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Film / City on Fire

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City on Fire is a 1979 Disaster Movie starring, among many, Barry Newman, Ava Gardner and a pre-syndrome Leslie Nielsen.

In an unnamed Midwestern city, Herman Stover, an oil refinery worker, finds out that he isn't getting the promotion that he's had his eyes on. After being laid off instead, he takes out his frustration on the city by sabotaging his workplace. Add the city's hilariously poor zoning that has placed the oil refinery right in the middle of the city, courtesy of the mayor's questionable dealings, and a major water shortage, and the result is a perfect storm that soon has the whole city in flames. Among the buildings hit by the fire is a not-quite-up-to-code hopsital that employs the affable Dr. Whitman and a take-no-shit nurse, Andrea Harper. Did we mention that Stover had been obsessed with Dr. Whitman's fiancée?


Not to be confused with the 1987 Hong Kong action movie of the same name or with the 2015 novel.

For the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where they riffed the movie, see here.

Tropes present in this film:

  • The Alcoholic: Maggie Grayson, who has trouble staying sober even during the disaster.
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Asshole Victim: Terry James, the photographer who was stalking Andrea, is burned in a fire and then hit by a car because he was trying to get the photos he had taken, making it pretty hard to feel sorry for him. While evacuating the hospital, he drops the photos he had saved from the fire, and a wall drops on him while he stops to pick them back up.
  • The Big Board: The fire department has one to map the spread of the fire.
  • Broken Aesop: In the end, the fire chief laments that the events of the movie could happen in any city. You know, any city with outrageous zoning that has an oil refinery in the middle of it, badly constructed buildings and a single nutcase able to run around without anyone catching him.
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  • Canada Does Not Exist/Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The film was shot in Montreal, but where the story actually takes place is left ambiguous.
  • Cassandra Truth: Before the big fire starts, Dr. Whitman chews the Mayor out for allowing the refinery to be built in the middle of the city and not ensuring that the buildings around it were built to code.
  • Damage Control: The fire department spends most of the fire trying to keep it from hitting the hospital. The fire does hit the building, though the firemen manage to stall it a bit and buy people time to get out.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Most characters are killed in the fire.
  • Disney Villain Death: During one of the explosions, some refinery workers die in a fall.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Herman sabotages the refinery because he was passed up for a promotion and was fired when he wouldn't accept a transfer elsewhere.
  • Karma Houdini: The final scene of the movie has Mayor Dudley playing the Humble Hero to the press after his admittedly brave actions to help evacuate the hospital (which included standing out in the fire to spray down everyone else in the last wave of evacuees so they could run to safety with less risk of burning, being the second to last person to evacuate, and actually going back to help after Whitman gets trapped behind some debris), with everyone forgetting the poor policy decisions he made that allowed the fire to become so serious in the first place.
  • Paparazzi: A photographer has been stalking Diana to get some incriminating pictures.
  • Passed-Over Promotion: Herman. And boy, does he not take it well...
  • Skewed Priorities: During the disaster, the TV producer, Jimbo, keeps being impressed by the good shots of the fire they're getting. Also, the paparazzi Terry James, who gets badly injured trying to retrieve some photos he had taken.
  • Sleazy Politician: Mayor Dudley, whose private favors and shady dealings have resulted in the refinery being built in the middle of the city.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Herman has been following Diana, having had an obsession with her since they were in high school together.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Cars, pipelines, buildings, you name it.
  • Toilet Humour: In the midst of a massive, life-threatening fire, the film takes the time to include a scene of an old guy in a wheelchair being helped to a bedpan so he can use it outside the hospital.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Early in the film, a group of children are smoking cigarettes together and accidentally start a smaller fire by dropping a lit one into a trash can.
  • Villainous Friendship: The Mayor and his aide, Johnny, may be two shady guys, but the Mayor is pretty upset when Johnny dies of a heart attack.
  • Wealthy Philanthropist: Andrea, Dr. Whitman's fiancée.


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