have been taken captive they might come back to Marysville.” Now, this is patently ludicrous, and Crane even mocks him for suggesting such a thing, “Are you endowing these bees with human motives? Like saving their fellow bees from captivity, or seeking revenge on Mankind?” yet we don’t get anything helpful out of Crane but pompous proselytizing about how “The bees have always been our friends,” and any suggested action by Slater is shouted down.
Michael Caine is one of my all-time favourite actors, but The Swarm was clearly one of his paycheck movies, and his performance veers from painful to laughable; however, the script was certainly doing him no favours, having him spout off some of the most ludicrous lines of dialogue ever put on film. This is also why The Swarm falls into the category of “so bad it’s good,” but at two and a half hours, your ability to laugh at the ridiculous plot and hammy acting will be sorely tested.
• Upon arriving at the missile base, Major Baker informs the General that all the personnel are dead, but later Helena shows up stating she saved six servicemen. What kind of search did his men perform?
• Helena states that during the bee attack, she saw servicemen above ground lying dead, but when Baker arrived, there were no dead bodies to be seen until they reached the communications room. Did the bees somehow hide the dead soldiers?
• The President puts Crane in direct command of all operations relating to this emergency, which is what allows Crane to boss General Slater around for the bulk of the movie, but there is no instance in which a civilian would be given complete control of the military. Crane would at most be allowed to hang around and advise.
• When a bee stings a person, it actually rips out its stinger and part of its abdomen, and thus it dies, but not one dead bee is found at the site of any of the bee attacks. In fact, we never so much as see a bee sting.
• Slim Pickens threatens to cut off the base’s supply of water unless he is allowed to see his son, and not only would this result in his immediate arrest, treason being an obvious charge, but an ICBM base would not be relying on the local water supply.
• Paul and a couple of friends return to the site of the picnic massacre so that they can toss Molotov cocktails at the swarm, but earlier we saw Slater, Crane and the military pouring over the picnic site, so how did they miss the swarm if it was still hanging around?
• The General repeatedly drops the words “Killer Bee” when referring to the African killer bees, so we get uncomfortable moments of him informing Crane that Dr. Krim has been “Rounding up Africans“ or stating that, “By tomorrow there will be no more Africans … at least not in the Houston sector.”
• Crane requests the audio tapes of the attack on the ICBM base, but it takes him weeks to figure out that it was the sound of the sonic alarm test that drew the swarm to the base.
• With Crane’s repeated failures, Slater is finally allowed to spray pesticide all over the Southwest. This of course fails. as the bees have developed a resistance to pesticides, so he then resorts to plan “B” which is apparently torching Houston, Texas.
I’m pretty sure history is going to blame Slater, but who am I to judge? However, this final act, with the city of Houston in flames, must have been Irwin Allen trying to recapture the glory that was The Towering Inferno, and the execution of this sequence is so laughably bad that it’s hard to believe that not one person would have pointed out to Allen just how stupid it was. Exactly how stupid you ask? Well, when the pesticides fail to kill the swarm, Washington decides to go with “Man-made burnings,” and you’d think this would involve jets dropping napalm, or maybe the use of a fuel-air bomb, but for some reason they decide to go the route of men with flamethrowers walking up and down the street torching everything around them. Do they not realize that the bees can just fly away?
Eventually, Crane is able to pull his head out of his ass long enough to finally deduce that it was the sonic alarm that drew in the bees, and that this sound can be used to lure them out into the Gulf of Mexico, into an area doused with oil, so that when the swarm arrives they set the oil ablaze, destroying all of the bees once and for all — or do they? Because this is a disaster film that also falls into the category of “Nature attacks,” it thus has one of those open-ended codas, with Helena asking Crane, “Did we finally beat them? Or is this just a temporary victory?”
The Swarm – Disaster Pedigree:
- Michael Caine was in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.
- Henry Fonda was in City on Fire.
- Richard Chamberlain was in The Towering Inferno.
- Olivia de Havilland and Lee Grant were in Airport ’77.
This is one of those films that was an embarrassment to all involved, and we’re talking about a cast that includes six Academy Award winners. But as bad as The Swarm is, it will always hold a special place in my heart, simply for the sheer audacity of it all, and of course for Michael Caine’s eternally entertaining utterance of “There is no bee.”
The Swarm (1978)
Movie Rank - 4.5/10
As a director Irwin Allen is a really good producer, for his inability to get any semblance of a believable performances out of Oscar caliber actors is a testament to his failings as a director, but the bad acting and horrible writing are only the tip of the iceberg on this Golden Turkey of a movie, as the effects and stunt work aren’t all that much better, and the bloated mess that is The Swarm was truly a harbinger to the death of the 70s disaster movie era.