Earthquake Remains A Classic Disaster Thriller

Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in Earthquake. Courtesy of Universal.

Earthquake remains a classic disaster thriller even though the visual effects don’t compare with what is possible with today’s technology.

Mark Robson assembles a true ensemble cast in the 1974 disaster thriller. By this point in time, disasters had struck the air and the sea in Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, respectively. It was only a matter of time before disaster struck the land. When disaster strikes, it’s almost always Los Angeles, San Francisco, or in recent years, Chicago. The filmmakers make the best use of the available technology to recreate Los Angeles and subsequently destroy it via full-scale sets, miniature models, and matte paintings. They also use a “shaker mount” camera system to give us the feeling of watching an earthquake on screen.

The film would look much different with 2022 technology. I hesitate to even think about it. You want to talk about technology? Try watching this film right after San Andreas! In hindsight, one should watch the two films in reverse order. It’s like talking about apples and oranges because San Andreas is able to do so much more than Earthquake. Of course, we should watch these films through the lens in which they were made. Being a 1974 film, a derogatory slur comes up a few times.

We’re following a number of people. Too many to tell you the truth. Chief among them are Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) and Remy Royce-Graff (Ava Gardner). Stewart works for Remy’s father, Sam Royce (Lorne Greene). Meanwhile, he’s cheating on his wife with the younger Denise (Geneviève Bujold), who has a son, Corry (Tiger Williams). Elsewhere in town, police officer Lou Slade (George Kenny) realizes he no longer wants to be a cop. He knew he wanted to help people but not in this way. Funny enough, there’s a fight going on at the bar while he and his colleague pay no attention to it. Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), also at the bar, is a motorcycle stuntman and is planning to pull off his next act.

Following the National Guard and police being alerted,  Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner) basically walks off on the job. We’ll see a callback later on but first, he’s excessively teased by his housemates. Not cool, people. Not cool. I guess what goes around comes around because he’s the ultimate jerk at the end of the day.

Following the initial activity, the Wilson Plaza shopping center serves as a makeshift triage. While Stewart is on the way back with Lou, Rosa (Victoria Principal), and other passengers, they learn that it’s been destroyed. Stewart isn’t one to give up so he starts planning a rescue mission. While all this is happening, the Mulholland Dam finally breaks and starts flooding the city and sewers. You guessed it! They have mere minutes to get everyone to safety before it’s too late.

The shaker-cam and visual effects are no doubt the best part of the film. Upon its theatrical release, the studio played it in theaters utilizing the Sensurround system. It wasn’t without controversy as it is supposed to make you feel like there’s an actual earthquake. Put it this way: the Chinese Theatre had to install a net because the ceiling plaster started cracking. Beyond this, John Williams scores the film. He would also score another disaster film that same year in The Towering Inferno. Both films would receive multiple Oscar nominations. Earthquake took home wins for Best Sound and a Special Achievement Academy Award for Special Effects. Other nominations were for editing, cinematography, and art direction. Williams just misses out here but would still earn a nomination elsewhere.

There’s only so much that can happen in this film. Obviously, you want the stars to survive but in a film titled Earthquake, you don’t want to see them just sitting around. You want to see them running for their lives! And yes, this is more or less what happens. If they’re not hiding under a car or what have you, they are trying to find safety. Sometimes, this is easier said than done.

The most perplexing part of the film is casting Lorne Greene as Ava Gardner’s father. The two of them are under ten years apart. Similar casting took place a few years prior with William Daniels playing the father of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Of course, it would happen again in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Sean Connery played the father of Harrison Ford.

Although Earthquake remains a classic because of the available technology at the time, there are too many people to follow within its two-hour run time.

DIRECTOR: Mark Robson
SCREENWRITERS: George Fox and Mario Puzo
CAST: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Victoria Principal

Universal released Earthquake in theaters on November 15, 1974.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.