I thought that Airport 1975 and Airport '77 had set a standard that very few 1970s disaster movies could live up to. The outrageously hammy acting and the insane silliness of the basic plot premises seemed enough on their own to see off any challengers. But that was before I saw The Swarm.
Directed and produced by Irwin Allen (creator of camp TV classics Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel back in the 60s) this one doesn’t rely on just one spectacularly silly idea. It has one spectacularly silly idea after another. There’s a certain epic grandeur to the silliness of this movie that one can’t help but admire.
Michael Caine is Dr Brad Crane, an entomologist who has been warning for years about the imminent and inevitable war between humanity and the insects. But no-one has listened. When a swarm of mutant African killer bees attacks a US missile base in Texas and wipes out all but a handful of the personnel he is finally vindicated. The president puts him in charge of the war against the bees, much to the disgust of General Slater (Richard Widmark) who thinks of this as just another military operation, best left to professional soldiers.
Dr Crane calls in a team of top scientists who set to work to look for ways of killing the bees, or of protecting humans from their deadly venom. His old mentor Dr Krim, the country’s leading immunologist, is in charge of finding an antidote. Dr Crane is also assisted by a beautiful female air force doctor (played by Katharine Ross whose career was well and truly on the skids by tis stage) and of course pretty soon romance blossoms between them. Meanwhile the bees have turned their attention to the nearby town of Marysville, populated largely by Hollywood has-beens like Fred MacMurray and Olivia de Havilland.
The scientists come up with some ingenious methods of wiping out the bees, but these insects are not just deadly, they’re smart as well. Having caused carnage in Marysville they’re now on their way to Houston. General Slater and Dr Crane argue incessantly, while devastation threatens the whole of Texas.
This film has all the classic hallmarks of 70s disaster movies. Lots of pointless appearances by superannuated stars of yesteryear, or by almost-stars like Patty Duke whose careers were on a fast track to nowhere. A complete absence of logic. Ludicrous pseudoscience. And amazingly cringe-inducing dialogue.
And of course atrocious acting. I happen to think that Michael Caine is a very fine actor, but put him in a bad movie and he’s pure ham. He’s completely unable to take a movie like this seriously, and it shows. Even taking the awfulness of the script into account some of his line readings really do appear to be deliberately and consciously mocking of the entire project. But it all adds to the fun. Katharine Ross seems depressed, and you can’t blame her. Richard Widmark engages Michael Caine in some memorable scenery-chewing duels. The faded stars of the past mostly just embarrass themselves.
The version I saw was the extended version, 40 minutes longer than the original theatrical cut and really about an hour too long. The special effects are reasonably well done, and some are quite impressive.
If you’re a connoisseur of this type of movie then this one will delight you. You will be amazed at the cunning of those killer insects, and some of the dialogue will stay with you forever, no matter how hard you try to forget it. Outrageously campy, and despite its inordinate length highly entertaining.