1974 was ground zero for a 7.0 magnitude shaker on the clumsy, kitschy disaster-movie Richter Scale with Universal’s ambitious, tossed-together epic of Los Angeles torn asunder by ‘The Big One.’ The all-star cast headed by Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner slug and mug their way through a gloppy soap opera of a script, admirably retaining their collective dignity. The special effects range from terrific to embarrassing, but the tacky gimmick of “Sensurround” saved Universal’s bacon: to this day I still hear people remembering it fondly. The collector’s edition brings us both the theatrical cut and the brain-numbing extended version cobbled together for TV.
1974 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (theatrical), & 1.33 flat full frame (extended TV cut) / 123 + 142 min. / Collector’s Edition Street Date , 2019 / 29.99
Starring: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviéve Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Victoria Principal.
Cinematography: Philip Lathrop
Film Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Original Music: John Williams
Written by George Fox, Mario Puzo
Produced by Jennings Lang, Mark Robson
Directed by Mark Robson
As John Landis so memorably said, first came The Poseidon Adventure, then The Towering Inferno and THEN the incomparable “See You Next Wednesday.”
But he forgot to mention Earthquake, a bloated but highly entertaining disaster opus, with its Big Quake sequence pitched at a TV soap opera level equal to the laughable dramatics of the main story. The film introduced the (dubious? effective?) thrill of “Sensurround,” which added a sense of fun to the movie experience. Judging by people’s memories, the brilliant gimmick has lingered positively in the nostalgia column.
Los Angeles is headed for a High Noon date with a massive earthquake, but even temblor experts like Dr. Stockle (Barry Sullivan) are slow to heed the warnings. Meanwhile ex- football star and architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is running out on his hysterical wife Remy (Ava Gardner) to have an affair with Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), the widow of a friend. He becomes upset when his father-in-law and boss Sam Royce (Lorne Greene) tries to buy his fidelity with a promotion. Meanwhile (this movie is MADE of meanwhiles), daredevil motorcycle rider Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) prepares for a stunt that will get him a big Las Vegas gig. Meanwhile, cop Sgt. Lew Slade (George Kennedy) wonders why he doesn’t just quit the force, as he’s just been suspended for a high-speed chase through the Hollywood hills. And at the local grocery store, psychotic checker Jody (Marjoe Gortner) lusts after sexy Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal). The Big One hits at lunch hour, and changes all of their lives.
As far as Savant was concerned the early ’70s were a depressed time for movies. The supposed renaissance of meaningful filmmaking — Robert Altman, Chinatown etc. amounted to a handful of pictures a year, while the general run of shows got cheaper and looked worse. Theatrical prints were green and grainy. Almost all of my good movie experiences were had with older movies at revival theaters or at UCLA.
Earthquake wasn’t exactly a high point of the period, but it had the hyped jeopardy audiences were buying. The Irwin Allen movies at least had the ‘fun’ of watching big stars get killed in their inane story lines. The standard ’70s disaster format employed a spectacular threat (a sinking ship, a plane in trouble) as an excuse to launch a sideshow of cheap dramatic vignettes, preferably with heavy moral messages attached. The 1953 Titanic and The High and the Mighty were early entries, but the success of 1970’s Airport launched the wave starting with The Poseidon Adventure. The episodic story structure allowed producers to give highly emotional roles to stars having difficulty finding worthwhile parts, like Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine.
Earthquake has Charlton Heston, whose stature sagged when Hollywood stopped making the grand epics that best suited him. The Jennings Lang production raids the Screen Actors’ Guild for big names past their prime, ex- TV stars, doubtful young hopefuls and Universal contract players. Walter Matthau was currently starring in a Billy Wilder film for Lang, and provides an extended comic relief cameo. It’s excruciating … Matthau’s awful clownish costume is only marginally less ugly than the clothing worn by the rest of the cast.
Director Mark Robson swallows the Kool-Aid and just lets the nonsense play out, without the intervention of higher thought processes. The George Fox and Mario Puzo script generally lets everybody down; it plays like a tepid episode of Days of Our Shaky Lives. Charlton Heston pitches his performance perfectly, lending a veneer of credibility; George Kennedy has the best story arc and comes off as a terrific matinee hero. Bloozy Ava screams and cries that Charlton prefers to sample the wares of tiny Geneviève. Richard Roundtree and George Kennedy’s problems provide narrative filler as the authorities waffle about a graduate student’s prediction that a big earthquake will hit. Before the big shaker these citizens of Los Angeles behave like they’re in a bad sitcom. Afterwards, they all get to be heroes for a day.
Lesser players do the work of conveying the necessary dumbbell exposition. From a writing standpoint Earthquake is at least 80% expository dialogue. Characters constantly restate what we see and describe what we don’t see: “Look! That’s another small landslide on the other side of the reservoir!” It’s like a radio show and it never stops. When Geneviève Bujold is threatened by high power lines in the San Fernando water canal, I’m surprised that Richard Roundtree doesn’t give us a fast explanation of how electricity works.
