(chronological, by film title)
Introduction | 1900s-1920s | 1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960s | 1970s
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Greatest Disaster Film Scenes: Introduction
Disasters have been the subject of film-goers' fascination since the time of silent film epics, and this interest continues to exist up to the present time. Films have often depicted large-scale natural disasters (weather-related usually) or man-made calamities (a wreck at sea, an airplane crash), often accompanied by massive crowd scenes. Studios have jumped to Hollywood-ize extreme weather for their disaster films. Other disasters may be planetary-related, criminally-instigated, nuclear-related, millennial-related, or involving alien or mutant invasions of some kind. They can be either impending or ongoing, or they can exist locally or globally.
Spectacular scenes of destruction always provide big entertainment value, but the best disaster movies also commented upon the negative effects of advancing technology, demonstrated the hubris of scientists, delivered uplifting moral lessons of sacrifice, and provided a how-to in survival skills.
Also see this site's writeup on the Greatest Disaster Films.
The focus of such extreme climate-related and other disaster films has always been on a spectacular calamity that threatened existence, with a small group of people in imminent danger, and how they must cope or devise a method of escape. Tension has been developed by concentrating on the miraculous means of rescue and whether all the characters (usually in an all-star cast) have the inner strength to survive the ordeal.
Most disaster films have large-scale special effects (especially in the recent past's mega-budget spectaculars), huge casts of stars facing a crisis, a persevering hero or heroine (i.e., Charlton Heston, Steve McQueen, Tommy Lee Jones, Dwayne Johnson, etc.) called upon to lead the struggle against the threat, and many plot-lines affecting multiple characters. In many cases, the 'evil' or 'selfish' individuals were the first to succumb to the conflagration.
As in any sub-genre, the move to capitalize on the 'disaster film' trend has led to many sub-par disaster films, with weak and unsubtle, formulaic plots, improbable circumstances and bad science, poor character development, and laughable acting from third-rate stars portraying cliched characters. And many of the more current 'disaster films' have been overshadowed by action-thriller elements in the plots.
The Sub-Category of Extreme Weather Events and Other Natural Disasters
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the concluding cornerstone of Best Picture-nominated San Francisco (1936), a big moneymaker for MGM. The special effects in the scenes of the Earth splitting apart and a subsequent devastating fire were stunningly realistic. In Earthquake (1974), suspenseful scenes of the crumbling destruction of Los Angeles by a powerful 9.9-level earthquake were accompanied by impressive special effects and the first use of bass-rumbling Sensurround ('You'll feel it, as well as see it!'), resulting in the film's only Oscar win, for Best Sound. The film also used model skyscrapers that collapsed, Styrofoam concrete, and a miniature to depict the crumbling Hollywood Reservoir.
Warner Brothers' Noah's Ark (1928) told about the Biblical story of the great flood, ending with a flood sequence that mixed miniatures, double exposures, and the full-scale destruction of actual sets. When tanks of water were released upon hundreds of unsuspecting extras, three of them reportedly drowned, and many others were severely injured. RKO's Deluge (1933), about tidal waves that destroyed various California coastal cities as well as New York City, was the first big-budget talkie disaster film with impressive visual effects. Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox's production of The Rains Came (1939) was the biggest disaster epic of the decade. It featured a spectacularly staged major earthquake and an epic flood sequence in the Indian city of Ranchipur, depicting a dam burst with a combination of miniatures and live-action footage. This film won the first-ever Best Special Effects Oscar, beating Gone With the Wind (1939) and five other films. It was later remade as The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), starring Richard Burton and Lana Turner. The doomed, submerged world of Kevin Costner's Waterworld (1995) was credited to melting ice caps that caused severe global flooding — and the film's production in Hawaii was severely hampered by an actual hurricane. Torrential rains and flooding inundated an Indiana town in the heist thriller Hard Rain (1998).
Hurricanes, Tornados, and Storms
The final sequence in Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) involved a terrifically destructive tornado-cyclone — and one of the most suicidal and terrifying stunt scenes in movie history, as the dazed title character stood up in front of a house that was about to be ripped apart from the forceful winds and the entire two-ton facade crashed down on top of him. (All that saved him was a small window opening in the upper story, through which his body passed.) In that same year's The Wind (1928), a relentless desert-prairie sandstorm (with sand projected by multiple airplane propellers) ultimately caused mass hysteria. John Ford's Hurricane (1937) is still considered the classic movie spectacle — with a monstrous South Pacific tropical storm, massive tidal waves, and battering gale-force winds. Typhoon (1940) was Paramount's response to The Hurricane, starring a sarong-wearing Dorothy Lamour as its leading lady. The film was set on an island near Netherlands New Guinea and featured a climactic typhoon in its final scenes.
Nature's wrath was later unleashed with the Jan de Bont film Twister (1996), in which tornado-chasing, thrill-seeking meteorologists (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) went after killer funnel clouds. State-of-the-art digital special effects and computer graphics included cows flying through the air. The Perfect Storm (2000) was a downbeat, nihilistic true story about the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that was caught in the fall of 1991 in a violent storm with 50-foot sea swells. The worldwide ecological disaster film The Core (2003) portrayed a scenario in which the Earth's molten core stopped spinning, unleashing harmful microwaves that caused earthquakes, bridge collapses, and lightning storms all over the world. A similar film, The Day After Tomorrow (2004), chronicled the instantaneous after-effects of global warming (the greenhouse effect) with super-hurricanes, killer tornadoes, tidal waves, floods, and a new ice age. The movie 2012 (2009) was end-of-days expert Roland Emmerich's latest climactic disaster epic, based upon the Mayan calendar's apocalyptic predictions for the year 2012. It portrayed a global cataclysm with monstrous earthquakes, threatening molten lava, and tsunamis. With Al Gore's surprise-hit global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), it seemed all the apocalyptic visions were finally coming true.
"The Greatest Films" site has selected as the 100 Greatest Films