It’s time to celebrate the Irwin Allen disaster epics for what they are — huge, indigestible spectacles that first seem funny and then congeal into a cinematic badness that words cannot describe. This sprawling ordeal tortures good actors and shatters every limit of audience patience. I alone have survived to tell thee. Is a fair review even possible?
Warner Archive Collection
1978 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 156 116 min. /Extended Edition / Street Date September 25, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Bradford Dillman, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda, Cameron Mitchell, Christian Juttner, Alejandro Rey.
Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Film Editor: Harold F. Kress
Visual Effects: L.B. Abbott
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Stirling Silliphant, from the novel by Arthur Herzog
Produced and Directed by Irwin Allen
“I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friend.”
— Virile, commanding entomologist Brad Crane
“I take it back… compared to The Swarm, Exorcist II: The Heretic is a masterpiece”
— Opinionated reviewer Glenn Erickson
I’ve ditched out of writing up many movies that I thought were terrible, for what I thought were good reasons. The ones that are really, truly bad already have enough abuse and scorn aimed at them, so a sarcastic review is more likely to reflect on my bad manners than the film I’m criticizing. It’s true, one can have too much fun when writing up an amiable turkey like the remake of Lost Horizon, but my heart’s usually in a good, non-malicious place. Why be vindictive? We all have a list of entertaining ‘bad’ movies that we love — I give them positive reviews all the time.
But some big studio pictures cannot be redeemed. I’ve sat aghast before big spectacles put together solely to make money, whose real purpose seem to be to insult the audience. In the 1970s, the king of this kind of filmmaking was Irwin Allen. As child I had been charmed by Allen’s The Lost World and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, mediocre (but colorful!) pictures that Allen tarted up with a score of star names apiece. Dominating 1960s sci-fi TV with a series of low-grade (but colorful!) TV shows, Allen graduated to features with two all-star massive hits that he only produced, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. In between gaudy special effects, each show is basically a soap opera in which big stars get killed in grotesque ways. Special Guest Dying bits are reserved for supporting victims actors.
Unless they were afraid of hurting newspaper advertising revenues, most big film critics took personal offense at Irwin Allen’s big disaster epics, declaring them depressing wastes of talent, labor and film stock. The big-name stars he signed up may have held their noses while reading the script, but even an Oscar recipient thinks twice before walking away from an assignment that might pay off the mortgage, settle the ex-wife’s alimony, or keep the IRS at bay over unpaid taxes. Thus Allen scores legendary name stars for the kinds of roles once were filled by the likes of John Agar and Morris Ankrum.
1978’s The Swarm is difficult to account for — one would think that badness on this scale would have to be intentional. It has the worst screenplay, worst direction and is simply more stupid than any movie made at its budget level. After his two big hits, did Irwin Allen believe his own P.R. baloney and think he could do no wrong, that audiences would accept his asinine ideas of characterization and dramatic conflict? The sarcastic satire Airplane! was still two years away, but the entirely sober The Swarm matches it for sheer idiocy, scene for scene and dialogue exchange for dialogue exchange.
Now that I’ve covered the show’s good aspects, let’s get down to cases.
The non-plot has those devilish African Bees swarm into a Texas missile defense base, killing most of the airmen therein. Just a couple of stings from this kind of bee are fatal. Those lucky to survive, even when given the experimental serum of Dr. Krim (Henry Fonda, hiding down at 13th billing) suffer hallucinations of giant bees attacking them (!). Some victims pull through, only to suddenly collapse and die a day or two later. This fact motivates several ’emotional’ deathbed scenes where an unlucky cast member pops in and out of dire jeopardy, like a Jack in the Box. Nothing stops the massive swarms of killer bees until it is discovered why they were drawn to the missile complex in the first place: the ‘instant’ cure is no more satisfactory than the facile endings of Beginning of the End and Day of the Triffids, twenty years earlier.
