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Home | Film Reviews | Film Review: Earthquake (1974)

Film Review: Earthquake (1974)

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“Construction engineer Stewart Graff is estranged from his jealously possessive wife, Remy, and has an affair with Denise Marshall, the widow of a co-worker. Meanwhile, Remy tries to persuade her father, Sam Royce, who is Stuart’s employer, to use his influence to stop Stuart from seeing Denise. Rogue policeman Lew Slade is suspended from the LAPD for having punched an obtuse officer from another jurisdiction. Embittered, Slade contemplates quitting the police force. Jody, a perverted grocery store manager, lusts after Rosa Amici, sister of Sal, the assistant to Miles Quade, an aspiring daredevil motor cyclist. The lives of all these people are devastated when a major earthquake rips through Los Angeles and reduces the city to ruins.”



“Earthquake (1974)“, a long forgotten gem from the 70’s with actor Charlton Heston at the helm as Graff, was a great era with some great offerings in the way of new pieces. I distinctly remember seeing this in its original TV debut which I believe came out in 2 parts (short mini-series). These kind of 2-parters were not that uncommon back then pulling in viewers over the course of 2 weekends to catch the whole film. For savvy viewers, you might also remember the “Towering Inferno” came out that same year, riding on the trend of disaster films to bring in viewers. For us viewers, back in the 70’s, these features were the best of what was offered at that time, FX were in the infant stage, and CGI was far off as an option. The viewing standard was full screen, also far away from wide screen options that came years later.

On that note, it is important to point out that this bluray release maintains that full frame presentation rather than trimming the top and bottom. My instant takeaway on Earthquake was that trying to force wide screen would have sacrificed much of the framing seeing that the film tends to cater to its more vertical views. I also have to point out that having subtitles, is a cool option which was void back in the days of 3 networks, fuzzy screens and mono audio.

Before digging into the movie itself, it must be noted that “Earthquake” is better appreciated by viewers of past who remember the times and are not jaded per the modern FX driven releases of our time (that do a far better job at simulated world disasters). The movie echoes its 70’s era in both culture and presentation. This is also further enhanced by the fact that California, a much heralded state at that time, was under constant fear of the “big one” coming along per its seismic activity and fault line shifts. This is represented in the film’s intro that details fault activity.

San Andreas (2015) starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is currently breaking box-office records around the world, the latest in a long line of Hollywood disaster films, a genre that uses an impending or ongoing catastrophe as its primary plot device. Characters are introduced and tension builds as the event (and sometimes its aftermath) is witnessed by these characters. Disasters can include natural events (floods, asteroids, earthquakes, etc.), accidents (fires, plane crashes, shipwrecks, etc.) and worldwide calamities (pandemics, zombies, aliens, etc.). Hollywood was actually built on a potential catastrophe – the San Andreas fault – a crack in the earth subject to quakes which runs from Los Angeles to North California. A major tremor in the fault caused the destruction of San Francisco in 1906, first by an earthquake and then by a fire that raged among the ruins. Although few more than five hundred people were actually killed by the disaster, the effect was one of total devastation, followed by looting and riots.

Earthquake photo 1With that local example at the beginning of the American film industry, it’s surprising that no major earthquake movie was made in California until San Francisco (1936) three decades later. Clark Gable plays the owner of a club on the Barbary Coast, where Jeanette Macdonald sings. He even gets to punch-out Spencer Tracy, playing the priest who befriends them both, but refuses to allow Gable to put Macdonald in a cabaret act wearing next-to-nothing. Just as Macdonald leaves Gable to marry another man, the earthquake happens to put a stop to this impetuous action. The lovers survive, though Gable is felled by a falling brick wall, which he shrugs off to the delight of the audience. The scale of the production called for some frightening scenes of devastation. The sound of the first rumble, the collapse of entire streets and buildings, the city-wide fire out of control and the dynamiting of whole city blocks to stop it remains a terrifying spectacle.

Earthquake photo 2Memories of it and a determination not to repeat the banalities of the old plot was the inspiration behind Hollywood’s second major attempt to film a quake to end all quakes: Earthquake (1974). Universal producer Jennings Lang didn’t want a disaster movie about a group of people caught together in a plane or a boat like Airport (1970) or The Poseidon Adventure (1972). That didn’t capitalise on catastrophe enough for Lang: “Millions of men and women hardly ever get on boats or planes!” He wanted a common disaster which could include all of a potential worldwide audience. Being a Californian, an earthquake seemed the most likely armageddon, so he hired Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather (1973), to work out a treatment which was completed by screenwriter George Fox, who discovered that of the 74 million people estimated to have died in earthquakes, only 1,200 were Americans.

