Rumble…rumble. That’s the sound of Earthquake (1974), one of several big budget, all-star disaster movies made in the 1970s. Airport (1970) perfected the formula, but it was The Poseidon Adventure (1972) that inspired a dozen or so imitations (not counting the spoofs The Big Bus and Airplane!) Still, Earthquake had one thing that these other disaster pics didn’t have–and that was Sensurround. But before we delve into that thunderous technology, let’s take a look at the plot.
Charlton Heston stars as Stewart Graff, a former football player-turned-engineer who, along with other Los Angeles residents, feels an earth tremor in the film’s opening scenes. Stewart is coping with a high-strung wife (Ava Gardner) who fakes suicides, while becoming attracted to a young widow (Genevieve Bujold).
Meanwhile, street cop George Kennedy is suspended after punching a fellow officer (who deserved it, of course) and a motorcycle daredevil (Richard Roundtree) prepares to perform a stunt worthy of Evel Knieval. And then there’s the creepy grocery store employee (Marjoe Gortner) who moonlights as a National Guardsman.
While all these folks shrug off the tremor, a young seismology student (Kip Niven) predicts that the Big One is coming. Little does he know that one of his bosses has already died as a result of a crack in the Earth and that a city employee has mysteriously drowned in an elevator shaft at the dam….
Earthquake, which was co-written by Mario Puzo–yes, the author of The Godfather!–differs in scope from most disaster films. Its tapestry is an entire city, not just a towering inferno or a cruise ship turned upside down. Puzo and co-writer George Fox do a nice job of introducing the characters and then weaving them into a single storyline after the earthquake decimates the city.
The big quake, which constitutes a seven-minute sequence–still looks impressive. Yes, there are some obvious miniature sets in some clips, but one can see why Earthquake earned an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The effects team included acclaimed matte artist Albert Whitlock, who was likely responsible for the eerie closing shot of a crumbling, burning L.A. Earthquake also won an Oscar for Best Sound and that brings us to…
Sensurround, which was the brand name for a sound system that allowed theater audiences to “feel” the rumbles from the earthquake by using low-frequency sound waves. According to Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States, theater owners rented special speakers and an amplifier for $500 a week when showing a Sensurround movie. While the new technology may have contributed to Earthquake‘s box office clout, it barely survived the 1970s. It was used in a handful of other films such as Midway (1976) and Rollercoaster (1977). However, the introduction of Dolby high-fidelity stereo had attracted far more attention by the end of the decade.
When Earthquake made its broadcast television debut on NBC in 1976, the movie was expanded into a two-night “event.” The running time was extended by inserting leftover footage and filming new scenes, including a subplot about an airplane unable to land due to the quake. My recommendation is to steer clear of that inflated edition and stick with the 123-minute version. It may not be great filmmaking, but it’s one of the better disaster movies and the cast seems fully engaged.
By the way, that is Victoria Principal as the the frizzy-haired Rosa, four years before she starred in Dallas. At one time, she and George Kennedy were among those scheduled to star in an Earthquake sequel. Also, although you may not see Walter Matthau‘s name in the credits, that’s him (of course) as the drunk in the bar. He asked to be credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!
Earthquake will be available in a new special edition Blu-ray from Shout Select that is released on May 21st.