Earthquake

Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: George Fox and Mario Puzo
Stars: Charlton Heston (Graff), Ava Gardner (Remy), George Kennedy (Slade), Lorne Greene (Royce), Geneviève Bujold (Denise), Richard Roundtree (Miles), Marjoe Gortner (Jody), Barry Sullivan (Stockle), Lloyd Nolan (Dr. Vance), Victoria Principal (Rosa), Walter Matthau (Drunk), Monica Lewis (Barbara)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1974
Country: U.S.
Earthquake Shout! Select Blu-ray
Earthquake

Rushed into production and completed at breakneck speed in order to beat the competing disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974) to theaters (which it did … by a month), Mark Robson’s Earthquake is an archetype of its genre, although that doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. A “what if?” disaster epic about a massive quake shaking Los Angeles to rubble, it was bestowed with multiple Oscars for its visual effects and sound design, which at the time were a mixture of the groundbreaking (Sensurround!) and a copious deployment of old Hollywood tricks dating back to the silent era. It is a masterclass of matte paintings and miniatures, although many of the optical effects have not dated well and the whole thing has a fakey feel so that you’re never convinced you’re watching anything other than a cavalcade of special effects.

A major part of the problem is the drama, which is silly and limp, a going-through-the-motions sham that relies heavily on tired formula. Director Mark Robson began his career as an editor, working with Robert Wise on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) before directing superior, low-key horror films for producer Val Lewton like The Seventh Victim (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945). He had been nominated for Best Director Oscars for Peyton Place (1957) and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) and had directed the socially progressive war film Home of the Brave (1949) for producer Stanley Kramer, but by the time he helmed Earthquake, his penultimate film, he was probably best known for the campy hit Valley of the Dolls (1967), whose leaden drama and uneven tone foretold the messiness of Eathquake’s confused dramatics.

Following in the footsteps of Airport (1970) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which helped to establish the parameters of the disaster genre that was so popular throughout the 1970s, Earthquake spreads its narrative across a wide range of characters. What makes Earthquake unique, though, is how disagreeable and unsympathetic many of its characters are, beginning with the ostensible protagonist, Graff (Charlton Heston), a burly engineer who is trapped in a miserable marriage to Remy (Ava Gardner), an unpleasant, narrow-eyed drama queen who fakes (poorly) her own suicide in the opening scene to get his attention. Graff feels trapped because he is employed by Remy’s wealthy father, Royce (Lorne Green), and his attention is increasingly drawn to Denise (Geneviève Bujold), a young, single mother and aspiring actress. Remy is insufferable in her attention-seeking charades and constant glaring, but there is a truly odious whiff of misogyny in the way she is portrayed as the villain while Graff, who is every bit her equal in awfulness, is presented as a long-suffering hero. Heston, who had reinvented himself in the early ’70s in films like Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1972), is given too much star power, while Gardner, in her fading years, deserves much better.

When we aren’t mired in the sad-sack dynamics of Graff and Remy’s miserable and profoundly uninteresting marriage, the screenplay by George Fox and Mario Puzo (the latter of whom had to leave early to work on The Godfather Part II) throws together a few vaguely interconnected subplots involving a host of other characters, including Slade, a no-nonsense police officer (George Kennedy); Miles, a stunt motorcyclist who models himself on Evel Knievel (Richard Roundtree); Miles’s manager (Gabriel Dell); his manager’s sister, Rosa (Victoria Principle), and Jody, a grocery store supervisor (Marjoe Gortner) who is also a member of the National Guard and a budding psychopath. Most of these are characters are stock players, culled from a list of “typical” denizens of a big city, each representing a type and filling screen space. The one exception is Jody, who is such an intensely weird and provocative character that he feels like he was imported wholesale from another film. Part of his weirdness is that he is played by Marjoe Gortner, who had already achieved cultural infamy as a fiery Pentecostal preacher about whom an Oscar-winning documentary had been made just a few years earlier (1972’s Marjoe). Gortner has wild eyes and wild hair and a creepy air, and he plays the proverbial bullied victim (he is taunted by a trio of alpha males who accuse him of being gay) who gets to unleash all his repressed rage once the earthquake hits and all the normal rules cease to apply. His rage is directly murderous and sexually violent, and it is all too much for this otherwise silly enterprise.