The storyline pits the tough General Slater (Richard Widmark, earnest and humiliated) against Bee Expert Brad Crane (top-billed Michael Caine). The verbal conflict between these two combatants persists all the way through the show — they butt noses on every issue that comes up. Irwin Allen’s directing method appears to consist of asking every player to deliver every confrontation at top pitch. Consummate pro performers Widmark and Caine, prevented from pacing their ‘big’ reactions, are seemingly asked to take things to the limit again and again. Caine usually pulls out his screaming-fit act only if absolutely necessary, and then only once. Here he simply gives up: his Brad the Bee Man walks and talks with total control, then blasts into screaming overdrive, then goes back to his previous state again. Stirling Silliphant did some fine writing over the years, but not in association with Allen. More often than not, a scene will end with one star declaring a ‘dramatic’ dialogue line, and then just walking out of the room. Nobody shows General Slater the slightest respect.
We’re told that Slater’s adjutant Major Baker (Bradford Dillman) has a scowl on his face 90% of the time simply because the actor hated the job, hated director Allen and didn’t feel like controlling himself. Do such things really happen on major films?
Other stars cope by going catatonic. Richard Chamberlain hides behind a Southern accent and a beard; he gets high billing for what’s really a glorified cameo. Katharine Ross had put up with some terrible parts in hopeless movies, such as The Singing Nun; here she manages by remaining poised and somewhat aloof. She delivers all of her dialogue in a monotone purr, so as to at least be consistent. These characters are repeatedly confronted by gruesome corpses and the threat of imminent death, yet in most scenes they don’t seem anywhere near as concerned as they ought to be. Maybe they know something we don’t — while the editors show stuntmen and extras staggering in agony, covered with bees, stars like Ross and Caine frequently sprint through the same streets and rooms, avoiding a horrible death by simply ducking their heads slightly. These two romantic leads are in charge of the bee defense force, yet wander off to do various personal errands, like worrying themselves over the fate of a single kid (Christian Juttner) orphaned by the first attack. When the kid tearfully confesses that he brought on the second attack that has killed hundreds, Caine’s Dr. Crane takes time out to comfort him. Ain’t that sweet?
Much of the blatantly offensive, I-wanna-scream stupidity plays out in a small desert town under assault by the bees. Before, during and after the attacks, with hundreds of dead in the streets, the citizens go on conducting business far too calmly, as if they’d been lobotomized. Taking the prize for the worst romantic interest subplot ever conceived by man, is a cutesy flirtation triangle between school principal Olivia de Havilland (age 62) and two town dolts, Fred MacMurray (age 70) and Ben Johnson (age 60). The swains bump into each other while plaguing Olivia with dueling marriage proposals. She responds with coy remarks and eye fluttering. It’s a shocking waste of good acting talent; they all come off like idiots. The little town square set is familiar from many other shows. What with MacMurray present, one might confuse these cutesy scenes with an inane ’60s Disney family show.
The ‘sidebar’ dramas remain compartmentalized — Slim Pickens doesn’t interact with de Havilland, that sort of thing. The woefully underused Patty Duke must give birth while the bees swarm overhead, but the actress mostly seems ill-at-ease, as if she mistook the title ‘The Swarm’ for a play by Ibsen. Slim Pickens’ standard galoot character is equally subdued as he spars with General Slater. When you see his crying breakdown scene coming, I recommend you leave the room until it’s over. Seen only on a TV monitor is Cameron Mitchell, a Pentagon muckety-muck barking orders at Widmark. But since Allen directs him to look way off to the right of the closed-circuit TV camera, Mitchell appears to be talking to somebody in the same room with him, not Slater.
Lee Grant shows up as an intrepid reporter forecasting doom for the viewing audience, and to spit out her share of the unending dumb plot exposition that tells us things we already know, like, ‘those darn bees are on the way.’ Like Katharine Ross, Ms. Grant also keeps her face and eyes rigid, and affects a straight declarative monotone. For a few seconds we’re not sure this is the same animated Lee Grant we know and love. José Ferrer steps in for a few seconds of orating and shouting, in a power station set and in front of a Van Der Veer blue screen. In his cultivated goatee, Ferrer seems far too lofty an individual to know which switches to throw on a power station control panel.
In all fairness, one actor does overpower the awful screenplay, making a scene work in spite of itself. Henry Fonda’s crotchety, wheelchair-bound researcher does the old “I’ll try my antidote on myself” routine, and works up an excellent couple of minutes of sweaty suffering and breathless relief. Don’t get me wrong, the scene doesn’t work. But Fonda feels real, and earns his salary big-time.
