Master of Disaster: Irwin Allen

Screenshot of Irwin Allen talking about The Towering Inferno.
Irwin Allen talking about The Towering Inferno.

One name you’re bound to come across if you have any interest in disaster movies is Irwin Allen. And rightly so: The 1970’s are frequently mentioned as the golden age of disaster movies, and Irwin Allen had a lot to do with making the genre so popular. Acting primarily as producer and director, Allen would leave behind a legacy that has influenced disaster movies ever since.

Born in 1916, Allen started out in print journalism before becoming a radio producer. He began his career in television and film in the early 1950’s, producing a number of films, including the Frank Sinatra/Groucho Marx comedy Double Dynamite, and the Academy Award-winning documentary The Sea Around Us. He also took up writing and directing, which led to movies like The Big Circus, The Lost World and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. During the 1960’s, Allen had success in television as creator and producer of fantasy and science fiction series like Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (again), and The Time Tunnel. (Check out Allen’s full credits at IMDb.)

As the 1970’s rolled around, Universal Pictures Scored a smash hit with Airport, which became the studio’s highest grossing film at the time. Irwin Allen seems to have taken notice, and went on to produce The Poseidon Adventure, which hit theatres in December 1972.

Formula for success

While much of the now-classic disaster movie formula that has characterized the genre ever since was introduced in Airport, Allen took it further, beefing it up in every way and making the spectacular disaster the main event of the film. Airport was mostly a melodrama set during a snowstorm, with a bomb attack as the climax towards the end. The Poseidon Adventure had the cruise ship being turned upside down by a freak wave within the first half hour and built from there. Everything was bigger and more spectacular, including the special effects. Allen lined up a stellar cast, and proceeded to kill off some of the more prominent characters, whereas only the bomber himself died in Airport.

Allen’s efforts paid off: The Poseidon Adventure became the second-highest grossing film of 1972 (behind The Godfather), and picked up a whole bunch of Academy Award nominations as well (it won one, for Best Original Song).

The Towering Inferno

For his encore, Allen turned the dial to eleven. The Towering Inferno (1974) was more than three times as expensive as Poseidon, and bragged an even more star-laden cast, with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman sharing top billing. Allen himself directed the action sequences (it is said that in one scene he fired a handgun into the ceiling in order to secure a reaction from the actors). The film became a huge hit, and scored three Academy Awards (Song, Cinematography and Editing). It also, easily, outgrossed two other big disaster movies released the same year, namely Earthquake and Airport 1975.

Allen then turned his attention back to television, and after the short-lived series The Swiss Family Robinson, he tried to transfer his disaster movie formula to the small screen. The results were not quite as riveting as Allen’s theatrical releases. Despite being promoted as the most expensive made-for-TV-movie at the time, 1976’s Flood! is a rather lacklustre affair, while it’s companion Fire! (released 1977) is a more entertaining production. Hanging by a Thread, about a cable-car stuck above a ravine, followed in 1979.

Box office disasters

Returning to cinema, Allen produced and directed 1978’s killer bee movie The Swarm and 1979’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, both starring Michael Caine. Unfortunately, the magic seemed to have vanished, as both films were panned by critics. The Swarm in particular turned out to be a massive box office bomb, recapturing just one-third of its 21 million dollar budget. Things turned out even worse with 1980’s When Time Ran Out, where Allen had Towering Inferno stars Paul Newman and William Holden pair up again, along with Airport’s Jacqueline Bisset and Poseidon’s Ernest Borgnine, to deal with an erupting volcano. To no avail: When Time Ran Out was an even bigger failure than The Swarm.

Apparently, time had run out for Irwin Allen’s particular brand of disaster film – at least for the time being, as another kind of blockbuster movies by the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would dominate the 1980’s. Allen’s final disasters were another two made-for-TV movies,Cave In! and The Night the Bridge Fell Down, both aired in 1983 and more or less forgotten these days.

Allen’s output, and in particular his two hits, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, earned him the nickname ”The Master of Disaster”. Both Poseidon and Inferno rank as classics of the genre, and both have stood the test of time quite well. And, as any number of disaster movies made since the 1970’s show, the formula introduced by Airport and boosted to new heights by Allen still rules the genre.

Irwin Allen died in 1991, aged 75.

Irwin Allen on IMDb

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