And that brings us to the earthquake itself, which takes up about 11 minutes of screen time at almost exactly the halfway point of the movie, where theaters were literally shaken by Sensurround, a proprietary new sound design technology that basically amounted to huge subwoofers rattling the audience. More than a few critics at the time suggested that Earthquake was Hollywood’s ultimate act of self-loathing, tearing down the very city in which it was based and reducing every iconic location—from the Hollywood Dam, to the Capitol Records Building—to smoldering ruins (the irony is that virtually the entire film was shot on the Universal backlot, with familiar locations literally a mile away recreated with matte paintings and miniatures). The destruction is duly impressive, balancing a gee-whiz appreciation of the special effects artistry with some nods toward the severity of the carnage. Sometimes this works, and we feel a gnawing sense of terror as we project ourselves into the harrowing scenario, and at other points it is just hokey, such as when an elevator full of people crashing to their deaths is punctuated by a clearly animated splatter of blood right into the camera lens. Buildings collapse, dams fail, fire and smoke abound, all with carefully composed optics that encourage you to revel in the ruin. But, for all the bodies falling and crushed when “the big one” hits, there is never really anything at stake other than whether or not we are convinced by the effects (this is underscored by the distracting presence of Walter Matthau in a wordless—and needless—cameo as a drunk in a pimp costume comically surviving the chaos by doing nothing).

Some of Earthquake’s best scenes are the sustained moments of suspense created by characters trying to escape the ruins, the best being Graff and Royce lowering people down several floors in a partially collapsed skyscraper using a firehose and a desk chair while noxious gas spews all around them. In a better movie Graff’s heroics—of which there are many—would somehow redeem his character or at least given him additional dimensions, but here it plays like a stipulation in Heston’s contract: “must save many people in lasting fit of self-effacing heroics.” Earthquake isn’t as cynically downbeat as The Cassandra Crossing (1976) in its brutal sacrifice of innocent civilians, but it certainly winds its way toward an ending that is more resigned to loss any sense of optimism about the future. “This used to be a helluva of a town,” a character intones in the final moment. What a send-off.

Earthquake Shout! Select Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.1 surround
  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • “Scoring the Disaster: The Music of Earthquake” featurette
  • “Painting the Disaster: The Matte Art of Albert Whitlock” featurette
  • “Sounds of Disaster: Ben Burtt Talks About Sensurround” featurette
  • Audio Interview with actor Charlton Heston
  • Audio Interview with actory Lorne Greene
  • Audio Interview with actor Richard Roundtree
  • TV scenes compilation
  • Two additional TV scenes
  • Production and Publicity photo gallery
  • Behind-the-Scenes photo gallery
  • Matte Paintings and Miniatures photo gallery
  • Deleted Scenes photo gallery
  • Posters & Lobby Cards gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV spot
  • Radio spots
  • DistributorShout! Factory
    Release DateMay 21, 2019

    COMMENTS
    This two-disc set includes both the 122-minute theatrical version of Earthquake and the 154-minute television version, which was broadcast over two nights and includes about half an hour of additional footage, much of which was shot specifically for this version (each film is on its own disc). The image comes from a 2K scan of the 35mm interpositive and is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio (the initial batch of discs had an incorrect 2.20:1 aspect ratio that was corrected with a disc replacement program). The television version has been reconstructed using that scan and scans of the shot-for-television footage, which is in much rougher shape (quite a bit of speckling and age-related artifacts) and is in the televisual 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The theatrical version looks very good, with strong detail, good color saturation, and visual clarity that doesn’t look unduly sharp and maintains evident grain. There are a few minor signs of age and wear, but not much. Obviously, for a movie that was sold largely on its sound design, the soundtracks are crucial, and Shout! has come through nicely. The remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack is very good, with excellent directionality, ambient effects, and plenty of low-end. There is also a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.1-channel soundtrack that more directly replicates the Sensurround theatrical experience, with a two-channel stereo mix underscored with tons of low-frequency effects. Either soundtrack provides plenty of heft and power in the earthquake scenes. The plentiful supplements are spread across the two discs. The theatrical version disc includes excerpts from audio interviews with stars Charlton Heston (4 min.), Lorne Greene (5 min.), and Richard Roundtree (4 min.), as well as five photo galleries, all of which play as a slideshow: Production and Publicity (100+ images), Behind-the-Scenes (35 images), Matte Paintings and Miniatures (35 images), Deleted Scenes (6 images), and Posters & Lobby Cards (100+ images). There is also a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, and half a dozen radio spots. The second disc with the extended television version adds three new retrospective featurettes: “Scoring Disaster: The Music of Earthquake,” a 17-minute interview with film music historian Jon Burlingame about John Williams’s score and his work at Universal; “Painting Disaster: The Matte Art of Albert Whitlock” (11 min.), an excellent look back at the incredible work of matte painter Albert Whitlock through an appreciative interview with cinematographer and visual effects supervisor Bill Taylor; and “Sounds of Disaster: Ben Burtt Talks About Sensurround” (11 min.), an interview with multi-Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt about the film’s iconic sound and technology. This disc also includes all of the television scenes, which run about 24 minutes total, in a separate compilation, and two additional TV scenes that Shout! left out of the reconstructed longer version because the quality was so poor (apparently the film elements were lost, so they only exist on low-resolution video transfer).

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    All images copyright © Shout! Factory

    Overall Rating: (2)




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