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Film / Earthquake

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The quintessential Disaster Movie from the outbreak of that genre in the 70s, alongside Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Directed by Mark Robson, and starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Victoria Principal, Monica Lewis and Walter Matthau.

Stewart Graff (Heston) is a construction engineer stuck in a forlorn marriage to Remy Royce-Graff (Gardner). Denise Marshall (Bujold) is the widow of a friend of Stewart's whom he has an affair with. Sgt. Lew Slade (Kennedy) is a disgruntled cop. Miles Quade (Roundtree) is a motorcycle stuntman who is preparing for the biggest stunt of his life with his partner Sal Amici (Gabriel Dell). Rosa Amici (Principal) is Sal's sister. Jody Joad (Gortner) is a National Guardsman with a day job as a store clerk who is on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. Amidst all these characters and all this drama, however, the California Seismological Institute has calculated that Los Angeles is going to be hit by a massive earthquake, the worst ever recorded, in the next day or two. Walter Russell (Kip Niven), the amateur staffer of the Institute who discerned this, proposes that the city be evacuated, but his superior insists that the cost of evacuation could be even greater than that of the earthquake itself. Can you guess where this is all heading?


The film was originally written by Mario Puzo, of The Godfather fame. He dropped out from production due to contractual obligations to work on The Godfather: Part II. The script collected dust for a time until Universal Studios thought they could make a buck off of it due to the success of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. In order to draw audiences in, screenings of the film used a technique called "Sensurround", in which loud speakers simulated an earthquake within the cinema. Despite lukewarm reviews at best, Universal Studios's predictions were correct and the film was a rollicking financial success, grossing $79 million whereas its budget had been a mere $7 million. (Adjusted for inflation in 2021, the budget amounts to $38 million and the gross $431 million.)

The success of the movie ended up inspiring a scene on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, that simulates an earthquake hitting a subway tunnel. This in turn inspired a now-defunct attraction at Universal Studios Florida, known as Earthquake: The Big One.


This film provides examples of:

