Posts Tagged ‘Earthquake’

Sometimes you sit down to watch a movie in the fairly certain knowledge that it is not going to be – how can I put it? – entertaining in the intended sense. (I write this as someone who often enjoys really bad movies much more than reasonably competent ones.) Something about the opening titles of Mark Robson’s 1974 film Earthquake started sending subliminal messages that this was going to be one of those occasions, practically from the word go. Ominous music plays over various scenes of Los Angeles and its inhabitants, all enjoying another day of sun, and there’s nothing immediately grisly about how it’s put together, beyond the fact that it all somehow looks a bit TV-movie-ish.

Various plots start to unfurl. We are, of course, in disaster movie territory here, and the conventions of the genre require a lengthy period of introduction, establishing all the various characters and their concerns before we get to the good stuff (i.e. the wide-screen death and destruction). Is the appearance of Charlton Heston as Stewart Graff, top American footballer turned ace civil engineer, the moment at which Earthquake crosses the Rubicon into bad movie territory? I would say not, but then I like Charlton Heston and generally cut him some slack.

Graff is the main character and the film dwells on his situation at some length.  It seems he is working for his father-in-law’s construction company. Said father-in-law, Royce, is played by Lorne Greene, who is a familiar face from TV rather than an actual bona fide movie star, but whatever. Royce’s daughter and Graff’s wife is Remy, who is played by Ava Gardner, another of those grand old Golden Age of Hollywood stars who was still roaming the landscape in the middle 1970s.

Sadly, however, Graff and Remy have found themselves trapped in a loveless marriage (mainly, it must be said, because the plot appears to demand it). Graff is pondering some extramarital whoa-ho-ho with young widow Denise (Genevieve Bujold), and it is the tension in this love triangle, and Graff’s personal dilemma with respect to it, which is the central dramatic pillar of the movie.

Still, you can’t have a properly spectacular earthquake with only one pillar about the place, and so it is with Earthquake the movie: various other plotlines are being painted in at the same time (with the kind of broad brush that will be familiar to aficionados of the disaster movie genre). These include the various travails of tough cop Lou Slade (George Kennedy), who’s suspended after punching out a colleague over a jurisdictional matter; the tale of tightly-wound supermarket worker Jody (Marjoe Gortner), who seems to have an awful lot of personal issues to process; and the problems of aspiring motorbike daredevil Miles (Richard Rowntree), who’s looking to hit the big time. (It was the mid-1970s, there was a motorcycle daredevil on every corner in the USA.)

Also present (in the first part of the movie, at least) is a subplot about a group of seismologists, in particular one played by Kip Niven. Niven thinks he has figured out a method of earthquake prediction, which is good; what’s not so good is that the numbers suggest a massive, city-levelling quake is imminent. Should they warn people and risk a panic? The head of the university suggests they ask Niven’s supervisor, who is off on a field trip. But there is no answer, for the supervisor has found himself up close and personal with a quake in a pretty terminal way. As methods of generating tension and foreboding go, this is just about competent, but the seismologists are notably absent from the post-quake section of the film, the implication apparently being that they all died (which is sort of ironic). (At least forty minutes was cut from the film before its release, including all the post-quake scenes with the academics.)

Well, as you’ve probably surmised, the massive, city-levelling quake duly turns up and the rest of the movie deals with the aftermath and various problems that arise as a result of it. In simple terms of plot carpentry it’s all fairly sound, although there is inevitably a touch of melodramatic soap opera about how it is actually implemented.

Front and centre in this, once again, is the ongoing entanglement involving Heston, Gardner and Bujold. It’s really something about this which prevents me from taking Earthquake at all seriously as a piece of drama, and my grounds are, I admit, entirely superficial and probably quite reprehensible: Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner were both about fifty when they made this film and – how shall we put it? – the aging process has worked upon them in different ways. Heston has retained that intensely stolid virility which is an essential part of his screen persona. Gardner’s career, on the other hand, was largely defined by her femininity and sensuality, and the fact she was (let’s be honest) a very beautiful woman.

She never feels entirely at home in this movie. Her role is a thankless one: she plays a needy, manipulative woman, almost a shrew, the assassin of Graff’s happiness. Regardless of the facts, she looks significantly older than him – more like Lorne Greene’s wife than his daughter – to the point where the marriage doesn’t really convince, at least not as it’s presented here. And yet the relationship is central to the drama of Earthquake, particularly its climax. Graff is forced, in the starkest and most melodramatic terms, to choose between the obligations of his joyless marriage and the possibility of a new happiness with Denise. The choice he eventually makes is rooted in a rigid and inflexible morality that feels very anachronistic, given the 1970s setting: there’s something very Old Hollywood about this film, so perhaps Ava Gardner does belong here after all.

And yet in other ways one gets a sense of a more modern kind of film-making on the verge of being born: this was 1974, after all, and Jaws and the birth of the modern blockbuster was less than a year away. Earthquake may be sprawling and hokey and melodramatic, but it’s also a high-concept movie dependent on extensive special effects for its success (or otherwise). It even has a score by John Williams. But it’s not quite there yet. If Earthquake feels old-fashioned and clumsy to the modern viewer, that shouldn’t really be a surprise: it probably had more than a whiff of that about it when it was brand new.

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