Directed by Irwin Allen
Written by Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by Arthur Herzog)
The Swarm is 156 minutes long, and I spent every one of them completely unsure how I felt about it—I don't know if any two scenes in a row occupy the same tier of quality or even basic tone, and it goes from good, to great, to fun-bad, to just bad-bad, over and over, sometimes inside the same scene—so that when it ended, I sat with the closing credits, hardly surprised (for its reputation precedes it), but flummoxed. Naturally, I never expected the credits to answer my questions—I just liked listening to Jerry Goldsmith's best impression of John Williams's disaster movie scores—but something in those credits comes closer to explaining The Swarm than anything in the preceding two-and-a-half hours of actual movie:
The African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation.
I thought I'd cracked it: is The Swarm, in fact, meant to be a joke?
Maybe not, but that does sum up the experience of watching a deeply-strange movie that in some respects was taken very seriously, while in others the very notion of seriousness seems to have been violently rejected. It fits with its milieu: the late 70s were a time of exorbitant (and failure-prone) experimentation, as the four-quadrant blockbuster mentality, New Hollywood auteurism, and Old Hollywood nostalgia awkwardly merged. If we think of The Swarm as simply Irwin Allen's version of an unfettered, undisciplined attempt to pay homage to vanished genres within a new idiom, why, it kind-of even makes sense.
Kind-of. It remains as deranged and car-wreck fascinating as anything you're ever likely to see at its budget. It cost $11.5 million according to Allen, some sources claiming up to $21—in fairness to its producer-director, even the latter figure makes it no more costly in real dollars (the late 70s, recall) than his last feature, the hugely-successful Towering Inferno—and while folks will say it looks cheaper and chintzier and drabber than it has any right to (and, indeed, The Swarm has worse set design, worse photography, and worse modelwork than either Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, and genuinely bad visual effects for any major studio movie in 1978), you can still see where that money went if you think about how expensive it had to be for a movie to be about what The Swarm's about and do that justice, given that, in 1978, if you were going to do a movie about swarms of bees you'd basically have to do it with swarms of bees.
So if anything has crystallized my opinion of The Swarm—and it hasn't, for it's a singular work that I'll now probably think about once a week till I die—it was a making-of featurette that must've aired on TV, offering a glimpse at Allen and his cast and crew's struggle to make their film. It's essentially an advertisement, but seeing it from behind the camera emphasizes that, as shabby as The Swarm gets in its attempt to tell a story about mutant killer bees, it's amazing that Allen was ever able to marshal the resources to tell that story at all. Not to mention that hundreds of people, from stunt artists to PAs to actual beekeepers to old movie stars like Olivia de Havilland (who could never have expected she'd have to deal with this shit back when she was making, for example, The Heiress), were courageous enough to show up and do their jobs in the midst of fire and collapsible sets and—by Allen's accounting—22 million mother. fucking. bees.
It was marketed as hard-nosed speculative fiction—which makes it seem more like a joke—taking as its subject the contemporary panic over the northern migration of the African/European hybrid honeybee population from its birthplace in Brazil, where ill-advised experiments to create a more robust pollinator and honey-producer for tropical climes had resulted in a bee with a very bad temper and few of the benefits of the domesticated model. It probably won't surprise you to learn that, as of 2021, they've been here for decades and have not caused the apocalypse. Indeed, we may well have selectively-pressured the most undesirable populations out of existence already, inasmuch as the more aggressive a bee colony is, the more likely it is to be deliberately exterminated. These days some do exist in domesticated colonies. (But does The Swarm also use its African bees as a queasy, H.P. Lovecraft-level metaphor for racial anxieties? It's not good that I honestly don't know.)
So: we begin in the sepulchral stillness of a USAF missile base in Texas that's been turned into a tomb by the bees, though the movie pretends we're as ignorant as the investigating airmen who believe it was an enemy chemical attack. Accompanied only by Goldsmith's doomy music, finally they open a door and find Dr. Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), who sneeringly informs them that they're wrong, it's the bees. He explains to Gen. Slater (Richard Widmark) that he saw the gates unlocked and came in to find everyone dead from stings, and he's been wandering around ever since; another survivor, Dr. Helena Anderson (Katharine Ross), corroborates this explanation, as do a pair of helicopter pilots who report a "black mass" in the sky that chokes the life out of their choppers as they fly through it, adding another two corpses to what shall become one outrageously large pile.
Crane, it turns out, is one of the foremost authorities on dangerous insects, and has long been waiting for this day (though he never expected "the bees... they've always been our friends," this being a taste of the kind of dialogue The Swarm puts into all of its actors' mouths, but especially Caine's). With his credentials established, the President gives Crane command over the whole containment operation, and Crane brings in his colleagues, entomologist Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain) and immunologist Krim (Henry Fonda). The latter has his work cut out: these truly are killer bees, their venom far more lethal than you'd expect (or is accurate). Even a few stings can kill you eventually, as is demonstrated to our scientists' horror when victims they'd counted as survivors begin to drop dead days later. The disaster is already spreading, too, for the bees have gained a foothold just outside the nearby town of Marysville. Young Paul Durant (Christian Juttner) discovers this firsthand while out with his parents, who are immediately swarmed and killed; Paul barely survives, but when he returns to pursue a childish act of vengeance, he sets something off within the bees, and after this they seem to regard Marysville and its inhabitants as enemies to be destroyed. Next, they'll turn their sights toward the whole world, and it's all Crane and Slater can do to scramble to keep up.
