Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Swarm (1978) - Film Review

In 1970, the release of the film "Airport" had two immediate effects. First, it provided moviegoers with an exciting mixture of drama and suspense. Second, it gave birth to a decade long cycle of disaster films.

Disaster films followed a specific pattern. Some sort of epic mishap would put a who’s who of celebrities through two or more hours of peril, with the majority of them being killed off one at a time in generally grisly ways before the few survivors finally escaped harm. The first entries were well-made, entertaining flicks, such as "Airport", "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), and "The Towering Inferno" (1974). But, quickly enough, the well of creativity ran dry and, though disaster films were still made, they became lumbering, cheesy (but still star laden) disasters themselves. Films like "Airport 1975" (which came out in 1974), "Earthquake" (1974), "Avalanche" (1978), "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979), "The Concorde-Airport ‘79" (1979), "When Time Ran Out..." (1980), and our featured title, "The Swarm" (1978). By this time, disaster films were even popping up in the form of television movies. They followed the same formula as their big screen forerunners with two exceptions: the stars of the cast were a little dimmer and ALL of the television disaster movies sucked.

Responsible for producing (and sometimes directing) the bulk of these films, good and bad, was a man named Irwin Allen. Allen started his film career as a producer in the early 1950s. Before long, he had earned a Best Documentary Academy Award for producing "The Sea Around Us" (1952). In the 1960s, he made a significant mark in the television arena, producing such popular series as "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1964-68), "Lost in Space" (1965-68), "The Time Tunnel" (1966-67), and "Land of the Giants" (1968-70). But it was his production of "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno", which together earned five Oscars and twelve nominations (including a Best Picture nod for Allen for the latter), that launched his career in the disaster film genre.

After having put the likes of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, and Ernest Borgnine through a capsized ship and a burning skyscraper, Allen turned his disaster powers towards television. There he produced the lesser films "Flood!" (1976) and "Fire!" (1977), before returning once more to the big screen. This time, though, he would not only produce but also direct, thus allowing us to lay even more than usual blame at his feet for what would be one of the worst movies ever made.

"The Swarm" hit all the appropriate disaster film marks. It featured a jaw-dropping cast: Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Jose Ferrer, Richard Chamberlain, Fred MacMurray, Patty Duke, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Lee Grant, Henry Fonda, and Bradford Dillman. It had a script by Stirling Silliphant, who had won a Best Screenplay Oscar for "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) and who had written both "Poseidon" and "Inferno". And it had a gargantuan running length: two hours in its initial release and two and a half hours in the uncut international version. From a distance, it might seem Allen had his act together. But he didn’t.

The plot of our opus revolves around a swarm of killer African bees terrorizing Texas, a swarm whose venom is so lethal that one attacked would die after only two or three stings. Before the film’s end, they have wiped out the crew manning an ICBM missile base, massacred a town, derailed a train, caused the explosion of a nuclear reactor, invaded Houston, and killed many of our major players.

The potential for a good film was here. In 1976, director Bruce Geller (the creator of the TV classic "Mission: Impossible"), had taken the same topic and utilized it to good end with the mini-classic television movie "The Savage Bees", in which a deadly swarm runs amok in Louisiana. This film (which also starred Ben Johnson) was well-acted, atmospheric, and a pleasure to watch. But all the pleasure derived from watching "The Swarm" is the result of seeing a cast and crew of respected artisans, equipped with a $21 million budget, totally embarrass themselves.

Let us see how each component of the film is fatally flawed.

ACTING: There is not a single major cast member who wasn’t a leading member of the acting class. In fact, of the film’s thirteen stars, all but four (MacMurray, Chamberlain, Dillman, and Pickens) have either won or been nominated for an Academy Award. Yet, each one of them delivers a poor (or, at best, slightly disappointing) performance. Chamberlain (as a scientist) smothers his lines with a toxic, cliched southern accent, while Widmark (as the military leader) roars, yells, and growls each of his lines as he did in the overrated "Judgment at Nuremburg" (1961). Caine, our hero, carries the same facial expression for the length of the film. Even legends such as Fonda and de Havilland falter, though their performances rank among the better.

DIRECTION: Allen’s strength came from his talents as a producer. He had the ability to secure large budgets and top-drawer casts and turn out entertaining films. But as a director, he was slightly less skilled. Admittedly, his 1962 directorial effort "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", makes for a very good watch. But critics weren’t so kind to "The Story of Mankind" (1957) or "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure". With "The Swarm", Allen displays his inability to bring forth even one decent performance from over a dozen megawatt stars. If just one of the big name cast members had been sloppy in their work, you would blame the performer. But when thirteen of cinema’s giants fall down on the job simultaneously, you realize they were pushed.

SCREENPLAY: The primary cause of death, though, was the film’s writing. Silliphant is without excuse for this atrocity. Anyone who can pen such classics as "Village of the Damned" (1960), "In the Heat of the Night", and "Charly" (1968), should have been able to do at least a serviceable job here. But Silliphant’s script is one of the worst ever from a respected writer. The film abounds with inaccuracies, plot holes, ridiculous story developments (Houston is evacuated in a day!), and atrocious dialogue ("Houston on fire. Will history blame me, or the bees?"). The characters are poorly drawn, with scientists portrayed as environmentally-conscious saviors of mankind while the military officers are depicted as intellectually-challenged, "pave the rainforest" morons. From opening to closing, Silliphant shows nothing but complete contempt for his own work and the audience. The audience, apparently aware of this, refused to turn out in significant numbers, with the film failing to recover even half of its budget. Within a few years, the disaster genre would breathe its last.

To see such incredible mishandling of so much talent and money is appalling. When a film written, produced, directed, and edited by Ed Wood fails, you don’t think twice. But when an Irwin Allen-produced, Jerry Goldsmith-scored, Stirling Silliphant-written film with a cast to rival that of "How the West Was Won" (1962) turns out just as bad, one is left awestruck. At least those involved with the film can rest easy knowing that the film will never cease to be viewed...if only to be seen by those wanting to know what not to do. One star (though I would give it three and a half for its unintentional hilarity if this was a less objective rating system).

For a hilarious, in depth review of "The Swarm" by Ken Begg, please check out the second link posted above.


  • I watched this movie the other day because I was looking for a movie that might help me fall asleep. Surprisingly, this movie was better than I thought it would be. At least it held my interest. I don't think the movie should be in Leonard Maltin's bomb category. I would give it two stars. It is not as bad as Plan Nine From Outer Space or Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. I think the reason Maltin puts it in the bomb category is because so much money and so much talent went into this movie, and the movie was at best mediocre.

    By Blogger Dan Weaver, at 12:59 PM  

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