Honestly on this last viewing, the redundant expository dialogue was so thick, I tried to imagine a Terrence Malick-like fan recut, which drops all of the dumb descriptions of things we can surmise for ourselves. The movie would be 100% better.
The quake itself is a mix of highly variable, Oscar-winning effects. The best work combines Albert Whitlock mattes and Glen Robinson miniatures; when the miniature fire is scaled well, these shots look as good as pre-CGI composites can. Unfortunately there are only a few minutes of this top-grade material. We arrested-development effects nitpickers had a field day. Top-notch miniatures look great, until big pieces of rubble fall down — and disappear behind matte lines. Then again, if the film was produced in 9 months, in toto, the sheer quantity of effects work here is impressive in itself. We don’t even mind the hillside ‘stilt houses’ that tumble off their perches, with out breaking up… those houses look precarious, but in real-life earthquakes they apparently withstand the tremors rather well.
Much more footage involves large-scale physical-effects scenes of dozens of people trying to stay on their feet while broken glass and tons of concrete rain down on them. It’s hard to know who is to blame, but it’s some of the worst footage of this kind ever done – the stunt people stand in place like drunks, acting like they’re on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, while styrofoam rubble bounces off their heads. In major earthquakes, people usually freeze up or move very quickly, but they don’t all scream and wave their arms in the air — it’s as if someone turned on the “Panic!” light from the movie Airplane!
Bad direction gives us lame shots where stunt people turn to the camera revealing bad makeup jobs with pieces of glass sticking out of their heads. Or my favorite, an incredibly phony rear-screen trucking shot downward, with a falling, screaming “Victim #134.” History since 1974 may have made some of this ‘fun, escapist jeopardy sadism’ a little less fun, as we all feel more vulnerable to sudden terrorist violence. Is it decadent to enjoy spectacles of wholesale disaster?
Finally, some genius did a shortcut by shooting the reflections of buildings off a flexible front surface mirror, to express the idea that the earthquake was making them twist. It’s awful, insulting stuff, almost as bad as the blot of animated red added to an unconvincing shot of people presumably being squirshed in a falling elevator. Audiences laughed their heads off.
Savant experienced Earthquake in Sensurround with fellow UCLA student Hoyt Yeatman at Grauman’s Chinese, first-run. The patented process uses an extra set of powerful subwoofers triggered by a ‘control’ track read from a magnetic stripe on the film. It generates the same “rumbly-in-the-tumbly” feel that we hear every day when some Rap fan with big bass speakers passes us on the street. In Sensurround, the intensity of the rumbling goes up and down depending on the shot on-screen, which is a nice effect. The drawback is that when Earthquake was shown in multiplexes, theaters to the left and right could hear the Sensurround almost as loudly as did the intended audience.
I think that some of the thrill was psychological. A menacing pre-movie text card TOLD audiences that they were going to experience something dangerous, thereby prepping many to overreact. Back at UCLA, associate professor Bob Epstein showed us that Sensurround was no miracle. Melnitz Hall had a very powerful sound system. He had the projectionist turn up the bass volume for the last scene of the 1934 Josef Von Sternberg film The Scarlet Empress, where Marlene Dietrich leads a troop of horses up some giant oaken stairs. The rumble feeling in the stomach was identical. I’d relate the effect’s psychological component to the feeling one gets when surrounded by a mob of running people — the mass vibrations induce sort of a flight reflex, making us edgy in our seats.
After the main quake, suspense is kept aloft by various rescues and a secondary concern – will the dam break? Some of the topographical details are a little odd. The film moves the giant concrete L.A. River system from the San Fernando Valley, over the Hollywood sign and South into Hollywood area. Bujold’s little boy is placed in jeopardy when water from the bursting dam hits. The flooding from the failed dam should by all reason wipe out the Hollywood Blvd. area where Marjoe Gortner and his National Guardsmen are patrolling. But it is true that by Wilshire Blvd., L.A.’s excellent storm drain system might swallow up most of the runoff. You know, the vitamin-enriched underground tunnels where Richard Basehart and the giant ants thrive. Frankly, the way the landscape lies in Hollywood, if that dam broke it would probably just wipe out a narrow corridor somewhere between, say, La Brea and Gower streets.
Hey, that’s where I live!
By this time all logic has been suppressed in favor of whatever plays well for the disaster format. The best scene is a rescue in a broken stairwell on the narrow skyscraper at Sunset and Vine (where Jan and Dean’s top-40 classic began). Again, disposable extras tend to plunge kicking and screaming to anonymous deaths while we invest our concern in the leading players, lost children and even a cute puppy … Awww. The National Guard show up in about an hour, when they should appear in limited numbers in about two or three days, which was what happened in L.A.’s 1992 riots. Marjoe Gortner’s thieving Hollywood friends are all white-bread bums; there are a few blacks but almost no Latinos in town on the fateful quake day. The Mayor organizes a temp hospital in another tall building (?) even though every structure in L.A. appears to have been reduced to rubble. However, streets are unaccountably passable. Official rescue personnel are repeatedly portrayed as irresponsible, buck-passing cowards and we see few firefighters. That way, our heroes Heston and Kennedy can become take-charge guys. They drill into a garage to rescue dozens of people.
