Revisiting the Reviled — ‘Earthquake’ is a Multi-Layered Disaster

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

If history is any indicator, disaster movies come out in spurts. There was the initial boom of the disaster movie in the ‘70s with films like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. After a two-decade hiatus, the disaster movie was back with films like Independence Day and Twister. While the disaster movie has tapered off in the two decades since, replaced by the superhero film, San Andreas looks to be a successor, tapping into our fears of disaster and the need for heroism. With a potential revival for the disaster film on the horizon, there’s no better time to look back at 1974’s Earthquake, a successful disaster film that seemingly nobody speaks of in high regard, let alone at all.

Like most disaster films of the ‘70s, Earthquake features an expansive cast of movie stars headlined by Charlton Heston. But the name that sticks out in the opening credits is that of Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather. Puzo was involved in the film early in its development, writing a story sprawling with characters and situations. When Puzo was forced to depart the project to work on The Godfather Part II, the project lie dormant for a while until George Fox was hired to work on the project. Earthquake is Fox’s one and only film as a credited writer. With veteran director Mark Robson behind the lens, Earthquake is a shaky mess of cinematic mayhem. When the film isn’t tearing down Los Angeles with impressive special effects for its era, it’s concentrating on strange characters performing strange actions. While watching Earthquake, one question swirled around in my head – Just what planet does this movie take place on?

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Earthquake opens with Stuart Graff (Heston) during his morning workout. While this beacon of masculinity works tirelessly to fine tune his body, he is interrupted by his wife Remy (Ava Gardner). Remy is cruel and shrill, taunting Stuart and trying to start a fight. Before Stuart can leave for his work as an engineer, he finds Remy unconscious, a bottle of pills beside her. Having dealt with his wife’s suicide attempts many times before, he calls for help. Then an earthquake hits, shaking the ground and waking Remy from her state of faked attempted suicide. Stuart is able to brush off his wife’s antics and makes time to drop off a football for the son of a colleague’s widow, Denise (Geneviève Bujold).

From there the film introduces it vast array of characters. There’s Lou Slade (George Kennedy), the LAPD officer who was suspended after a chase resulted in damage to Zsa Zsa Gabor’s hedges; Sam Royce (Lorne Green), Stuart’s father-in-law and boss; Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), a motorcycle stuntman hoping for his big break; Rosa (Victoria Principal), a young woman who wanders Los Angeles and comes into contact with a majority of the characters; there’s Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner), who is one of the strangest characters I’ve ever come across in cinema – a grocery clerk who dons a disguise when working as a member of the National Guard before snapping and becoming a murderer/attempted rapist. Yes, in a movie where Ava Gardner plays a psychotic, suicide-faking wife and Richard Roundtree, Shaft himself, plays a motorcycle stuntman, it’s the deranged grocery clerk that earns the mantle of craziest character. There are other characters that populate the Los Angeles of Earthquake, including a number of seismologists who predict the impending disaster and a number of officials who ask the big questions like, “Should we really tell people that a catastrophic disaster is imminent?” For a final piece of flavoring, Walter Matthau (credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky) appears as a colorfully dressed drunk.

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When the film is taking the time to set up all these characters and their bewildering behavior it moves at a meandering pace. But when the film finally follows through on its promise of the titular earthquake, the effects are really quite impressive for their era – models and matte painting fill the frame with falling debris as monuments crumble. Even though this stuff works incredibly well, Mark Robson still tries to cheat in moments by having the camera shake while pointing at LAX, the sound of an airplane crashing audible; it’s entirely unnecessary as there is more than enough destruction on screen that there’s really no point in cutting these corners.

Earthquake crumbles under the weight of its own craziness in the aftermath of the quake. The most compelling scenes in the film are George Kennedy’s Slade trying to help people and organize people the help others, but there are very few of these scenes. Instead, for reasons that make absolutely no sense, survivors are transported to an underground parking garage where emergency crews have set up. Why emergency crews have set up underground following a massive earthquake, and why anyone would go 2 floors underground is never rationally explained. Naturally, there’s a predictable aftershock which leaves these people, including Heston’s wife and her younger, more compassionate replacement, trapped beneath the rubble.

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As mentioned earlier, the Jody Joad rampage that takes place towards the end of the film is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen in a big studio film of any era. At first the character is an innocuous, funny looking grocery clerk. He lets Rosa slide when she’s forgotten her money. When the radio mentions that the National Guard is being deployed, he goes to his apartment. His room is filled with military paraphernalia and his walls decorated with pictures of body builders. The other tenants in the building mock him, calling all sorts of homophobic epithets. Jody ignores their taunts, puts on his blond wig and uniform, and marches to duty. While on duty, Jody encounters his neighbors who are caught looting. After taunting them, he shoots them in the street. The other men in his platoon just look on and stay. Later, Jody gets Rosa released from being detained by one platoon, but stashes her in the rubble of a storefront, before getting perilously close to sexual violence. Following a confrontation with Stuart and Slade, Jody’s fellow guardsman seek out their commanding officer – apparently shooting 3 men in the streets wasn’t enough but talking back to Charlton Heston was – before Jody is gunned down by Slade. This is a character that seems like window dressing ready for the slaughter at first before transforming into the film’s roving psychopath. It might’ve worked had a single one of his actions had a clear motivation.

The film also has a very weird view of government in that the government of the film isn’t incompetent, it’s just the members of the government refuse to act. The seismology department is able to predict an impending disaster, but the mayor is uncertain to announce their finding for fear of spreading panic. Meanwhile, the Mullholland Dam is under constant inspection from the film’s opening scenes, again the officials don’t act in time. The same goes for setting up emergency care centers underground – the infrastructure to react is there, but the execution is crazy. This goes right down to the film’s conclusion, where government construction crews refuse to try and pry people free. So Stuart and Slade go down with a jackhammer and free everyone personally. The dam breaks and as people are climbing out of the sewer, a rush of water starts sweeping people away. Stuart’s wife Remy falls into the water. Looking up at Denise, the younger, prettier, kinder woman, Stuart sacrifices himself in a vain attempt to save his cruel wife. The lesson is simple: ditch your wife for a younger, more understanding woman and the old bat won’t drown you. Aside from the pointless sacrifice of the lead character, we have another instance where the government in this movie is more than capable of handling the problems at hand, just the human element is reluctant to do anything.

From the opening faked suicide attempt to the motorcycle stuntman to the Matthau drunk to the wig-wearing grocer psychopath, Earthquake is full of extremely questionable filmmaking choices. For good measure, they make sure to include an accidental crash by the motorcycle stuntman. Earthquake is a relic from the tail end of a dying era, Jaws just around the corner to redefine blockbuster cinema. This is a film that has a more robust legacy as a theme park attraction than a movie. I wasn’t alive in the ‘70s so I can’t say with any degree of accuracy just how good their drugs were. But if Earthquake is any indication, they had some mighty strong shit. I’m still not sure what planet this movie takes place on.

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3 Comments

  1. Karl Zitterkopf September 15, 2023 Reply
  2. Mark Joseph November 14, 2019 Reply
  3. Rick May 23, 2019 Reply

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