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Film / Earthquake

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Released in 1974, this is one of the quintessential Disaster Movies from the heyday of the genre in that decade, alongside Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Directed by Mark Robson, the film features the requisite All-Star Cast including Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Victoria Principal, Monica Lewi, and Walter Matthau.

In Los Angeles, Stewart Graff (Heston) is a former football star and construction engineer stuck in a forlorn marriage to Remy Royce-Graff (Gardner). Denise Marshall (Bujold) is the widow of a friend of Stewart's, who he is having an affair with. Sgt. Lew Slade (Kennedy) is a suspended LAPD cop. Miles Quade (Roundtree) is a daredevil motorcyclist who's preparing for the biggest stunt of his life with his partner Sal Amici (Gabriel Dell) and his sister Rosa (Principal). Jody Joad (Gortner) is a National Guard soldier with a day job as a store clerk, who is on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. Amidst all of these characters and all of this drama, 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 with the Institute who discerned this, proposes that the city be evacuated, but his superior insists the cost of evacuation may be greater than the damages from the earthquake itself and that going public with their predictions risks jeopardizing the Institute's funding if they turn out to be wrong. Can you guess where this is all heading?

The screenplay was originally written by Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame, who dropped out from production due to contractual obligations to work on The Godfather: Part II. The script collected dust for a time until Universal thought they could make a buck off of it following the success of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. To help draw audiences in, select screenings used a new process called "Sensurround", in which loud speakers simulated an earthquake within the cinema. Despite earning lukewarm reviews at best, the movie bore out Universal's predictions and proved a rollicking financial success, grossing $79 million while 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 film's success inspired a scene on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood simulating an earthquake hitting a subway tunnel, along with 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.
  • Artistic License – Physics: It should go without saying that a bicycle getting caught in electrified water isn't going to explode like a volatile gas tank.
  • Ax-Crazy: Jody Joad is an enthusiastic killer.
  • Beehive Hairdo: Rosa's hair is piled up several inches on the top of her head.
  • 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 (although that may be true).
    • 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 wouldn't be the last time this was 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?
  • Everyone Has Standards: The two soldiers with Jody are clearly horrified after he guns down his flatmates for looting. They eventually draw the line when Rosa starts screaming for help and run to get an officer.
  • 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: 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.
  • Good Samaritan: Miles and Sal stop their driving when they see Denise and Corry stuck in the canal and work to get the two of them out of the sewer before the water reaches a dangerous level. Later on, Sal agrees to use his large truck to help ferry people to the hospital where he can while Miles uses his motorcycle to look for Rosa.
  • 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:
    • While rescuing all of his employees, Mr. Royce makes sure that he goes last and saves everyone else while breathing in phosgene gas. In the end, after he's saved everyone else, he suffers a fatal heart attack from the gas inhalation and dies at the makeshift hospital.
    • 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.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Sam Royce is a scrupulous construction firm owner who only promotes his son in-law because he's competent and not out of nepotism (or so he insists). During the disaster, he works hard to try to get his employees (from his office staff to window washers) to safety regardless of the risks to his life, with mixed success.
  • Hope Spot: Stewart swimming over to Remy and helping her toward the water feels like a big redemptive moment that will save their marriage, but then the flood intensifies and washes both of them away before they can reach the ladder.
  • Idiot Ball: For a Disaster Movie where structural incompetence is usually part of the premise, the authority figures in the movie are generally reasonable and make good choices, including making reasonable preparations to evacuate the area near the dam because of the threat of aftershocks. Then they make the truly expert decision to put one of the field hospitals in an underground parking garage, where the first aftershock kills a decent chunk of the survivors and traps anyone left in a concrete tomb in danger of being flooded by the nearby crumbling dam.
  • Ignored Expert:
    • Seismologist Walter Russell predicts the earthquake with perfect accuracy, but because he's only a graduate student and his superiors are squeamish about false alarms, they take a while to act on his advice. They ultimately do act on Russell's concerns after his predictions about the earlier, smaller quakes prove accurate and the death of the seismology institute's director makes the assistant directors grasp the tragedy of what is happening.
    • The dam's watchman reports a crack along the dam's surface that wasn't there before, arguing that he knows every inch of the dam. The technician instead ridicules him for trying to explain the technician's job and argues that concrete always has hairline cracks. It's not until another watchman reports that the water has risen half an inch that he starts to consider anything might be wrong.
  • 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 soon enough he's dead on the stretcher.
  • 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.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Averted for the most part (thanks in part to a massive cast), 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 is an unstable and impatient military officer, especially when his men try to look for an officer to have him face court-martial out of fear.
  • Noodle Incident: The bitter Jurisdiction Friction between the city cops and Beverly Hills patrolmen isn't helped by how one of the Beverly Hills officers apparently shot off one of Lew's toes during a dubious "accidental" discharge the last time they met.
  • Not Even Bothering with an Excuse: The doctor, confronted by Remy about her father (who just died on the stretcher), 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
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Dr. Stockle at the seismology institute is a patient man who hears out Russell's claims of a major earthquake. While he refuses to publicize the earthquake warnings, he has good reasons for this (there is no evacuation plan in place so they don't know where to send anyone, and a panic could get people hurt) and when the institute's director is killed while investigating an issue with the fault line, he does convince the mayor to mobilize National Guardsmen and other resources and responders to be ready to help earthquake victims without causing a panic in the process.
  • 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.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Stewart tries to save Remy's life when she's caught in the sewer water, only for both of them to get caught in the rising tide and swept away to die.
  • 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.
  • Token Minority: Stunt rider Miles is the only black cast member with any significant screen time or characterization, and even he is mostly absent for the second half of the film.
  • 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.
  • Vapor Wear: Rosa's nipples are clearly outlined against her t-shirt for a few seconds.
  • 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 (with his final fate being unrevealed), but essentially vanishes from the story as soon as he leaves Sal and Slade's side.