Greatest Disaster
Film Scenes

Part 2

The Greatest Disaster Film Scenes
Title Screen
Film Title/Year and Description of Disaster Film Scene

Suez (1938)

A spy thriller starring Tyrone Power, noted for its sandstorm sequence. Nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Score, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

With the celebrated scene of wounded Confederate soldiers at the make-shift train station hospital, and the burning of Atlanta (actually the burning of the set for King Kong (1933)). Nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, with eight wins for Best Picture, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel). Its Best Visual Effects nomination was defeated by The Rains Came (1939), see below.

The Rains Came (1939)

This was Darryl F. Zanuck's and 20th Century Fox's epic production - the biggest disaster epic of the decade. With a spectacularly-staged major earthquake and epic catastrophic flood sequence (after a dam burst with a combination of miniatures and live-action footage) in the Indian city of Ranchipur were followed by a cholera plague. This film won the first-ever Visual Effects Academy Award, beating Gone With the Wind (1939) and five other films. A remake was made called The Rains of Ranchipur (1955).

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Notable for the cyclone sequence that carried the farmhouse along with Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto to the colorful world of Oz. Nominated for five Academy Awards, and winning two: Best Song and Best Score. Its Visual Effects nomination was defeated by The Rains Came (1939) - see above.

Typhoon (1940)

This was Paramount Studio's response to the popular film The Hurricane (1937) - see above, that also starred sarong-wearing Dorothy Lamour as its leading lady. The film was set on an island near Dutch Guinea, and featured a climactic typhoon and tidal wave in its final minutes - preceded by an island vegetational fire. Nominated for only one Academy Award: Best Visual Effects, which it lost to The Thief of Baghdad (1940).


Lifeboat (1944)

Alfred Hitchcock's suspense/thriller featured the survival efforts of nine passengers (including Tallulah Bankhead) of a torpedoed liner in a wrecked lifeboat. The film included the destruction of three ships -- the American oceanliner by a German U-boat (which itself was destroyed), and a Nazi German ship. Nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay (John Steinbeck).

No Highway in the Sky (1951, UK)

In this dramatic thriller based on Nevil Shute's novel, James Stewart starred as aeronautical engineer Theodore Honey who forecast that the plane he was flying in would crash - because of metal fatigue after 1440 hours, although the plane's captain was skeptical. The film dramatized how advancing technological and scientific knowledge could be used to predict disasters.

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Based on the 1933 sci-fi novel by Philip Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Producer George Pal's Technicolored apocalyptic film, an influential film for future filmmakers, featured end-of-the-world major disasters, such as worldwide fires and flooding (waves crashed into NYC), with a small segment of humanity escaping a doomed Earth in a Noah's Ark-styled rocketship (with about 40 participants selected by lottery, plus animals and livestock) built by a billionaire, to recolonize on the paradisical planet Zyra (seen in the last matte-painted image). The film's scientist had predicted an apocalypse - that the planet Zyra would pass close to the earth in about 8 months and cause massive tidal waves, earthquakes, fires, avalanches, the collapse of buildings and bridges, etc. 19 days after this catastrophe, the planet's star named Bellus would collide with whatever remained of the world.

It was nominated for two Oscars (including Best Cinematography) and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. [To be remade by Stephen Sommers in 2010.]

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

Cecil B. De Mille's Best Picture winner featured a disastrous circus train wreck - one of the best aspects of this film, with a view of wild animals escaping from their damages cages. With five Oscar nominations and two wins, including Best Story.

Titanic (1953)

This 20th Century Fox film featured an Oscar-winning screenplay by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen, and starred Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. It was one of the best renditions of the Titanic films and a model disaster film about the sinking of the ocean liner in 1912. The 20th Century Fox production featured a star-studded cast headed by Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, and was most memorable for a recreated shot from the lifeboats watching as the ship (a 20 foot model boat) sank. [An interesting footnote - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) was simultaneously being filmed on the same ship!] With two Oscar nominations: Best Story and Screenplay (win) and Best Art Direction.

The War of the Worlds (1953)

The classic and influential film adaptation of the H.G. Wells 1898 sci-fi classic (publicized by Orson Welles' infamous narrated radio play of 1938 that scared the world), the definitive Martian alien-invasion film (copied repeatedly afterwards, especially by the plot of Independence Day (1996)), made by producer George Pal, director Byron Haskin, and Paramount Studios.

The film was set in 1950s Southern California (Linda Rosa, about 30 miles from L.A., and then within the city itself), and told of the invasion of hostile Martian spacecrafts shaped like green manta rays with cobra probes. The film starred Gene Barry as a heroic scientist and Ann Robinson as his obligatory love interest, amidst the devastation. The aliens invaded in manta ray-like space ships with cobra-like probes and zapped objects with green disintegration rays to destroy 1950s Los Angeles, forestalled only by their demise from minute bacterial agents.

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its spectacular state-of-the-art visual fx, with two other nominations (Best Film Editing and Best Sound).

Remade by Steven Spielberg as the spectacular War of the Worlds (2005), an updated version with disaster film elements, about sinister attacking aliens from the perspective of divorced father Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) with two children in the New York area -- with haunting recollections of the 9/11 nightmare.

