Directed by Mark Robson
Written by Mario Puzo and George Fox
Whatever else, this cannot be denied: Earthquake has one of the all-time great posters, built around one of the all-time great film logos, with one of the all-time great film taglines. Taken together, it's a piece of maximalist minimalism that, I think, sums up the 70s disaster film perfectly, both in ways it intends and in ways it doesn't, from the way it evokes downright cosmic destruction, to the way it sells that destruction to you with the kind of understatement that isn't ("An Event..."), to the way it crunches its stars down into little boxes at the bottom, allowing you to ignore them, while emphasizing with huge white negative space that an earthquake is everything that it will attempt to be about. There are 70s disaster films that pursue more abstract themes—The Poseidon Adventure is about a godless universe; The Towering Inferno is about towering arrogance—but there is a pronounced tendency for them to simply be about themselves, and that's just fine. Certainly, Earthquake is about nothing more nor less than what it promises with that poster, and when it tries (and, unfortunately, it does occasionally try), it is usually worse. Indeed, you could smoosh most of those little box people down into even smaller fractions of the movie than they already occupy, and it would probably be that much better for it.
Which is the nicest way I could think of for saying that, after a run of films that were good or, frequently, much better than good, even when they didn't have any "point," 1974's Earthquake lives down to the disaster flick's reputation as being mediocre or worse; yet I chose the nicest possible way of saying it for a reason, because there is something about the blunt, take-me-as-I-am honesty of Earthquake that I respect, even when it's often artless and dull. Why it turned out that way is unclear, though my guess is simple miscalibration. Jennings Lang began development of the project at Universal almost as soon as Airport had proven itself successful, and Lang's initial impulse—which was a good one—was to expand the destruction far beyond the confines of an airplane cabin. No later than February '71—the month of the San Fernando quake—Lang fixed upon a tectonic disturbance as the subject of his film, and he then kind of just sat on it for a good long while, perhaps unsure whether Airport might've been a fluke. Nonetheless, in mid-'72, he handed the basic scenario to Mario Puzo (yes, that one, fresh off adapting his novel, The Godfather) to come up with a way to frame it within a criscrossed story of human beings. It didn't take. Puzo had to get back to work on more respectable fare (namely The Godfather Part II), and his first draft had left Lang and director Mark Robson with a movie that would've quickly exceeded their budget; his replacement, first-time screenwriter George Fox, eventually managed to slim it down into something that fit the $7 million ceiling Universal had imposed. (Which still seems wild to me, that so many of these bigger, brawnier post-Airports somehow cost so much less than Airport.) In the meantime, The Poseidon Adventure had demonstrated a superior model, and it clearly had some influence; but you can tell that Earthquake took a parallel evolutionary path.
Accordingly, Earthquake devises its own ways to solve what had been identified as Airport's problems (the paciness, the lack of death), though there clearly wasn't any ambition to reinvent the wheel altogether, starting with the way it lifts structure and at least one entire subplot from its predecessor: the single biggest plot in Earthquake is easily recognized as a less humane, less interesting copy of Airport's own "middle-aged husband hates his wife and would prefer to bang his significantly younger friend" soap opera. Irwin Allen, therefore, was a factor only to the extent that Lang was dead set on beating Allen's Poseidon follow-up, The Towering Inferno, before it made it to theaters in December—that this was Lang's overriding goal suggests to me that Lang's actual Airport sequel, Airport 1975, which came out in October and even shares Earthquake's two leading men, was intended solely as a cheap stopgap, just in case Earthquake did not make its release date—but in the end, Earthquake did, possibly to its detriment as a cinematic object if not to its detriment as a blockbusting titan, beating The Towering Inferno by a month.
