Earthquake

Dir: Mark Robson, 1974. Starring: Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Ava Gardner, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree. Action.
Earthquake

Jump started by the success of the movie Airport in 1970, the “disaster movie” was a 1970’s cultural phenomenon, taking the soap-opera mold of Grand Hotel and putting a bunch of actors, ranging from big stars to has-beens all eager to cash their checks, into a dangerous situation with now cornball special effects. The best was The Poseidon Adventure and the biggest was The Towering Inferno (which inexplicably got a Best Picture Oscar nomination). But the most ambitiously awkward may’ve been Earthquake. The film was originally released extra loud in something called "Sensurround” and featured cameramen shaking cameras while Styrofoam bricks fell on extras. It was directed by Mark Robson (Valley of the Dolls) and written by Mario Puzo (yes, that’s right, Mario–the Godfather–Puzo, and he’s not the only major talent slumming here), though someone named George Fox also got a screenwriting credit as well, the only film for which he’s credited. Earthquake may not have been very good but as a cultural curiosity it’s fascinating, as a travelogue of mid-70s Los Angeles it’s invaluable, and as a piece of ridiculous pop-junk it’s totally entertaining.

The goofball introduction to the characters goes something like this... hunky architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is in a dead marriage to Remy (Ava Gardner) and having a boring affair with a young struggling actress, Denise (Genevieve Bujold, a sorta less sexy 70s version of Audrey Tautou), who is a single mom with an annoying son, Cory (the terrible actor but coolly named Tiger Williams). Meanwhile, maverick cop Lew Slade (George Kennedy) gets in trouble for punching out another cop after a car chase ends up ruining Zsa Zsa Gabor’s hedges, so he heads to the local dive to get drunk (which features a hilarious Walter Matthau, billed as Walter Matuschanskayasky, playing an inebriated, pimped-out bar fly). Would-be Evel Knievel motorcycle stunt driver Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) and his manager, Sal (Gabriel Dell) are planning a big new loop-to-loop stunt to impress some Vegas hotel guys. Sal’s hot younger sister Rosa (Victoria Principle) is there to bring sex appeal to the act but she’s stalked by a creepy grocery clerk/national guardsman (the creepy Marjoe Gortner, most famous for appearing as himself in the documentary Marjoe, before becoming a TV and B-movie staple of the late 70s and early 80s). Also popping up are Lloyd Nolan as a doctor, Lorne Greene as Gardner’s father (though in real life he’s barely seven years older than her), and a bunch of earthquake studying scientists and maintenance men watching over the Mulholland Dam (actually the real life Hollywood Reservoir), as if there was a giant waterway above Los Angeles that needed to be dammed up.

The horrible script and star gazing are actually secondary to the earthquake itself. Using
real LA locations, plenty of familiar backlots, and miniatures straight out of a Godzilla flick, the earthquakes are relentless in their destruction. Not only does the movie use the claustrophobic setups of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (here people are stuck in a crumbling office building) but they spread the fun all over town; as the impossibly long earthquake shakes the camera for over 10 minutes, random extras are killed in more and more miserable ways. And instead of just one earthquake, this film could be called “Earthquakes,” since after the hundreds of victims lay there suffering from the first strike, the sadism continues when a second earthquake hits, finally bursting the dam and sending a torrent of water down the Hollywood Hills and into the city where some of the stars die in the sewer. 

Disaster kings Heston (Airport 1975, Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked) and Kennedy (who appeared in the entire series of Airport, Airport 1975, Airport ’77, and The Concorde... Airport ’79) try as they might to carry the load, but they can only make so many faces of deep concern before they throw in the towel and start chewing scenery with the rest of the hams. Speaking of scenery, besides the Universal backlot, location filming takes place all over Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. Besides The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and Omega Man, Earthquake is one of the better films of its era for amateur LA historians to play “spot the locations.” 

Since seeing the movie as a kid, and it was quintessential viewing for tots in the 70s, there is one moment I have always remembered: Roundtree on his motorcycle outrunning the raging flood. This second recent re-watching, however, gave me a new moment that will always be etched in my head; it’s so bizarre and ridiculous. During the first ten minute destruction of Los Angeles, which is an apocalyptic blast, houses are falling apart and one idiot runs into his crumbling house to turn off the gas while smoking a cigarette—amazing. Puzo would also pen The Godfather Part II that same year, but most of the people involved with Earthquake were past their career peaks and Earthquake actually slowed, not sped up, any creative traction they might’ve had. It may have been a disaster in more ways than one back in its day, but now it can be admired as an almost entertaining curiosity.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 23, 2012 6:41pm
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