I suppose there have always been disaster movies, but the real fad for them began in 1970 with Airport. (Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive list, running to hundreds of films, and you’ll see that the vast majority of them were made in the 1970s and later.)
They are almost invariably ponderous, with standard plug-in characters and situations, and most of the time they’re pretty stupid. Of all of them—and I’ve seen a ton of them—I can’t think of a one that has a trace or wit or style, except this one. It is one of Richard Lester’s rare non-comedies, and it sparkles with new ideas. It has his trademark sour lines for the “background” characters, those who clean up after the main people. (In The Three Musketeers 4 guys set down a sedan chair, huffing and puffing. “She’s gained weight.”) It has distinctive photography. Yeah, there is a standard element or two—the bratty kid who get in trouble and has to be rescued—but for the most part it avoids all that stuff. Richard Harris has his usual tendency to chew the scenery, but mostly keeps it under control. David Hemmings and all the supporting cast are excellent, including a very young Anthony Hopkins.
Sadly, I have to tell you that the last two minutes suck, big-time. Here’s the situation:
There are seven big bombs aboard a passenger liner. (The photography of this monster heaving in heavy seas is great! Also a scene where a Navy bomb squad has to parachute into a storm to board the ship.) The bombs are in 50-gallon drums, and they are way beyond diabolical, and utterly believable. There’s only one way to approach a situation like this. Seven men sit beside seven bombs, all in radio contact, watertight doors in place to limit any explosion. One man carefully describes what he is about to do. Then he does it. If the others don’t hear a big bang, they do what he did. Then the lead guy says what he’s going to do again, and the other six listen. This goes on until he screws up—ka-BOOM!!!—and now there are six. The new lead describes what he’s going to do, and then does it … What a way to earn a living, right? (You have to assume the bombs are identical; you have no choice, because if they aren’t, your situation is hopeless.)
So … they have captured the mad bomber back in London, and it’s somebody Richard Harris knows and has worked with before. They’re talking on the radio. Harris has stripped the bomb down to one little tube with two wires coming out of it, a red one and a blue one. There is absolutely no way to know which wire, when cut, will set off the bomb, and which will defuse it. Odds of living: 50-50. So, “Which one shall I cut, old friend?” Old friend says, “Cut the blue wire.” Harris says “Cutting the blue wire.” Then he hesitates … and cuts the red wire. No explosion. But see, he didn’t tell his team he had changed his mind! Suppose the old friend had been telling the truth? Harris cuts the red wire—ka-BLOOEY!!!—and what does his team do? Why, all four of them (two bombs have already gone off) assume he did what he said he would do, which is cut the blue wire, and there was an explosion, so they cut the red wire, and all four bombs go off. The arrogance! The stupidity! He jeopardized the whole ship on his friggin’ hunch! Well, Richard Harris was perfect for that part, I guess. The man has always seemed to me to ooze arrogance. Cakes melting out in the rain in MacArthur Park. What a dumb song!