Earthquake dominated November's box office, though by the same token it's absolutely certain that its story/stories/"stories" were never the reason anybody saw it, let alone saw it twice. The aforementioned Airport soap opera, anyway, is still its most acceptable one, and so we open with Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston), former football star and now an accomplished architect, having another battle with his wife Remy Royce-Graff (Ava Gardner). We shall learn over the course of the film—though the basic outline is clear enough already—that Remy married Stewart when he was much more callow and much less successful, and she has possibly spent decades resenting the fact that while marrying the daughter of an established architect (Lorne Greene) undoubtedly gave him the entrée he needed to start his career, he's long since established his own independent reputation, and he does not need her anymore. She has allowed this to transform her into an insane gorgon, as is demonstrated when she fakes a suicide attempt only to be interrupted by the shock of a small earthquake. Disgusted, Stewart leaves (and I would rather call him "Graff," as the closing credits and many of his scene partners do, for the disaster genre often stays at arm's length from its heroes, and seems to prefer the formality of surnames); and Graff immediately travels over to visit his late colleague's widow, Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), where he has a nice morning coffee with the woman in her bathrobe while being nice to her son Corry (Tiger Marshall). You can predict where this goes, but in the meantime there are many others to attend to, from passionate cop Lou Slade (George Kennedy), to the striving motorcycle stuntman with Knievel envy, Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), and his friends, Sal and Rosa Amici (Gabriel Dell and Victoria Principal), to the put-upon grocer and National Guardsman, Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner).
These stories are not created equal: the Graff melodrama is the only major thread that Earthquake treats with any genuine sobriety (and while I suppose that Slade's character is taken somewhat seriously, his interaction with the more spurious figures, for example Walter Mathau's extended cameo as a drunk so drunk that he keeps trying to order drinks during the quake, or Principal's featured performance as a snug T-shirt model, is too frequent for it not to rub off on him). Obviously this is Earthquake's foundational problem, in that we spend a great deal of time with barely-sketched cartoons. However, it does take its organizing principle seriously, even if you're not apt to describe its main plot's handmaids as "characters." Thus even before the disaster arrives in full force, all its best scenes still involve the potential for a quake, with the first hour defined on the one hand by its very random-ass assortment of Angelenos, but on the other by numerous portentous cutaways to the seismologists at their lab and the workers and authorities at the Mulholland Dam. Up at the lab, a seismology grad student, Walter Russell (Kip Nivens), has predicted that these little quakes herald an enormous earthquake, and Walter is of course correct. At almost exactly the halfway mark, that magnitude 9.9 earthquakes hits Los Angeles like a thermonuclear bomb, and everything thereafter is the plight of the survivors.
But let's dwell a little while on the quake itself, because this is where the movie becomes "An Event..." in earnest. Roughly ten full minutes in length, Robson and his special effects technicians go wild with that budget, and every single set we have seen so far in the film, upwards of a dozen, is utterly destroyed, one after the other, interspersed with a lot of other stuff getting utterly destroyed, including cars which have tons of actual masonry dropped on them while stuntpeople stand right next to them, plus a number of other stuntpeople who get whacked with, hopefully, lighter materials. It's genuinely fantastic for the most part, and generates an enormous body count. It offers a sense of scope that only Godzilla or a geological calamity like Earthquake's earthquake could have provided. It uses a whole host of techniques, from models to full-sized constructions, and, to visualize a "gas main break," they might've literally just blown up some houses. There is also a very thrilling bit where Denise is chased down a hill by some arrogantly-built stilt homes that turn out not to be very stable at all in an earthquake. But back to the "every single set" part: it's extraordinary to see a movie so completely obliterate itself, let alone all at once. It captures a deliriously apocalyptic feel; and, fittingly, the seismologists who'd sought to exact some measure of control over the Earth are the first to die when their lab falls in on their heads. Of course, it's awfully gratifying to watch: if disaster movies have a not-unearned reptuation as "destruction porn," then the middle of Earthquake is a cumshot compilation.