  • AB Negative: A first responder can be heard pleading for a shipment of this by radio at an aid station.
  • All Part of the Show: At least one real earthquake was not noticed in a theatre showing the film because the audience thought the (actual) earthquake was part of the movie.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Jody Joad. His dresser has several pinned pictures of semi-naked men (although due to his interest in Rosa, it may have just been aids for his exercising—it is never clearly said). The other tenants of his building (a whole lot of Jerkasses) have no problem assuming that he's gay and riff him out over it—which means he's got quite a good reason to blow them all away when they meet again and he's packing a rifle and orders to keep the peace by any means necessary...
  • Artistic License – Geology:
    • You don't get 9.9 on the Richter Scale, because rock lacks the capability to build up that much pressure before it gives to the quake. The greatest quake recorded in history was 9.5 in Chile, 1960. The Strike-Slip plates around LA can only hold about an 8.0 (which is 'only' 1000 atom bombs). The Richter Scale is being directly associated with damage which is not its design or function; damage-based assessment is the Mercalli scale.
    • With the limits to the faults in mind, the duration of the quake in the film is also questionable. The quake clocks at around 4 to 5 minutes, which for a quake greater than magnitude 9.0 is technically correct despite duration and magnitude having no concrete link. In a real-life scenario, however, the duration of the "Big One" would likely be much shorter as the faults aren't capable of producing that kind of magnitude (Case in point, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit a magnitude 7.8 and lasted around a mere minute, foreshocks included). The longest earthquake ever recorded was the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which lasted around 8-10 minutes and hit 9.1-9.3 on the scale. This isn't to say that the potential damage to Los Angeles should be downplayed, however, as the 1994 Northridge earthquake showed.
  • Ax-Crazy: Jody Joad.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Jody Joad. Underneath the guise of the friendly grocery store manager, is a ruthless psychopathic Sociopathic Soldier.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • Royce claims that promoting Graff to President has nothing whatsoever to do with his being his son-in-law.
    • Rosa tries to scare Jody off by telling him she has another brother, who is in the Mafia.
  • Camera Abuse: Holy crap, the cameras took a whole lot of shaking during the earthquake sequence.
  • Cool Car: Graff's 1970s monster of an jeep, which had its transmission custom-built completely from scratch.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Of course the secret of predicting Earthquakes is figured out right in time to know a huge Earthquake is due NOW. This wasn't the last time this has been done, either - 41 years later San Andreas (2015) did the same thing.
  • Cowboy Cop: George Kennedy's character Lew Slade. His Establishing Character Moment is flying into a rage after Da Chief gives him a talk because he punched another officer hard enough to bust open his lip and loosen six teeth because said officer caused a criminal who wrecked a hedge and killed a little girl with his car to almost get away by not letting go if his uniform while chastising him for being out of his jurisdiction while chasing said man through Beverly Hills... a chase he was doing because, as said before, the man did a hit-and-run on a six-year-old girl that Slade describes "splattered her blood all over the sidewalk like a fresh coat of paint" and killed her on the spot.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Charlton Heston's character Stewart Graff, who dies trying to rescue his wife played by Ava Gardner, leaving Kennedy's character becoming the sole lead character in the film's All-Star Cast at the end of the film.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: For 49 minutes. And then the earthquake comes.
  • Disaster Movie: Ladies and gentlemen, behold "the Big One".
  • Elevator Failure: "Yeah, people drown in elevators every damn day of the week!" Not to mention the overstuffed elevator whose cable snaps, sending the car plunging dozens of stories to its doom.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Here's the dialogue of a happy couple:
    Remy: [shouting] God damn it!
    Graff: Your last words to me last night; your first words this morning. Ever thought about expanding your vocabulary?
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It involves a vision of the biggest and most destructive earthquake California has suffered so far.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The whole movie takes place in one day.
  • Fanservice: As noted under Male Gaze, Slade gets a good, long look at Rosa's t-shirt, but the camera does not fail to share it with us.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Jody continues to woo for Rosa's affections, despite her witnessing his Ax-Crazy side after he murdered his old housemates out of revenge.
  • Fight to Survive: As usual in disaster movies, the characters are left struggling to stay alive after disaster strikes.
  • Foreshadowing: The long aerial intro includes a relatively lengthy look at the dam which will fail in act three.
  • Going Postal: Jody is a reservist soldier that goes completely crazy on the day he's most needed and blows away his bullying fellow tenants because his orders technically allow him to.
  • Got Volunteered: For no reason whatsoever, Graff drafts Slade to come below with him to try to rescue those he believes are trapped in the parking garage.
  • Groin Attack: During the big earthquake the cook in the bar takes a pot of boiling water to the crotch.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Remy falls off a ladder trying to escape a flood in the sewer, and Stewart, instead of climbing the ladder to safety (and the waiting arms of his girlfriend Denise), jumps off in a futile effort to save Remy. Both of them are swept away by the rushing torrent.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Played with. Due to exposure to phosgene, Royce gets very sick and coughs. Shortly afterwards, though, the doctor declares that he has had a heart attack and writes him off as a goner.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Played straight. It looks like Corry's going to be fine.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Lampshaded, when Royce makes himself chairman of the board so he can promote Graff to President.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: For Mr. Cameron, the guy who threw Barbara out of the way to get on the doomed elevator. For everyone else, it's just Too Dumb to Live.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: And many of them drop like flies from the halfway mark onwards.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Averted for the most part (thanks in part to Loads and Loads of Characters), but in the end, they have to portray some hapless first responders as a group of dirty cowards so that Graff and Slade can be the ones to save the folks trapped in the parking garage.
  • Male Gaze: Invoked in-universe as the reason Miles and Sal need Rosa. Slade even pays $10 just to see her, um, t-shirt.
    Sal: Now, Rosa, would you listen to me. Daredevil motorcyclists always have to have beautiful, sexy broads hangin' around.
    Miles: Rosa, I'm your best friend. What do you want us to look like? Phonies or what?
    Sal: Right.
    Rosa: Sal, I'm your sister! What about Maureen? She's your girlfriend.
    Miles: Come on, Rosa. Maureen is too flat-chested!
  • Mugging the Monster: Jody's housemates bully the seemingly harmless Jody to a point he later takes his revenge by gunning them down after catching them looting.
  • The Neidermeyer: Jody, especially when his men tries to look for an officer to have him face court martial out of fear.
  • Not Even Bothering with an Excuse: The doctor, confronted by Remy about her father, pauses a beat to think of a comforting lie, then replies with the single least empathetic line ever:
    Don't bother me now!
  • Novelization: By co-writer George Fox.
  • One-Word Title
  • Redemption Equals Death: Graff, forced to choose between trying to rescue his jilted wife or escape to safety and his young mistress, opts for the nobler course; he dies futilely trying to save Remy.
  • Scenery Gorn: The ending shot is a pan of a devastated L.A.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Jody Joad.
  • Stepford Smiler: Jody, when he was a grocery store manager and acts friendly towards his regular customer (and target of lust) Rosa and continues to act friendly towards her even after she witnesses him killing his boorish housemates.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Several people during the big earthquake, including people who crowd into an elevator before it falls, and a man running into a house with a broken gas line with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
  • Truth in Television: There's a reason Southern California is the preferred location for earthquake disaster movies - it's due 'The Big One' any day now.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Jody's reaction to his object of lust Rosa for rejecting him out of fear of his Ax-Crazy side can count, which prompts him to commit an Attempted Rape, in turn leading Slade to pull a Big Damn Heroes moment in time and saving Rosa from the madman.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Miles reappears briefly and pointlessly in the flood scene, but essentially vanishes from the story as soon as he leaves the group.