Godzilla (1954, Jp.) (aka Gojira) and the Japanese Monster Movies

Japan's Toho Studios (and director Inoshiro Honda, known as "The Father of Godzilla") contributed to the "creature feature" output after noticing the influence of Ray Harryhausen's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) with stop-motion animation. Unlike that movie, this and subsequent Japanese monster movies would feature actors in giant, rubber monster costumes, fake-looking miniatures, and double-exposure photography. The film would be released in the USA as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) with 40 minutes excised from the film and 20 minutes of new footage, including Raymond Burr as an American reporter.

The film launched a slew of Japanese monster movies with such giant atomic creatures as Gamera (a flying turtle), Rodan (a pterodactyl), Mothra (a moth), Ghidorah (a 3-headed dragon), Dagora (flying jellyfish) as well as Godzilla clones named Agon and Gappa. Two remakes of the original, Godzilla 1985 (1985) and Roland Emmerich's big budget Godzilla (1998) would flop miserably in the box office.

The High and the Mighty (1954)

This drawn-out, Cinemascopic William Wellman adventure/disaster film and melodramatic character study, adapted from pilot-turned-novelist Ernest K. Gann's novel, starred co-producer John Wayne as a veteran commercial airline co-pilot (with a haunted past) next to Captain Robert Stack aboard a San Francisco-bound flight from Honolulu. When the plane lost an engine and ran low on fuel at the point of no return, the passengers in the ensemble cast contemplated their lives and mortality. Like Zero Hour! (1957), it was one of the earliest airplane-disaster films and served as the blueprint for 70's airplane-related disaster films, such as Airport (1970). Nominated for six Oscars (including Best Director and two Best Supporting Actress nods for Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling), with one win for Best Score.

Films of Bert I. Gordon (1957-1977): With Giant Mutated Monsters and Giant People

The famed schlockmeister B-director Bert Gordon (nicknamed Mr. Big, whose initials were B.I.G.) specialized in cheesy "giant mutated monster and giant people" films (often with disaster film elements) with cheap special effects.

The most famous was The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), about Army Lt. Colonel Glenn Manning (Glenn Logan), who in a futile attempt to save a downed pilot, was blasted by a plutonium bomb, and grew to the height of 50 feet as a bald giant and then rampaged through Las Vegas, where he fell off Hoover/Boulder Dam to his apparent death.

(It was followed by an inferior sequel War of the Colossal Beast (1958), notable only as a B/W film with a color finale when the Beast was electrocuted.)

Other notable Gordon films included the giant grasshopper film Beginning of the End (1957) (that resembled Them! (1954)) starring Peter Graves, Earth Vs. the Spider (1958) (remade as a 2001 TV movie), a beach-party rock 'n' roll monster film Village of the Giants (1965) starring young Beau Bridges, Ron (as Ronny) Howard, Tommy Kirk and Johnny Crawford, The Food of the Gods (1976), and Empire of the Ants (1977) about giant marauding mutated ants in backwater Florida; most of Gordon's films were lampooned by Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)

A semi-remake of The Rains Came (1939), itself nominated for only one Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Filmed in Pakistan. With Richard Burton, Lana Turner, and Fred MacMurray.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

With many special effects of natural disasters (especially during the plagues): the parting of the Red Sea, the Burning Bush, etc. With seven Academy Award nominations, with one win for Best Visual Effects.

Zero Hour! (1957)

This relatively obscure disaster film would become famous as one of the first of the in-flight disaster films that would soon follow in the decade of the 70s. The author of this film's derivative teleplay, Arthur Hailey, would later write the novel and screenplay for Airport (1970). This film was also the basis for the classic gagfest spoof Airplane! (1980), and provided many of the cliches for future films.

In this routine, melodramatic air disaster film, the two pilots of a commercial Canadian passenger plane became incapacitated, with half of the crew, due to contaminated food (tainted fish). Shell-shocked ex-RAF pilot in WWII, Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews), was the only passenger with previous flight experience, who happened to be on board when he followed estranged wife Ellen (Linda Darnell) and son Joey (Raymond Ferrell) onto the plane as they were departing to start a new life in Vancouver.

A Night to Remember (1958, UK)

Before James Cameron's Titanic (1997), this was considered the biggest and best of the Titanic films in terms of acting, writing, visual effects and stuntwork. An almost semi-documentary work, it was adapted by Eric Ambler from the best-selling book by Walter Lord, and told the story of the vessel's launch and then sinking on the fateful night of April 14, 1912. The climactic sequence of striking the iceberg and the sinking was re-created with careful accuracy and filmed close to "real time."

On the Beach (1959)

Stanley Kramer's bleak black and white melodramatic film, based on Nevil Shute's novel, proposed nuclear annihilation in a post-apocalyptic world (the aftermath of World War III) - this talky Cold War-era doomsday film dramatized the realities of that post-nuclear world, with survivors waiting for their radioactive doom within five months in Australia, the last refuge on Earth in 1964. The crew of a US nuclear submarine took a reconnaissance mission to San Diego, CA in search of the source of a radio signal - despairingly finding that a Coke bottle was caught in a window shade being blown by the wind against a radio transmitter key. With major stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire (in a rare dramatic role).

The Last Voyage (1960)

An action/adventure starring Robert Stack as a man who desperately attempted to find his wife (Dorothy Malone) and children who were trapped in the sinking luxury liner. The film advertised "91 Minutes of the Most Intense Suspense in Motion Picture History!" The initial explosion, the flooding and destruction of the ship, and its dramatic sinking were effectively presented. With only one Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects that it lost to The Time Machine (1960).

Greatest Disaster Film Scenes
(chronological, by film title)
Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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