This is, to put it mildly, different. It fits uneasily within the Allen formula as defined by Poseidon and Inferno. For starters, the disasters there were mindless phenomena, rather than a reactive adversary (or even proactive, believe it or not); I like to think of The Swarm as Allen's attempt to add air to his elemental menagerie of water and fire, but if he was thinking in those terms himself, he'd probably have made a movie about tornadoes. Anyway, rather than whittling down a bunch of random and semi-random characters inside a small and increasingly-deadly space, this one spans ever-outward, seeking victims where it may, ultimately promising regional (even global) menace. One of the core appeals of disaster films is their recognition of a hostile, meaningless universe, so maybe it's odd to criticize this one for being arbitrary. But that's the only fitting description: to a noticeable degree, the casting model that Allen had borrowed from Airport and perfected in Poseidon now becomes the tail wagging the dog, like Allen had put together his all-stars first, then came up with their characters later, assigning his customary screenwriter Stirling Silliphant to give them something—anything—to do.
Hence things like Slim Pickens's minor role as a grieving father in a crudely-inserted scene, or Patty Duke's pregnant widow. Hence the main Marysville subplot itself, a love triangle between Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray's characters, with de Havilland as the point of contention, which plays more like one of Allen's TV disaster movies, only now stuffed inside another movie that has no idea what to do with it, and which, indeed, ultimately rejects it with abrupt savagery. (Though, truthfully, I like that.) The actual narrative, meanwhile, revolves exclusively around science heroes in an underground science base sternly debating blockheaded military men. Fundamentally, it's a 50s sci-fi film combined with a 70s eco-horror film, then roughly organized to somehow hit Allen's disaster movie beats, this time done with geographical sprawl, presumably just for the sake of blockbuster bigness.* And this is how The Swarm achieves that 156 minute runtime, because it really is two movies from two different genres, both of which typically get things done in around 80 minutes, but because of their disparate natures, no real efficiencies were gained in the process of combining them, and Silliphant clearly never sought any.
Yet The Swarm's own killer hybrid nature gives it one of the rarest qualities in disaster cinema: unpredictability. As anyone will tell you, that has its bad points, most blatantly in that Allen and Silliphant never consolidated their ideas into anything coherent—for example, it clearly wants to go full-tilt sci-fi and make its bees intelligent, cf. Phase IV's ants, but for some reason this goofiness was the bridge too far. Likewise, it could never have the grim single-mindedness of other 70s-era bug movies, since for the most part, all those ever wanted was to freak you out (consider the superior TV movie Ants!, which is a more classically Allenesque disaster film about hymenopterans than the actual Allen disaster film about hymenopterans). It fancies itself an educator, but surely has no useful lessons: it wants us to take Crane's side when he rules out pesticide carpet-bombing—I expect Allen didn't want to get political, so the word "DDT" is never uttered—but the bees cause so much environmental damage indirectly by wrecking human infrastructure that it's hard to deny the general's assessment that he should've been in charge. Crane's final gambit is itself an enormous ecological disaster, though he doesn't even seem to realize it. (Plus, it rips off Beginning of the End in a way I find unlikeable, probably just because this is the one piece of foreshadowing The Swarm ever remembers to pay off on—more on that in a second—and it feels like the mechanical application of screenwriting technique, annoyingly so for a disaster movie.)
But it also has its good points. The Swarm comes as close as anything besides Phase IV to fulfilling the promise of the ur-70s bug movie, The Hellstrom Chronicle, and its absurd (indeed, absurdist) prophecies of doom, as bees range over America and eventually rack up a death toll that is displayed for Caine to gravely emote at, and which may as well have said "eleventy jillion" for all that this number means anything. Not everything works, of course; most infamously, we've got the obtuse, borderline-art-film idea that those injected with the bees' venom are visited by hallucinations of a giant bee. I could've been convinced to actually like this, but not everyone who sees the Grim Pollinator actually dies, obviating whatever it was I supposed to get out of that conceit besides astonished laughter.
But for every idea that's misguided or mishandled, there's another one that takes Allen's disaster film brutality to unprecedented levels, and triggers my apiphobia in extremely satisfying ways: the second pair of onscreen kills, the Durant parents at their picnic, is absolutely magnificent, with the stunt artists swarmed with honeybees and forced to pretend to be dead in a scene that made me squirm—Jesus, it almost made me cry—and while this is The Swarm at the peak of its vicarious power, it never stops being impressive when Allen unleashes tens of thousands of bees at his extras and (frequently!) his stars. The Swarm, bowing to Jaws, even musters up the nerve to kill kids. It kills a lot of kids, and whatever else, even in its dumbest-ass frivolities (like a train derailed by bees, that also explodes, or the part where the bees manage to nuke us), I admire the hell out of the unsentimental ugliness that Allen and Silliphant brought to their disaster this time.