Earthquake photo 3So, with the aid of veteran director Mark Robson, an earthquake film was scripted for Los Angeles, which could destroy and flood the city from the breaking of the Hollywood dam (actually Mulholland dam, named after the engineer William Mulholland). Death could come to the masses by quake, fire and flood, and the story this time was meant to reflect human turbulence as a prediction of the natural disaster to come. As Fox put it: “An earthquake is a release of seismic energy. Our people ought to be as pent-up and ready for release as the ground under their feet.” Perhaps they were shown to be so, and certainly the film was hugely successful and made a lot of money, but the human actors suffered as do all actors in disaster movies – no human emotion, however volcanic or subterranean, can compete even in close-up with a good special effects department showing the destruction of an entire city (two of the most memorable sequences involves a crowded elevator falling, splattering the camera lens with blood (possibly a first for a major Hollywood film), and a scene in which a woman under a shattering building turns to the camera with a face full of bloody glass shards).

Earthquake photo 4Even the unexpected drowning of the lead actors in a sewer conjures up little feeling for them, only our surprise that a happy ending is sacrificed along with the stars. Originally the script had Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) survive at the end of the film, while his wife Remy (Ava Gardner) and Lou (George Kennedy) are killed off in a storm drain. However, Heston disliked the script as written, and didn’t feel it was morally right that Graff survives to rebuild the city with his mistress by his side. Since he had script approval, Heston insisted his character die while trying to save his drowning wife. The change was made, Lou survives, and says the final lines of the film originally intended for Graff. The innovation of Earthquake was less in its excellent miniature effects, than in the invention of a sound system called Sensurround.

Earthquake photo 5
The film print had a fourth soundtrack of low frequency electronic impulses, programmed like a music score to the action on-screen. These impulses were below the 16-to-20 cycle range of most audible sound. Thus the audience could only sense a vibration like an earth tremor (at one point the filmmakers also considered dropping chunks of polystyrene onto the unsuspecting viewers). Some people were shaken with fear by this low-frequency hum without knowing exactly why, and there were cases of nosebleeds occurring amongst audience members due to the sound. At last, brainwashing techniques and psychological warfare (originally researched and developed by the military with American tax dollars) had come to the aid of Hollywood! Sensurround was only used three more times: Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978).

Earthquake photo 6
When the movie played at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, a giant net had to be rigged above the patrons fearing that the ornate ceiling decorations might break loose and fall on the audience. Worried that continuous periods of strong sound waves throughout the film’s exclusive run might loosen the ceiling’s ornamentation and light fixtures, management ordered a safety net to be slung below the entire auditorium ceiling, just below the ornamentation. Whether it was an actual workable safety measure or merely a publicity gimmick, I’m not really sure, but it certainly heightened audience anticipation. The fourth biggest grossing film of the year, Earthquake broke the record for the number of stunt people to work on a single film (141) and was honoured with four Oscar nominations for its impressive special effects, winning for Best Sound and receiving a Special Achievement Award for visual effects. There were also a number of made-for-television movies that also capitalised on the craze with titles like Heatwave (1974), The Day The Earth Moved (1974), Hurricane (1974), Flood (1976) and Fire (1977).

Earthquake photo 7A sequel imaginatively titled Earthquake II was planned, and a first-draft script was written by George Fox in 1975, but it went through development hell and was eventually shelved in 1977 as interest in disaster movies dropped. The sequel was to follow several of the surviving characters of the original as they resettle in San Francisco. The multi-tiered plot included a group of scientists trying to predict future earthquakes on the west coast, a corrupt builder constructing high rises on unstable land, and the original characters adjusting to new relationships and business ventures.


Now because of its earlier era timeline, Earthquake is not going to be your favorite disaster based film, however it may just end of being one the most memorable and fun ones to associate with the retro era of earlier 1970’s. Outfits, hairstyles, transportation, sets, dialog, and general settings are the perfect cocktail for viewers wanting to relive those great past moments.

For my own personal reason and affinity with this timeline, I am going to recommend “Earthquake” as a cool film to experience. Or if you need another reason to see Charlton Heston yet again appearing shirtless, there is that too!

Earthquake photo 8

Bonus Features

DISC ONE: Theatrical Cut Of The Film

  • NEW 2K Scan Of The Interpositive Of The Theatrical Cut (2.35:1)
  • Audio Options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 2.1 With Sensurround Audio, And 2.0
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Original TV Spot
  • Original Radio Spots
  • Vintage Audio Interviews With Charlton Heston, Lorne Greene, And Richard Roundtree
  • Still Galleries – Movie Stills, Posters, Lobby Cards, Behind-The-Scenes Photos, Matte Paintings, And Miniatures

DISC TWO: Television Cut Of The Film

  • NEW 2K Scan Reconstruction Of TV version, Featuring Over 20 Minutes Of Made-For-Broadcast Footage (Presented In 1.33:1)
  • NEW Sounds Of Disaster: Ben Burtt Talks About SENSURROUND
  • NEW Scoring Disaster: The Music Of EARTHQUAKE
  • NEW Painting Disaster: The Matte Art Of Albert Whitlock
  • The Additional TV Scenes – Play Them Without Watching The Television Version
  • Additional TV Scenes (Taken From The Best Available Film Element)

Earthquake can now be enjoyed in bluray form per Shout Factory

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