Friday, 11 November 2011

The Swarm (1978)

The movie business can be a mistress so harsh it makes the sea look like a dewy Manga schoolgirl. Submitting for your inspection the case of one Irwin Allen, producer and sometime director. Allen made his name in the mid-’50s with his documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953), which won an Oscar, and The Animal World (1956). With the overblown selection of historical skits called The Story of Mankind (1957), Allen forged a template that would serve him well later in his career: tempting has-been movie actors with a remnant after-glow of fame out of the Brown Derby’s bar with a large pay-check, stuffing them together on a movie set, and calling the resulting pile-up an all-star cast. In the ‘60s Allen seemed intent on becoming the second-tier George Pal before he hit the phase of his career he’s most famous for, that of “the master of disaster”, taking up the ball first put in play by Airport (1970), by making his cheesy but entertaining hits The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). These movies did grandiose spectacle and action right, but also summarised something distressingly cynical about the early ‘70s cinema zeitgeist, and spawned a distinctive genre exploiting what remained of old Hollywood’s esprit d’corps. That remnant was fighting a rear-guard action after the dizziness of the ‘60s and the invasion of all those long-haired young east coast freaks, but only able to offer up in return all its best blow-dried ingénues, fed up with losing parts to hipper Method-schooled weirdos, and torpid over-the-hill heroes of yesteryear, as sacrificial lambs to be drowned, mutilated, crushed, or however dispatched after a regulation amount of fashion spread lounging and posing had been dispensed with. Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974) ushered in the more debased version of Allen’s template where the supposedly mighty production values are in fact riddled with blue-screen work and set construction so flimsy it starts to feel like a high schooler’s pop-art pastiche. It is, as my colleague Bill Ryan once put it, a bit like watching Robson and the film world he represented, the survivors of the studio system, throw up his hands and say, “I don’t care anymore.”

Allen immediately set about emptying all the water from the shallow well he had dug with a proliferation of TV movies, and then The Swarm, which probably looked like a sure thing, combining the already-familiar disaster flick refrains with the animal attack motif recently turned into box office gold by Jaws (1975), which everyone was trying to get their piece of, with dashes of The Andromeda Strain’s (1970) procedural plotting, and the uneasy blend of cynicism for, and fetishism of, military-industrial infrastructure, as seen in so many large-budget ‘70s films. In short, The Swarm is a compendium of recently successful movie tropes, and like most such obvious chimeras, the result was a colossal bomb. And it damn well deserved to be. The disaster movie’s official comeuppance with Airplane! (1980), which is perhaps now better remembered than most of the movies that inspired it, was still a couple of years away, but Allen’s film plays as unintentional prequel, with hapless extras being shaken about inside sets that look glued together, limp stunts, and absurd special effects. The latter were provided by L. B. Abbott, an old Hollywood soldier whose work simply never belonged in the same class as Ray Harryhausen’s or Douglas Trumbull’s, and yet who managed to hold on doggedly as 20th Century Fox's go-to guy for fantastic spectacle. One of Allen’s major mistakes was that, after he had successfully managed to brand his name, he made a play for full auteur status, taking over directing duties. Poseidon and Inferno had been wrangled into shape by battle-scarred Brit vets Ronald Neame and John Guillerman, men who could possibly have squeezed an ounce of dramatic credibility out of Ronald McDonald. The absence of a real director behind the lens is soon obvious, in the complete incapacity of the early scenes to set up any sort of believable tension or sense of menace, as a military team led by Maj. Baker (Bradford Dillman) penetrate an ICBM bunker in rural Texas. All the staff are dead, from an attack by huge swarms of killer bees, except for a small number of bite victims and their attending doctor, Helena (Katharine Ross), who sealed themselves off in a ward. Also lurking around the base is entomologist Dr. Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), and how he came to be on the base and aware of the threat of the bees is set up as a question that needs to be answered, for the satisfaction of both Air Force General Slater (Richard Widmark) and the audience, but it gets lost in the shuffle.

Instead, therefore, of commencing with notes of lurking and erupting threat, Allen charges straight into what ought to be the middle act when the threat is recognised and the response prepared. The film’s first moment of “horror” comes with an appropriate moment of placidity turning to nightmare, in which a picnicking family is attacked and only the adolescent son, Paul Durant (Christian Juttner), survives by locking himself in the family car. But this comes when the story is clearly laid out, and the bees have already been seen as a mass of unconvincing dots swirling about Widmark’s helicopters and causing them to crash. This signals Allen obviously learnt nothing from Jaws. Not only does this scene evoke no horror, because the bees simply mass on the bodies of the actors who lie prone, clearly having been smeared with something by the insect wranglers, without any apparent physical damage, but because Allen, as he will do throughout, uses hammy slow-motion to hype the bee deaths. The Swarm employs a curiously schismatic approach, with overtly mean stunts like killing off a yard full of schoolkids, and then half of the cast in a train wreck, and yet there’s barely any gore, with virtually no convincing sense of physical danger and agony. The film sets up a half-hearted variation on the tension between the scientific and military approaches to the crisis, with Slater characterised as a fearsome hard-ass who baulks when Crane is placed in charge of the situation, thanks to his White House connections and history of playing Billy Mitchell about a bug assault. Slater has to sit about while Crane does hippy nancy-boy things like research and investigation when they could be doing some good, solid bombing and gassing, as Widmark’s trademark growling sarcasm gets its 3,754th workout, and Crane whips Slater into line with Caine’s equivalent use of his patented rising tirade.

After about an hour Caine’s apparent approach to fighting the bees by wearing turtleneck skivvies and jackets whilst affecting a raffish professional cool proves ineffective, so they finally move on to trying to poison them with pellets developed by Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain), who also brings his awesome beard power into the fray. Henry Fonda also joins the team as Dr. Krim, an immunologist assigned to develop an anti-toxin for the bee stings, which are automatically fatal with more than one sting. Paul’s determination to get revenge for his parents sees him sneak out of hospital and, along with two fellow scallywags, tosses Molotov cocktails at one of the bee swarms’ nest. This just pisses them off, and they converge on the adjacent town of Marysville and create havoc. One major sub-plot of the details the triangular romance of Marysville’s school principal Maureen (Olivia de Havilland), town’s mayor and childhood friend Clarence (Fred MacMurray), and retired engineer from Houston, Felix (Ben Johnson). A bit sticky and essentially fruitless, nonetheless Allen seems to have some real affection for this geriatric ménage a trois, as the two old bachelors offer the long-ago beauty queen bunches of flowers and the three of them end up taking the evacuation train together out of town – well if the kids are doing the threesome thing, why not the older folks? But Allen’s lack of wit reasserts itself as all three die in a train wreck that counts as one of the most inept set-pieces in movie history, from the engineers in their pasteboard cabin swatting at a face-full of popcorn standing in for bees, to the film’s one noticeable African-American actor having other extras pile on top of him. The elderly actors are tossed about as if the train carriage is in a bad storm at sea rather than tumbling down a mountain side, before stunt people in their costumes get tossed out the windows. It’s a sequence that shows off both Allen’s directorial incompetence and confirms that all sentiment has become mere grist for the mill, lacking the pathos of the similarly tragic Fred Astaire-Jennifer Jones romance in The Towering Inferno: none of these characters are ever mentioned again.

One interesting, if hardly well-fulfilled, aspect of The Swarm is that it states something more implicit in the other ‘70s disaster movies: the notion that the evils befalling America are in some way a wrath-of-god punishment for all the lost faiths and self-indulgences of the previous decade or so. Crane despairs at the bees’ seeming capacity to absorb everything his team throws at them, and the assault of Marysville comes across like the Last Stand of Mayberry, before the bees flock on Houston, which is consumed by apocalyptic flames as the army try ineffectually to burn them out. This idea gains a modicum of urgency from its being tethered to environmental concern. The Swarm ends with Caine framed against boiling flames delivering a speech straight out of the last frames of a ‘50s atomic monster movie, warning that his victory over the bees is only temporary and time may run out again. But this element feels, finally, just like everything else in the film, fatuous and dishonest, whilst attempting to push a button marked “relevance”. Early on, Allen’s attempts to build emotional engagement are mawkish and laughable, like casting Slim Pickens as the angry local father of the one of the silo’s dead soldiers, blackmailing Slater into letting him fetch his boy’s body. Pickens, like Lee Grant’s fetchingly no-nonsense journalist, enters the film at random and disappears again. 

The Swarm actually manages to get sloppier and sillier, and funnier, as it goes on. Scenes of camp gold flow at a steady rate: Chamberlain and Jose Ferrer, who pops up for about a minute playing the boss of a nuclear power plant, are caught in a bee attack inside a control room, writhing about in a shower of insects, which, somehow, immediately sets off the reactor in an explosion. Later, when the bees are flooding into the military’s control base in a Houston high-rise, suited flamethrower-wielding soldiers try to burn out the bugs: when a couple of soldiers stumble out of an elevator covered in the little pests, one of their colleagues starts spraying fire in their direction, with a fourth shouting, “Kill the bees, not the men!” in spite of the fact that, well, the bugs are kind of all over the poor unfortunates, and they both promptly get roasted, anyway. Slater meets his end fighting off the evil commie bugs until the last, whilst Crane and Helena escape by the simple expedient of covering their heads in blankets: the couple are saved by a jump cut to a different time and locale so jarring that it beggars belief. Allen repeatedly uses the hilarious device of having the characters who have been stung hallucinating gigantic bees looming over them. As the film enters this last torpid act, Caine and Ross enter the Army HQ and have the following exchange whilst riding the escalator:

Ross: Now that you’re here without the President’s authority, how can you possibly help?
Caine: Well, the least I can do is try.

Both actors deliver these lines, the sort of dialogue you might reasonably expect at the start of an episode in a continuing TV show, rather than two hours into a two-and-a-half hour megabudget film, with all the urgency and sense of grave responsibility of an infomercial hosting team rehearsing their banter, but without the salesmanship. It’s one of those  rare, privileged scenes where you can sense Caine’s usually unflappable professionalism completely slip, and, worse, the sort of moment where you can practically feel an actor’s soul wither at the core. De Havilland and Widmark also rack up their worst moments of screen acting. There was always a close affinity between the disaster movie and television soap opera, and here, almost lost amidst the proliferation of absurdity, is a General Hospital-esque subplot where Patty Duke Astin, playing Rita, a pregnant waitress widowed by the bees, falls for physician Dr. Martinez, played by Alejandro Rey because apparently Ricardo Montalban was too busy on Fantasy Island. Once he’s delivered her baby, she coos from her hospital bed, “I guess it’s true what they say, that a woman sort-of falls in love with her doctor at this time.” To which he replies: “I hope you will feel the same way tomorrow…and the day after..and all of the days after.” Similarly desperate is the moment when Baker and Slater catch Crane praying over Helena’s hospital bed: “Can we really trust a scientist who prays?” Baker asks sneeringly (he does everything sneeringly), to which Slater replies, “I wouldn’t trust one who didn’t,” and tells Baker to stop investigating Crane. If you’re like me, you may have to wedge some object in your mouth to suppress the potentially fatal physiological reaction of trying to laugh and vomit at the same time, as inspired by these scenes.

The Swarm’s lone islet of genuine intensity and involvement comes when Krim tries out his experimental antidote on himself, a bracing few minutes where Fonda reminds us what a good actor he was and where Allen actually seems able to rely on the natural tension of the situation, with the black-hearted twist that after the antidote seems to work, this proves only momentary, and Krim dies in a perspiring mess. Considering that much of Fonda’s last few years were squandered in similarly silly movies, it’s somehow salutary that he gives this film its only charge of authenticity. The Swarm re-employed Fred Koenekamp, one half of the Oscar-winning team who had shot The Towering Inferno, and yet it possesses none of that film’s classy lustre: most of the film instead possesses that bland, over-lit quality reminiscent of so many of the era’s telemovies. Mostly The Swarm confirms how Allen’s hit-making model had become instantly out-dated, in putting his money into hiring name actors who contribute little and stunningly little real skill into production, after the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977), both of which cost substantially less than this film, but which look and sound infinitely more polished and visually fluent and artful. The one aspect of The Swarm which suggests money well-spent is Jerry Goldsmith's epic score. By the time this film’s rushed, barely coherent final kill-the-bees plan swings into action, it finally becomes impossible to tell if The Swarm was intended to be camp or serious. During the end credits we get this title…

…which finally begs the question, if camp is failed seriousness, then what exactly is failed camp?


james1511 said...

I just look at that last caption and think "so what are we supposed to conclude about the African killer bee by comparison, that it slacks around all day in the ghetto pimping its ho's and selling crack while the noble American bee's out there working hard on the land?"...

Roderick Heath said...

James, I think you've nailed it. Kudos.

Robert said...

Good movies or poor, your essays invariably make me want to see them.

Roderick Heath said...

Well, Robert, just don't sue me if you do watch this!

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

So I was reading selected comments from your review to my wife (as the men in my family do), and she thought the movie sounded like fun! So I wound up having to watch it on Netflix streaming.

I'm not going to sue you, but I do blame you. Curse your witty snark!

Roderick Heath said...

I'm sorry, Bev. From now on, I'll try to use my powers for good instead of evil. The problem posed by trying to watch The Swarm for fun is that it's just so damn long, and there are so many passages that are neither funny nor trying to be exciting, just tiresome.