The various cast members are assigned fates determined by the authors’ temperament. Richard Roundtree is last seen on his motorcycle trying to outrace an urban tidal wave — a stunt actually filmed on the Universal Studios Tour’s hillside flash flood gag. In one of the worst performances of the ’70s, psycho Marjoe Gortner provides good target practice for George Kennedy. Sexy airhead Victoria Principal (in the worst wig of the 1970s) squirms at Gortner’s icky advances, but dashes to the safety of George Kennedy’s manly police uniform. Victoria gets the cute pooch as a further consolation (Awww…). The consolation prize for bored males is the sexist shot of Principal showing off her braless chest, something ya don’t see in films much anymore.
Among the smaller roles, Lloyd Nolan delivers some clunker lines; he’s one of the few available surgeons among injured thousands, but he ministers exclusively to the star players. A young Donald Moffat (The Thing) has a few good moments as an earthquake technician. The earthquake research headquarters in this film is an office packed with rickety, unsecured bookshelves and racks. They topple onto the staff as soon as the shaker hits, causing major injuries.
Helping to counter the overall silliness are an effective last few moments with Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston. She’s just as useless in an emergency as she was in a family crisis, and they’re trapped in an underground storm drain that becomes a raging river. Say what you like about Heston but he’s perfect when it comes to nonverbal scenes like this one — he makes a hard choice between life and almost certain death and we believe it 100%. It’s practically the only functioning dramatic moment in Earthquake.
Earthquake is still fun to watch, and not just to criticize its shortcomings. Savant readily admits that his animosity stems from his general dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s so-called ‘big’ movies during the years he was in film school, starving for more of the quality production values and special effects seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the remake of Lost Horizon to the plain awfulness of Logan’s Run, we were desperate for the high-tech smart moviemaking that finally broke through in Star Wars.
The quality of this last frame grab is awful, but I love the people in it. Reactions to earthquake tremors are never less severe than brain-numbed screaming hysteria. We can’t tell if this couple is afraid of being crushed, or if they have just won a big prize on a TV quiz show.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray of Earthquake is a splendid encoding of this fun curiosity from ’74. The sharp picture betters by far the image I saw at Grauman’s Chinese; and the added resolution reveals as much good work as it does funky composites. I never before realized that the view of Heston exiting his car below the Hollywood Sign is a matte shot; apparently it was more expeditious to do a special effect than to find a street in the Hollywood Hills with such a good view of the Sign.
The sound is also strong, with a bass roar for Sensurround that those of you with giant subwoofers might get to simulate the original process. They made three other Sensurround movies but I only experienced the process again in a Trailer for the Mirisch Film Midway. A navy fighter lands on an aircraft carrier, and it felt like Godzilla had stepped on the theater.
Shout’s extras are spread out over the two discs. Older promo-style audio interviews are offered with the stars; the galleries of BTS photos are of good quality. The movie likely received a special Achievement Oscar for effects simply because it employed so many technicians and stuntmen — I don’t think they found enough worthy films that year to compete with it. The second disc has the newly- reconstructed TV version, which is in the 1:33 ratio — some of the new footage looks to have been shot flat, with the feature footage pan-scanned. Viewers will notice the padding of an additional, silly non-disaster at the L.A. International airport, and more shots of Victoria Principal in her clingy T-shirt.
A couple of the new interviews on the second disc lean even more toward fluffery — Ben Burtt’s main message seems to be that he saw the movie new and loved Sensurround. Bill Taylor isn’t as polished a presenter, but his admiring talk about Albert Whitlock is highly informative. I still like to hear about pre-CGI techniques, perhaps because that’s where my old-school knowledge ends as well!
I’ve always found Earthquake to be great fun, despite its radio script exposition and soap opera storytelling. Sometimes it’s good to let a movie happen without justifying it as anything more than matinee escapism.
Gary Teetzel reported seeing Earthquake in Sensurround about ten years back, at a special showing at the Egyptian. He said the audience had a fine time with it, laughing at the bad dialogue and the dodgier effects. Gary’s favorite unintended laugh: Lorne Greene, when organizing an escape effort, angrily yelling “Take off your pantyhose, dammit!”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good …. maybe
Supplements (from Universal:
DISC ONE: Theatrical Cut. Audio Options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 2.1 With Sensurround Audio, And 2.0; Trailer, TV and Radio Spots; Vintage Audio Interviews With Charlton Heston, Lorne Greene, and Richard Roundtree; still and art galleries. DISC TWO: Reconstructed Television Cut, featuring 20+ minutes broadcast-only Footage; NEW technical featurettes: The Audio and Sensurround with Ben Burtt; The Music; the Albert Whitlock Matte work with Bill Taylor; Additional TV scenes separate, two more TV scenes that couldn’t be interpolated into the Broadcast version.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Keep case
Reviewed: June 2, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson