ⓘ Earthquake (1974 film)

Earthquake (1974 film)

ⓘ Earthquake (1974 film)

Earthquake is a 1974 American ensemble disaster drama film directed and produced by Mark Robson. The plot concerns the struggle for survival after a catastrophic earthquake destroys most of the city of Los Angeles, California.

Directed by Mark Robson and with a screenplay by George Fox and Mario Puzo, the film starred a large cast of well-known actors, including Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Victoria Principal, and under an alias Walter Matthau. It is notable for the use of an innovative sound effect called Sensurround, which created the sense of actually experiencing an earthquake in theatres.


1. Plot

Early one morning, an earthquake jolts the Los Angeles metro area. On his way to work, former USC football player Stewart Graff, having just fought with his wife Remy, visits Denise Marshall, an actress who is the widow of one of his friends and co-workers. He drops off an autographed football for her son Corry and helps Denise rehearse her lines for a scene she is shooting later that day.

At the California Seismological Institute, staffer Walter Russell has calculated that Los Angeles will suffer a major earthquake within the next day or two. He frantically tries to reach his superior, Dr. Frank Adams. Another tremor hits as Adams and his assistant are working in a deep trench, and they are buried alive. The scientists at the center debate about whether or not to go public with their prediction of a major quake. The acting supervisor insists that if they are wrong, their funding will be jeopardized. They agree on a compromise to alert the National Guard and police so that they can at least mobilize to help deal with the fallout.

While checking out at a grocery store, Rosa Amici realizes she does not have enough money to pay for all her items, but Jody Joad, the store manager, says she can pay the difference next time. Joad learns that his Guard unit is being called up on the radio, so he leaves work to change into his NCO uniform. At home, his housemates harass and tease him for having posters of male bodybuilders on his wall.

The tremor cancelled Denises shoot, so she heads to Stewarts office, pretending to meet with a friend. The pair go back to Denises house for drinks and end up making love. He promises to come back later that night and invites her and Corry to spend the summer with him in Oregon while he oversees a project. Returning to work, his boss and father in-law Sam Royce offers to hand over the company presidency to Stewart. After asking for time to think about it, Stewart calls Denise and breaks off their plans for later that night. He goes to Sams office to accept his offer but is stunned to see Remy there. He assumes she has convinced her father, Sam, to offer the promotion to Stewart in order to save their marriage. Stewart storms out of the building, followed by Remy, when a major earthquake measuring 9.9 on the Richter Scale strikes, destroying much of Los Angeles and killing thousands.

Sam and most of his employees find themselves trapped on the upper floors of their 30-story skyscraper. They descend most of the way by the stairs, but the earthquake has collapsed part of the stairwell. Sam rigs a fire hose to a chair and lowers his staff down one at a time. Before he can descend himself, Sam suffers a heart attack, and Stewart climbs up to rescue him. Denises son, meanwhile, has been caught on a bridge over a spillway, which has become entangled with high voltage electric cables. Denise finds him unconscious on the concrete and climbs down to save him. Unable to climb back out with her son, she hails a passing truck, driven by stuntman Miles Quade and his partner, Sal Amici. After saving Denise and her son, they drive in search of help, coming across LAPD Sgt. Lou Slade, who is organizing rescue efforts and commandeers their truck to use it as an ambulance.

Rosa is arrested for looting by a National Guard unit led by Jody Joad. Rosa assumes Jody is going to let her go, but he orders her to stay inside a secluded store for safety. Another group of troops arrive with Jodys housemates as prisoners. Jody executes them in an act of revenge for all the ridicule he has endured from them, terrifying Rosa and his subordinates.

Stewart escorts his co-workers to the Wilson Plaza shopping center, now converted into a triage center, then goes off in search of Denise and her son. Soon after, Sam dies from his heart attack. Stewart ends up driving Lou around in search of survivors and they come across Jody and his regiment. Jody threatens to fire on them if they come any closer. Rosa emerges from the store, screaming and begging for help. Lou and Stewart drive away, but stop out of sight. Lou sneaks back and gets the jump on Jody, shooting Jody in self-defense and rescuing Rosa.

As they drive away, they hear that another aftershock has destroyed Wilson Plaza. Surveying the damaged building, Stewart realizes there are survivors trapped in an underground garage three stories below ground. He and Lou crawl into the sewer and, using a jackhammer, drill through to the garage. Stewart is overjoyed to find Denise, who is one of the people trapped inside. As he hugs her, he sees his wife Remy standing just behind her.

The Mulholland Dam, damaged by the earlier tremor, finally gives way, flooding the sewers. Lou and Denise make it up the ladder to safety, but as Remy climbs out, a man steps on the rung shes holding and she falls back into the flooded sewer. Stewart looks up at Denise, but he cannot bring himself to abandon his wife to death. He sacrifices himself when he swims after her and both of them are swept away, along with others. Denise walks away from the manhole in shock and grief.

Dr. Vance turns to Slade, and says: "This used to be a hell of a town, officer." "Yeah," replies Slade, as tears well up in his eyes. Meanwhile, the remaining survivors take in the devastated Los Angeles cityscape.


2.1. Production Inception

In the wake of the tremendous success of the 1970 disaster-suspense film Airport, Universal Studios began working with executive producer Jennings Lang to come up with a new idea that would work within the same "disaster-suspense" genre. Inspiration came in the form of the San Fernando earthquake of February 1971. Director Mark Robson and Lang were intrigued by the idea of creating a disaster on film that would not be confined to an airliner, but rather take place over a large area. Producer Bernard Donnenfeld helped produce the film, but was uncredited.

Budgeted at $7.000.000, Earthquake found itself in a race against the clock with the bigger-budgeted disaster film, The Towering Inferno, which was being produced by Irwin Allen The Poseidon Adventure and financed by two studios 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., a motion picture first.


2.2. Production Development

Lang scored a coup when he was able to sign screenwriter Mario Puzo to write the first draft during the summer of 1972. Puzo, fresh from the success of his novel and film, The Godfather, delivered the draft script in August. However, Puzos detailed script necessitated a large production budget, as the action and characters were spread over a vast geographical area in Los Angeles. Universal was faced with either cutting the script or increasing the projected budget. Puzos involvement with Earthquake was short-lived, as Paramount Pictures was anxious to begin development with the followup to The Godfather, The Godfather Part II. Because Puzos services contractually were obligated to the sequel, he opted out of continuing any further work on Earthquake.

The Earthquake script languished at Universal Studios for a short period, but was brought back to life by the huge success of the 20th Century Fox hit The Poseidon Adventure, released in December 1972. Fueled by that films enormous box-office receipts, Universal Studios put pre-production on Earthquake back into high gear, hiring writer George Fox to continue work with Puzos first draft. Fox was principally a magazine writer and never had written a screenplay, so director Mark Robson worked with him to narrow the scope of the script to fit into the budgetary constraints. After 11 drafts, Earthquake went before the cameras in February 1974.


2.3. Production Casting

While The Towering Inferno featured a larger "all star" cast, Universal was able to land Charlton Heston in the lead role. Rounding out the top billing were Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, and Genevieve Bujold. Richard Roundtree riding a wave of success from the Shaft film series was brought in after filming had already started, filling the part of an Evel Knievel-like motorcycle stuntman. Former evangelical Marjoe Gortner was hired as the antagonist, Jody. Relative unknown Victoria Principal was hired to play the sister of Roundtrees business partner, Sal, played by veteran actor Gabriel Dell.

Walter Matthau was cast in a cameo role, for which he was credited as "Walter Matuschanskayasky".


2.4. Production Set design

Production necessitated the simulated destruction of the Universal Studios backlot in order to simulate the catastrophic earthquake of the title. Along with a clever use of miniatures of actual buildings, matte paintings, and full-scale sets some of which were placed on rollers for a shaking effect, Earthquake used a new technique developed especially for the film: a "shaker mount" camera system that mimicked the effects of an earthquake by moving the entire camera body several inches side to side. This camera mount was used for most exterior scenes or other instances where shooting on location.


2.5. Production Stunts

Extensive use of highly trained stunt artists for the most dangerous scenes involving high falls, dodging falling debris, and flood sequences, set a Hollywood record for the most stunt artists involved in any film production up until that time: 141. Major stunt sequences in the film required careful choreography between the stunt artists and behind-the-scenes stunt technicians who were responsible for triggering full-scale effects, such as falling debris. Timing was critical, since some rigged effects involved dropping six ton chunks of reinforced concrete in order to flatten cars, with stunt performers only a few feet away. In other scenarios, some stunt artists were required to fall sixty feet onto large air bags from the rafters of Universals largest Stage 12 – for which they were paid the sum of $500. While every precaution was taken to prevent injuries, several did occur during filming. One stunt person suffered a concussion during the flood sequence the accident was used in the film, and several stunt artists were injured during the elevator crash scene, since the set was designed to collapse upon them.


2.6. Production Sound effects

Universal Studios and Jennings Lang wanted Earthquake to be an "event film", something that would draw audiences into the theatre multiple times. After several ideas were tossed about which included bouncing styrofoam faux "debris" over audience members heads, Universals sound department came up with a process called "Sensurround" – a series of large speakers made by Cerwin-Vega powered by BGW amplifiers, that would pump in sub-audible "infra bass" sound waves at 120 decibels equivalent to a jet airplane at takeoff, giving the viewer the sensation of an earthquake. The process was tested in several theatres around the United States prior to the films release, yielding various results. A famous example is Graumans Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California, where the "Sensurround" cracked the plaster in the ceiling. The same theatre premiered Earthquake three months later – with a newly installed net over the audience to catch any falling debris – to tremendous success.

The "Sensurround" process proved to be a large audience draw, but not without generating a fair share of controversy. When the film premiered in Chicago, Illinois, the head of the building and safety department demanded the system be turned down, as he was afraid it would cause structural damage. In Billings, Montana, a knick-knack shop next door to a theatre using the system lost part of its inventory when items from several shelves were thrown to the floor when the system was cued during the quake scenes.

Sensurround was used again for the films Midway 1976, Rollercoaster 1977, and Battlestar Galactica 1979.

The 2006 Universal Studios Home Entertainment DVD release features the original "Sensurround" 3.1 audio track, duplicating the original theatrical "Sensurround" track but oddly in mono directed to the front 3 speakers rather than the original stereo mix, but no actual rumble generator was used, and only the two control tones that activated the generator can be heard. In addition, the films original soundtrack was remixed in Surround Sound 5.1 which was simply a tag as once again only the control tones feature on the track.


2.7. Production Music

John Williams music for Earthquake was the second of his trio of scores for large-scale disaster films, having previously scored The Poseidon Adventure and following with The Towering Inferno. Williams scored both Earthquake and The Towering Inferno in the summer of 1974, both scores showing similarities to one another notably Earthquakes theme and The Towering Infernos love theme sharing the same eight-note melody. The music of the song "Cest si Bon" by Henri Betti is played on the guitar in the middle of the film.


2.8. Production Pretests and re-edits

After October, 1974 test screenings, Universal opted to cut 30 minutes from the film, notably from the pre-quake sequences, at the cost of some of the dramatic flow. This included a narration sequence about the San Andreas fault and an impending catastrophic earthquake that would occur in either Los Angeles or San Francisco. This scene was filmed and was set to be shown before the opening title credits. Also excised were lengthy scenes of Remy Gardner and Stewart Heston arguing at the beginning of the film. After Remys fake suicide, Dr. Vance Lloyd Nolan arrives at the Graff home and begins to talk with Stewart an old friend. Dr. Vance inadvertently informs Stewart that Remy had an abortion two years prior he was told it was a miscarriage. Remy appears, and they fight because Stewart wanted the baby and Remy did not. Stewart storms off. This explains why Stewart resents Remy so much. In the final cut of the film, they just seem angry at one another. There was more of Slades leaving the police station, and footage of Rosas leaving the market was shot as well. She was filmed waiting for a bus and being offered a lift from a man on a motorcycle this footage eventually was used in the films television cut. Just before the earthquake, Stewart and Remy had a final fight in front of Stewarts car that was deleted as well. During the earthquake, there was a scene of a nearby lumberyards falling apart, and this was removed from the final cut.

Other deleted scenes were shot to wrap up many characters stories after the earthquake. Walt Russell and Dr. Stockle – whose fates are undetermined after the quake in the theatrical release – were shown alive in the seismology laboratory post-quake. They were shown finding the earthquakes magnitude to be 9.9 on the Richter scale. The films final scene originally had Denises asking Lou Slade if Stewart had survived; upon hearing of his death, she walks over to Corry who has regained consciousness.


2.9. Production The elevator scene

The elevator scene, one of the films more infamous shots, was compromised as a result of difficulties during filming. Originally, the occupants were pressed to the ceiling of the elevator as it fell down the shaft, and then dropped to the floor when the elevator crashed to the bottom. The scene was filmed several times, with several stunt people involved. Copious amounts of stage blood were rigged to spray the stunt people inside the elevator set with blood when the set came crashing to the ground. After several tries over two separate filming days weeks apart the break in filming was an attempt to perfect the mechanical effects involved, and with unsatisfactory results, the decision was made on-set by director Robson to edit the scene with an "animated blood" effect to be added in post production. The optical effect was superimposed over a still frame of part of the unusable footage, resulting in the "cartoonish" nature of the shot. The television version removed the animated blood sequence.

Rumors have persisted in recent years that the "animated blood" was added as a result of the MPAA threatening an "R" rating due to the original graphic nature of the scene, but the script supervisors on-set notes reveal that this was not the case. The notes reveal that shooting the scene was problematic, and the decision was made to correct the scene in editing.


3.1. Reception Box office

The disaster film trend reached a zenith in 1974 with the combined releases of Airport 1975 the first Airport sequel, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. The films enjoyed staggering success, with The Towering Inferno earning $55 million in rentals, Earthquake earning $36 million and Airport 1975 earning $25 million. By 1976, the disaster film cycle had also left its mark on the list of all-time box-office champions, with The Towering Inferno ranking eighth, Airport fourteenth, The Poseidon Adventure sixteenth, and Earthquake twentieth. These successes ensured the flood of similar films throughout the decade.

Earthquake eventually grossed $79.7 million $379.8 million, adjusted for inflation in 2019 dollars.


3.2. Reception Critical response

At its release, critics generally acknowledged the special effects in Earthquake while discounting other aspects. Without either panning or praising the film, Nora Sayre of the New York Times wrote that it was an improvement on Airport 75 and observed, "The impulse to shout advice to the screen - get out! go away! dont enter that building - is quite powerful, so this does rank as a participatory movie." Judith Crist wrote in New York Magazine that "the nonsense is bearable for the spectacle. And. here we have a feast of feats of destruction." Pauline Kael wrote "The picture is swill, but it isnt a cheat; its an entertaining marathon of Grade-A destruction effects". Gene Siskel gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote the special effects were "terrific" but identified a basic problem with the story: "With a Poseidon Adventure or an Airport the ending is clear - people are saved ultimately thru their own or somebody elses enterprise. But with an earthquake, the final solution is out of ones hands, anyones hands - even Allstates. If the tremors dont stop, then everybodyll die; if they do, then only a few people will die. End of story." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the Sensurround vibrations "succeed very nicely in making themselves felt as well as heard and they set up an anxiety which makes watching Earthquake a very ambivalent experience for anyone who, so to speak, has been there before." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote "Thanks to Sensurround, Earthquake figures to be the gimmick hit of 1974. Without the gimmick, it would be difficult to distinguish this perfunctory, mediocre piece of storytelling from Universals other disaster vehicle, Airport 1975.

Rotten Tomatoes collected reviews from 25 critics, some contemporary with the film and some from subsequent years, to give the film a score of 40% with an average of 4.76 out of 10. The critical consensus reads: "The destruction of Los Angeles is always a welcome sight, but Earthquake offers little besides big actors slumming through crumbling sets." Leonard Maltin gave the film a "BOMB" rating, stating title tells the story in hackneyed disaster epic. Marjoe as a sex deviate and Gardner as Lorne Greenes daughter tie for films top casting honors." Gardner was only 8 years younger than Lorne Greene.


3.3. Reception Accolades

Earthquake was nominated for four Academy Awards. including Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen and E. Preston Ames; Set Decoration: Frank R. McKelvy and Best Sound Ronald Pierce and Melvin Metcalfe Sr. It won for Best Sound Ronald Pierce and Melvin Metcalfe Sr. and a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson and Albert Whitlock.

The film was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Original Score John Williams.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

  • 2001: AFIs 100 Years.100 Thrills – Nominated

4. Television version

For the films television premiere on September 26, 1976 on NBC, additional footage was added to expand the films running time so it could be shown over two nights. This "television version" made no use of material left out of the theatrical release save one brief scene featuring Victoria Principal and Reb Brown, but rather incorporated new footage filmed nearly two years after the original using two of the original films stars, Marjoe Gortner and Victoria Principal, as well as Jesse Vint and Michael Richardson reprising their film roles of Marjoe Gortners taunting roommates, expanding on the original storyline from the theatrical film. Editing and re-recorded dialogue helped integrate this expansion into the original film. An entirely new storyline shot specifically for the television version was that of a young married couple Debralee Scott and Sam Chew flying to Los Angeles on an airplane. The husband seeks a job with the Royce Construction company of the film, while his wife has the eerily accurate ability to see the future with tarot cards. Their airliner attempts to land at Los Angeles International Airport as the titular earthquake hits, and the airliner makes a touch-and-go landing on a runway that is breaking up, diverting to San Francisco. Throughout the remainder of the television version, the film cuts back to the couple as they discuss their future together, and the husbands wish to return to Los Angeles and help rebuild the city.

The "Sensurround" audio of the original film was simulcast in FM stereo in the Los Angeles and New York markets. This theoretically allowed the home viewer with the properly equipped sound system to experience a similar effect as in the theater.


5. Theme park attractions

Earthquake inspired the attractions Earthquake: The Big One at Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood.

The Hollywood attraction opened in March 1989 as part of the Studio Tour tram ride. The tram enters a sound stage, the interior designed to look like a San Francisco underground BART station, whereupon a two-and-a-half-minute simulation of an 8.3 earthquake takes place, featuring a gas truck falling into the station, a runaway train and a flood.

The Florida attraction opened in June 1990. It began with an introductory film on the making of Earthquake with Charlton Heston appearing to explain the special effects, followed by a live demonstration based on the film with audience participation. The attraction culminated in a simulated 8.3 earthquake aboard an underground train at Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. In the fall of 2002, the pre-show was changed to a more generic "magic of making movies" theme, with slight modifications which included mentioning special effects used in other films besides Earthquake. The Florida attraction officially closed on November 5, 2007, and reopened several months later as "Disaster!: A Major Motion Picture Ride.Starring You!."


6. Stock footage

Many scenes from the film, especially those featuring the destruction of Los Angeles, have appeared in other productions, often those of Universal Studios itself. Some examples include:

  • The Incredible Hulk: In the first-season episode "Earthquakes Happen", several building collapse scenes, the collapsing freeway overpass scene, the collapsing Spanish bells, the sliding and falling stilt houses, and the collapsing high tension wires and parts of the wooden foot bridge scenes were reused with slightly zoomed or slightly reoriented focus to minimize association with Earthquake.
  • Quantum Leap: The episode "Disco Inferno" has Sam Beckett leaped in as a film stuntman. One of his jobs is on the set of Earthquake, where he is the character seen hanging from a piece of debris whom Sam Royce Lorne Greenes character attempts to save, but Beckett loses his grip and falls.
  • Damnation Alley: In this 1977 film, the earth shifts from its axis after a full-scale nuclear war. Flood scenes from the dam burst in Earthquake are used to help depict the earth returning to its correct axis.
  • Galactica 1980: In the episode "Galactica Discovers Earth", in a "computer simulation" of a devastating Cylon attack on Los Angeles, which was in turn shown in the Tom Petty music video for the song "You Got Lucky".
  • Barenaked Ladies music video for "Another Postcard": Parts of the film, namely when the big earthquake struck, were used.
  • V: The Final Battle: Footage from the sequence featuring the collapse of the Hollywood dam was reused during the destruction of the Visitors water pumping station.
  • Scarface has a scene where Tony Montana is going to buy cocaine from some drug dealers, and the TV set in the motel room shows the scene in this film where the graduate assistant is explaining his earthquake theory to the director of the Seismology Institute.
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