The bee attacks impress only in close-ups — a number of extras and featured players allow themselves to be covered with real live buzzing bees. I think the only stars that get in on the act are José Ferrer and Richard Chamberlain, which makes me wonder if the bee wranglers were actually working with mass quantities of ‘near bees.’ Warners’ publicity talks about tens of thousands of bees having their stingers removed, a screwy claim I haven’t the desire to investiate. But the bee wranglers manage to fill rooms and even some of the outdoors with what look like real bees, shots that don’t look easy to pull off. Less impressive are visuals of Olivia de Havilland squirming and grimacing while pressing herself up against a window, the opposite side of which is covered with swarming bees. She looks like she’s in drug withdrawal, and the bees are a bee-sting Delirium Tremens hallucination.
Indeed, do these mutant bees possess the power to cloud men’s minds? Both the kid and Katharine Ross see the same phantom big bees floating over their hospital beds, like big fuzzy piñatas. Ludicrous.
In other effects, air cannons fire huge quantities of bees that might actually be styrofoam, or breakfast cereal. At least its an organic effect; most all the actual optical effects look terrible. The clouds of bees swarming move nicely, but change color as they are composited, or are matted poorly; they never look as menacing as they should. The final defense of Houston compels the military to torch the entire city to combat the bees, and Allen does arrange for ten guys firing real flame throwers to work in the same shot. But even a tot would realize that the little spurts of fire would not stop a swarm, and the show never decides how big the fires are supposed to bee, I mean, be. It ends up as an excuse for Irwin Allen to film more shots of guys staggering around in flames, as in Towering Inferno.
By that time Allen has lost the audience anyway. Instead of resolving any of his irrelevant sidebar dramas, he simply dispenses with them. An entire group including major players are eliminated in a train that crashes while under bee attack. It’s pretty insulting to be asked to follow the lame storyline for these people, just to have the director wipe them out for his narrative convenience: that was one of the main sins of Towering Inferno.
I see no clues that any of this mess was meant to be intentionally funny, an in-joke. I don’t believe for a moment that Irwin Allen ever intended his audience to be laughing with the film’s constant barrage of terrible dialogue and impossible acting moments. He seems completely convinced that his drama is a Serious Work and that his audience will be spellbound. We chuckle at the first few gaffes, but things get so dire that the only sane response is jeering and catcalls. Michael Caine is perhaps the one then- bankable star on screen, and we’re happy that this awful payday movie didn’t put him out of business. I wasn’t there to witness a contemporary screening, but I can’t believe that a college age audience would take this movie sitting down.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Swarm is a bright and sharp encoding of Irwin Allen’s giant disaster flop. But fans of ’70s kitsch love almost all the decade’s tacky excesses, and for them WB’s excellent transfer will be a delight. The studio has gone back and reconstituted a full extended TV cut in widescreen and stereo sound. It adds a full forty minutes of footage. Would the show be better at the short length? I don’t know.
Jerry Goldsmith gives the show a regulation pulse-pounding theme for transition scenes, and some sentimental and suspense cues. It’s not his finest hour, but Allen gets his money’s worth. I guess we mostly remember those constant buzzing effects. This show makes me want to insist that bees are indeed our friends, and that they are being endangered by environmental pollution. Recommended is the documentary More than Honey, which dispels the bad rap given Africanized bees. The Swarm likely encouraged little kids to fear all bees, and to smash every lone bee they see.
The sole extra is a promotional TV program from ’78 that takes us behind the scenes of an important movie about the real threat of killer bees. The stars dutifully regurgitate canned statements expressing interest in the ‘important’ subject matter, or tell us that Irwin Allen is a really really organized director who believes in his mission. About ten times we see Allen on the set, urging everybody to take safety precautions. He can’t have been that terrible to work for, because some of these old pros worked for him more than once. But I can still imagine Michael Caine holding his contract while dialing Steve McQueen or Paul Newman to ask, “The money is really tempting … am I going to regret taking this job?”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Awful, terrible but maybe you like The Brady Bunch too.
Supplements: 22-minute TV promotional show
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 10, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson