Saturday, April 21, 2018

Earthquake Rumbles and Rattles!

Genevieve Bujold and Charlton Heston.
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.

Ava Gardner and Loren Greene.
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).

Disaster film vet Kennedy also played
a cop on The Blue Knight TV series.
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...
Los Angeles in shambles after the first big quake.
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 boxoffice 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 (shown on the right) 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.


  1. I saw it when it came out. Pretty lame overall. There were 2 large speakers near the screen, both about the size of a VW Rabbit, with giant woofers. The theater really shook during the "earthquake". A buddy was in the adjoining theater watching another movie, and he said that theater shook too.

  2. I missed out on the Sensurround by skipping this at the movies. I have caught it on TV a couple of times, and found it entertaining enough to keep watching. It was a time of really BIG movies and really small movies.

    1. Well said! Sensurround was an entertaining gimmick in EARTHQUAKE, but the other Sensurround pics weren’t very good.

  3. I actually saw a preview of this movie as part of the Universal Studio tour back in 1974. They had the Sensurround set up perfectly for optimum effect. I later saw the whole movie in the theater when it was released. it was still pretty impressive.

  4. I saw this for the first time a couple of years ago, and I think it was on Netflix. Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed it even though I personally don't have Sensurround technology. Charlton Heston, of course, is made for movies like this, and Walter Matthau was an unexpected treat. This film did not disappoint.

  5. Matthau jokingly used to give that multi-syllabic surname as his "real" name. I had one reference book that fell for it.

  6. I was a special effects starved 14 year old when this hit the theaters and I have to admit I was thoroughly underwhelmed. The film suffers from truly cruddy cinematography, a cast of uncomfortable actors, a surprisingly lack luster John Williams score and miniature work that wouldn't cut it in a forties Universal horror film. That said I nonetheless have a soft spot for it as I do for most seventies disaster flicks. Heston is enjoyably Heston and George Kennedy is wonderful as Joe Patroni in all but name. More importantly Albert Whitlock demonstrates what a one man Industrial Light and Magic he was with a wealth of outstanding matte paintings that he then somehow topped a couple of years later with "The Hindenburg". I saw this in Toledo on an actual curved Cinerama screen with some giant Sensurround sound gear that added nothing to the experience. The way they treated Richard Roundtree in this film was criminal.