Earthquake (1974)

Directed by: Mark Robson
Starring: Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Ava Gardner, Richard Roundtree, Genevieve Bujold, Lorne Greene, Victoria Principal.

Earthquake may not be as well known today as The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno, but it should be. As an all-out disaster extravaganza, it is second to none.

Earthquake is set in Los Angeles and stars the one and only Charlton Heston as a building contractor, working for his father-in-law (Lorne Greene). Charlton is married to Ava Gardner, and unhappily so, as they do nothing but quarrel in every scene they have together. Charlton starts an affair with pretty widow/single mother Genevieve Bujold, who looks like she could be Charlton’s granddaughter.

Other major characters include George Kennedy (of the Airport series) as a recently suspended cop, Richard Roundtree as a motorcycle daredevil, and Victoria Principal as the sister of Roundtree’s mechanic.

Things kick off with a couple of minor quakes, causing trouble up at the Hollywood Dam, which overlooks the city, and bringing the bodycount to three after only 19 minutes. Good start! A young assistant at the seismology institute predicts a major quake within the next 48 hours, but no one really believes him. As he tries to convince his superiors that the public should be warned, the rest of the characters go about their daily lives. This includes George Kennedy doing some daytime drinking, Richard Roundtree crashing his bike in a harebrained stunt attempt, and Charlton Heston getting it on with Genevieve Bujold.

About an hour in, the big one hits. This must be the longest earthquake in history, as we’re treated to about ten minutes of uninterrupted mayhem. Buildings collapse, people plummet to horrible death, concrete and shattered glass rains over unfortunate pedestrians and cars plummet off highway bridges. It’s a joy to behold.

Special effects during this and the other quake scenes range from the quite impressive, with what I suppose is large scale sets being lovingly destroyed and/or very nice matte paintings for some shots, to “shake-the-camera-really-hard” type shots and some amazingly crappy, animated bloodstains. Mostly, though, the carnage looks really good.

All of the main characters survive the main quake, and both Charlton and George take charge and help rescuing survivors from the ruins or tending to the wounded. Charltons father-in-law suffers a fatal heart-attack, though, after heroically saving all his office workers. Then the violent aftershock hits, finally busting the Hollywood Dam and sending a flood towards the city. Genevieve Bujold and Ava Gardner get trapped along with some others in a basement, and Charlton and George come to the rescue. Suffice it to say that not everyone makes it out alive.

Despite some pacing problems during the first half, before the main quake actually hits, Earthquake is one of the most entertaining disaster movies I’ve seen. There’s plenty of overacting and so-so plotting, but I don’t really expect anything else from a disaster flick. The movie is well made, looks good (apart from some less than elegant editing in some sequences), and delivers tons of really violent destruction.

Putting some slightly bisarre icing on the cake is Walter Matthau, doing a cameo as a drunk in what may well be the ugliest shirt in cinema history (and weird hat to match). Then there’s the supermarket clerk (Marjoe Gortner) who also belongs to the national guard and who turns into a full-blown psycho, killing three neighbourhood bullies before trying to rape Victoria Principal (who sports big afro). And the car chase that gets George Kennedy suspended is great, with George yanking the wheel this way and that while driving down perfectly straight stretches of road…

Disaster, ham and cheese in an exhilarating mix. Recommended viewing for anyone interested in the genre!

Rating: 5/5

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