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"Disaster Flicks of the 1970s"

by Terry Lawson, Knight-Ridder Newspapers

It was a decade of disaster, and that's not even taking leisure suits, Spiro
Agnew and Journey into consideration.

No, for all the solemn talk about the 1970s being the last great era of the
American movie, it's instructive to remember that it began with AIRPORT
(1970), the movie that established the disaster movie formula that dominated
the decade, and folded with METEOR (1979), a memorable flop that just
happened to be about a giant meteor hurtling toward Earth.

As we face ARMAGEDDON (1998), it's apparent an airplane crash has become
just a prelude to the real movie; see CON AIR (1996) for confirmation. But
the success of DEEP IMPACT (1998), which emphasized character over comet,
has some people in Hollywood re-evaluating the effects-and-explosions
equation; there is even a plan to revive the franchise that started it all,
with AIRPORT 2000.

So if ARMAGEDDON leaves you feeling pulverized, or DEEP IMPACT left you
feeling you had skipped an important chapter in movie history, take comfort
in knowing that the original decade of disaster is only a video store away.
Rent any of these movies, and kiss that sense of security good-bye.

* AIRPORT (1970). For a generation that grew up on AIRPLANE! (1980), the
definitive disaster spoof, it may be impossible to take the GRAND
HOTEL-style melodramatics of this adaptation of Arthur Hailey's best-seller
seriously. But the combination of a star-studded cast (Burt Lancaster,
Jacqueline Bisset and, of course, that nice old Helen Hayes), multiple story
lines and special effects (in this case, just an airplane with a big hole in
it) had moviegoers biting nails and buying tickets.

* THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). Before there was the enormous undertaking
that was TITANIC (1997), there was Shelley Winters, who was the largest of
the notable names (Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and future-disaster-
lampooner Leslie Nielsen) on the manifest of the luxury liner that is
capsized by a tidal wave in this surprisingly well-directed (by Ronald Neame)
picture.

* THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). This is junk, but it's star-studded junk,
with some of Hollywood's greatest actors -- Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Fred
Astaire, Faye Dunaway, William Holden -- forced to team up with some of its
worst -- Robert Wagner and Vaughn, and O.J. Simpson -- to rescue revelers
from a burning skyscraper. Producer Irwin Allen spent the rest of his career
trying to repeat the recipe, culminating in the ultimate bee-invasion movie,
1970's THE SWARM.

* THE HINDENBURG (1975). When Robert Wise accepted his American Film
Institute Lifetime Achievement Award in June of 1998, he didn't mention this
box-office lead zeppelin about the 1937 airship crash. Rumor has it, though,
that the day after TITANIC opened, every studio in Hollywood had eyes to do
a new version of the story. This one had George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Gig
Young and Charles Durning among the potential victims, mixed newsreel footage
into the fiction and made a case for sabotage. It earned Oscars for visual
and sound effects.

* THE BIG BUS (1976). Even as the disaster movie craze was at its peak, it
was being satirized in this silly, but occasionally hilarious spoof, which
filled a nuclear-powered luxury bus -- complete with cocktail pianist --
with an assortment of wiseacres (Stockard Channing, Joe Bologna, Jose
Ferrer, Larry Hagman), then cut the brake cord.

* TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976). The decidedly odd couple of Charlton Heston and
John Cassavetes co-starred in this down-to-earth disaster drama, which put a
sniper in a sold-out football stadium. One of the more pointless pleasures
to be found in disaster films is contemplating whatever happened to the hot
faces of the moment who rounded out the huge casts; this one includes Pamela
Bellwood and David Groh, fleetingly famous for being the husband of TV's
RHODA.

* THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1977). The disaster movie went international with
this British-financed variation, which put Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren,
Richard Harris, Alida Valli, Martin Sheen and O.J. Simpson (again) on a
Europe-traveling train, which just happens to be carrying a strain of deadly
plague and which just happens to get stuck on a weakened bridge.

* GRAY LADY DOWN (1978). Heston, who provides narration for ARMAGEDDON,
played the captain of a damaged and stranded nuclear submarine that could do
some real damage unless David Carradine, designer of an experimental diving
craft ("That will never work!"), is allowed to mount a rescue. The effects
compensate for the hokiness, and Christopher Reeve has a small role as an
officer.

* THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979). If this is the best of all disaster movies, it
is purely by accident. The primary intent of Jane Fonda, who starred in the
film as a reporter trying to get at the truth involving a cover-up of a
California nuclear power plant accident, was dramatizing the potential
dangers of converting to nuclear energy. Director James Bridges remembered
to make it exciting as well.

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