The bees focus Allen's energies as a director, too. This was the first film he'd directed solo in a decade and a half, and when he was still at 20th Century Fox for Inferno, they'd insisted that he collaborate with John Guillermin, consigning Allen to the "action sequences." Warner Bros. let Allen direct himself, and if he felt he had something to prove, that impulse passed quickly—the film actually starts off with somewhat-interesting direction-qua-direction, notably a conversation between Caine and Widmark that deploys a very show-offy orbiting camera, but that fades fast, as nearly every other dialogue scene comes with nothing but plainjane flairlessness, at most just low-angles. Allen's craftmen, cinematographer Fred Koenekamp and editor Harold Kress, had each worked on Inferno (Kress had even done Poseidon, a brilliantly-edited film), so I wonder if the debilitating loss must've been Allen's great production designer, William Creber, in favor of Stan Jolley. Jolley was just Allen's TV guy—and while Inferno and Swarm both have, for example, big blinking-light computer center sets, the difference in quality and credibility between the two is depressing. But the action scenes do have flair, and will remind you of Inferno, with the same penchant for gorgeous slow motion to let us experience as fully as possible the rad horribleness of men, women, and children getting stung to death. Even quieter moments of mere dreadfulness (for example, Fonda's big scene) give us something to fidget about.
And if that was all there was to it, The Swarm wouldn't be considered one of the worst movies ever made. That's the consensus, and it isn't unfounded; it really can be acutely terrible. The acting can get extraordinarily bad—as a filmmaker Allen was, ahem, "specialized," but what he was good at he was very good at. Hiring actors was one of those things; handling actors wasn't. Effectively, the cast falls into three categories: actors who didn't care about the film but were ancient professionals (de Havilland, MacMurray, Johnson, Pickens); actors who didn't care about the film but didn't have an autopilot mode to switch to (Ross, Chamberlain, Duke); and actors who were Michael Caine, or forced to interact with a screaming Michael Caine. Caine, who cared insofar as he hated it, is one of the main vectors by which The Swarm becomes automatic parody, particularly in some stunningly miscalibrated confrontations with Widmark—there is one scene where they begin by yelling literally as loudly as they can without losing their voices, and maintain the exact same volume and tone for two straight minutes of dialogue, and it's humiliating that Allen accepted these takes. (As for Fonda, he may represent a fourth category; his performance is even-keeled, even decent. An avid hobbyist beekeeper, perhaps he felt a connection to the material.)
The overriding problem, however, is the world-class shittiness of Silliphant's screenplay, which I can scarcely believe he authored (Poseidon and Inferno have good screenplays, damn you), and, frankly, I can scarcely believe it was the final draft, considering its many years in development. (I assume, perhaps naively, that Arthur Herzog's novel is better.) It's often laughable—Caine's hostile performance makes some of his lines about being a self-righteous eco-weenie better, but he makes others worse—and sometimes it's just uncomfortable, since for some reason Silliphant decided to start abbreviating "Africanized killer bees" to "Africans," with all the unfortunate and highly-predictable results you'd expect. By the twentieth or thirtieth time Widmark mentions his "war with the Africans," it's actually comedic, but the balls-out-even-for-the-70s insensitivity of it might explain the single most needless scene in a movie that's roughly one-third needless scenes, conceivably dropped in during a reshoot, wherein Caine and Chamberlain have a loud, shouty, pedantic, three-minute-long argument over whether the bees are more properly called "Brazilian."
But with "needless scenes," we have the foundational problem with Silliphant's script: it's so structurally dysfunctional it feels like it was written on amphetamines in a single night. Some of that is probably just artless pruning. Even at 156 minutes, connective tissue was clearly left out; the film often teleports into wholly new situations without set-up (e.g., Crane and Anderson's weird "date" in the abandoned town, which is trying for "eerie" and only accomplishes "confusing"). But The Swarm also had a 116-minute theatrical cut, and I'd be very interested in seeing that, because—counter-intuitively—the nature of The Swarm is that all its narrative snarls seem to occur only because it's too long. Silliphant introduces a number of elements that simply evaporate—the what-the-shit worst being a subplot regarding Slater's very reasonable mistrust regarding the bee scientist who just-so-happened to visit a missile base the day it was attacked by bees, leading to an aggregate ten minutes spent pursuing suspicions that are forgotten long before the film ends. It's plausible that, carved down to an essential 116 minutes, The Swarm actually could be a good movie. Though contemporary critics certainly disagreed.
Yet I value it: what it does well (bees; death), it's aces at. What it does badly (humans; hallucinations; nuclear safety) is so fuckin' wild that it's too much fun to stay mad at. The Swarm is long but never boring—it ultimately winds up silly all the time for the last half-hour (it's a stupid groove, but a groove nevertheless), and so, in a way, it gets better even as it gets worse. It bombed hugely. It deserved to. It crippled its whole genre. I can see why. But honestly? I'd watch it again, right now.
*Thus making The Swarm the first 70s disaster picture that feels like it actually influenced latterday disaster-master Roland Emmerich.