It's not all the action Earthquake gets up to—the eventual collapse of the dam affords us a flood, and it's also pretty excellent—but the film's centerpiece section is so long that it's almost numbing, and I mean that in a good way. In its original theatrical release, Earthquake came with a gimmick that amped this up even more, a "Sensurround" sound mix that elevated the bass to such powerful levels that, besides the audience feeling the quake in their bones, it actually shook loose chunks of the Grauman's Chinese Theater's ceiling during its test run. (On the first public screening, they put up a net.) Even the narrative-free purposelessness of the montage works in its way, underlining how impossible it is that any human (even the director) could assert their will upon it. Nevertheless, it's slightly infamous for one astonishingly bad directorial choice: when Robson couldn't get one particular stunt to work out (bodies being smashed in an elevator with squib-triggered blood packs, which apparently didn't fire correctly), he took recourse to a big optically-printed "spatter" of candy apple red "blood" across a still frame. At less than a second long, it's almost not even really there, so it doesn't ruin anything—but it's hard not to gainsay the sound judgment of the producers who cut it for the television version.
The second half that this ushers in is, naturally, better than the first, since following nonentities around a city turned into a hellscape is automatically more compelling than watching them wandering around in their own personal 70s sitcoms. Earthquake gets some good survival-thriller stuff out of the ruins it's made of its sets, particularly in the difficult escape from Graff and Royce's office tower. (Graff inevitably has cause to pontificate on the foolishness of skyscrapers, and so with The Towering Inferno, the winter of 1974 generated the equivalent of a billion 2020 dollars out of anguished sighs about the inherent vainglory of tall buildings.) The visual effects are serviceable, on average, though really they swing from charming mattework, courtesy legendary special photographer Clifford Stine, to some pretty chintzy flame effects laid on top of buildings, plus a very curious insistence that, actually, smoke is green. It is, at least, a moodier film after the quake, which, other than some aerial photography and John Williams's score, has spent an hour coming off shockingly televisual. Philip Lathrop's cinematography is particularly flat—it's nuts how much better-looking the cheaper Airport 1975 comes off, even being shot by the same man—and Dorothy Spencer's editing has been and continues to be mostly just a series of functional blocks, though in fairness her work was savaged from a first cut of 153 minutes down to 123 for theatrical release. (That said, I'm on the studio's side.)
The quake by no means shakes all the lumps out of that screenplay, either, and for all the effort spent spinning plot thread after plot thread, Earthquake manages to lose track of them surprisingly easily. Roundtree's stuntman more or less disappears from the film entirely—he was, in fact, a last-minute addition due to the phenomenon of Shaft, but that's not much of an excuse for a movie that has blatantly promised motorcycle stunts in a quake-rocked wasteland. It's clearer what Earthquake thinks it's doing with Jody, who goes mad with power the minute he puts on his Guardsman uniform, though it isn't much more successful: we've spent too much time with the blunt cartoonishness of his backstory for Jody to be truly effective in his role, and while you get the gist—Jody is mankind's barely-concealed beastliness with the mask off—it's too overcooked to work as mythic archetype, and too underwritten to work as anything resembling actual human psychology.
So even the back half, then, comes down to Graff's melodrama. Happily, the narrative spine of the film holds up after all—Heston is by far the best in show here, no surprise, and Bujold is also very good at selling an affection for the old man (not good at all at hiding her active lack of horniness for him, but oh well), while Gardner is almost depressing as Graff's trainwreck of a wife—and Earthquake, while bearing a disagreeable moralizing streak, also grounds this as much as a movie like it could in actual character, so that we conclude on a downbeat note and a surprising moral choice that, through Heston's performance, genuinely does feel grimly inevitable once it happens. (And why not? Heston wrote it. Fox's screenplay ended the other way around.) The pessimism of it just feels correct: Earthquake is a "fun" movie, overall, if you like collapsing sets and armies of stuntpeople plying their craft, which I do, but there's an ambivalence in its meaninglessness that probably owes as much to its era as to anything else, and seems terribly fitting for a film that concludes with Los Angeles still burning. If there's anything here besides technology, and I'd say there's a little something, it's that even after all the horror and heroism, Earthquake still has nothing close to a "happy ending" for anyone involved.