1940s - 1950s
|Film Title/Year and Description of Disaster Film Scene|
This Technicolored adventure film was set on a remote island near Dutch Guinea in the tropics, and featured a climactic typhoon and tidal wave in its final minutes - preceded by an island vegetational fire.
It was Paramount Studio's response to UA's popular film The Hurricane (1937) - see above, that also starred sarong-wearing Dorothy Lamour as its leading lady Dea (living a solitary life in a tree-top island hut for ten years), with a chimpanzee playmate Koko. She starred opposite Robert Preston as marooned, shipwrecked, pearl-seeking crew-member Johnny Potter.
Director Louis King's movie was nominated for only one Academy Award: Best Special Effects, which it lost to The Thief of Baghdad (1940).
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.
It was nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay (John Steinbeck).
Writer/producer/director Arch Oboler's apocalyptic, sci-fi drama opened under the credits with atomic-nuclear bombs destroying civilization. There was a lengthy montage of dark clouds engulfing various international landmarks, and headlines warned of WWIII annihilation ("Savant Warns Against New Bomb Use").
The low-budget independent film presaged future doomsday, end-of-world films such as The Day the World Ended (1955), On the Beach (1959), The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959), Panic in Year Zero! (1962), The Last Man on Earth (1964, US/It.), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and had similarities to the group dynamics of Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944).
The tedious and slow-moving film (its subtitle "A Story About the Day After Tomorrow") was noted as cinema's very first post-apocalyptic nuclear war film, with haunting evidence of the nuclear extermination provided by skeletons (with shredded clothing) lying about.
Five individuals (who miraculously survived) eventually came together at the country hillside house of the female character's aunt:
The stark black and white film was notable for being shot at Cliff House in the Santa Monica Mountains, a ranch owned by director Oboler and built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Charles and Michael began installing a generator to provide light, constructed a second house, and planted a corn crop and vegetable garden to be self-sustaining. The first to die was Mr. Barnstaple from radiation poisoning, soon after he requested one final view by the seaside. Due to squabbles over Michael's and Eric's romantic interest in Roseanne, Eric persuaded her to join him on a trip to the city of Los Angeles - to ostensibly find her husband. He lethally knifed Charles in the back before leaving in the jeep.
Roseanne found her husband's skeleton in a hospital waiting room near the X-ray area. When she demanded to go back to the country where Michael had been abandoned, Eric refused -- but then he made the agonizing discovery that he had contracted terminal radioactive sickness (with lesions on his chest). She began the long trek back to the oceanside cliff house alone, only to find her baby dead along the way.
The film ended on an optimistic note with Roseanne and Michael reunited in the country and ready to start mankind anew (with a second chance) as a symbolic Adam and Eve: ("Behold I make all things new" - quote from Revelation 21).
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)
This sci-fi disaster film was based on the 1933 sci-fi novel by Philip Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer.
Director Rudolph Mate's film was nominated for two Oscars (including Best Cinematography) and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. [It was remade by Stephen Sommers in 2010.]
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 (a space ark with space for 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 Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) 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.
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.
It had five Oscar nominations and two wins, including Best Story.
This 20th Century Fox film production featured an Oscar-winning screenplay by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen, and a star-studded cast headed by Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. It had two Oscar nominations: Best Story and Screenplay (win) and Best Art Direction.
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.
It was most memorable for a recreated shot from the lifeboats watching as the ship (a 20 foot model boat) sank.
[Note: An interesting footnote - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) was simultaneously being filmed on the same ship!]
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), it has been considered the definitive Martian alien-invasion film. It was made by producer George Pal, director Byron Haskin, and Paramount Studios.
It was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its spectacular state-of-the-art visual F/X, with two other nominations (Best Film Editing and Best Sound).
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.
It has been copied repeatedly afterwards, especially by the plot of Independence Day (1996), and was 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:
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, from Warner Bros., was adapted from pilot-turned-novelist Ernest K. Gann's 1953 novel. It was nominated for six Oscars (including Best Director and two Best Supporting Actress nods for Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling), with one win for Best Musical Score (Dimitri Tiomkin).
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).
It starred co-producer John Wayne as First Officer Dan Roman - a veteran commercial airline co-pilot (with a haunted past) assisting Captain John Sullivan (Robert Stack) aboard a San Francisco-bound flight on a DC-4 airliner 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.
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) enhanced 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.
[Note: 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.]
Most of Gordon's films were lampooned by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Other notable Gordon films included:
The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)
20th Century Fox's dramatic CinemaScope film from director Jean Negulesco was a semi-remake of the B/W The Rains Came (1939) (starring Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy), that received only one nomination - for Best Special Effects.
The main natural (not emotional) disasters in this film were an earthquake and a flood.
Filmed on location in Pakistan, it starred Richard Burton (as Hindu physician Dr. Rama Safti), Michael Rennie and Lana Turner (as British aristocrat Lord Esketh and his wife Lady Edwina Esketh), and Fred MacMurray (as alcoholic Tom Ransome, Edwina's ex-lover).
This perennial big-budget favorite, a VistaVision Technicolored epic, was a remake of director Cecil B. DeMille's own 1923 B/W silent film of the same name. It received seven Academy Award nominations, with one win for Best Special Effects.
It starred Charlton Heston as the Biblical character of Moses, who delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (under Yul Brynner as Rameses) and led them in a massive Exodus to Mt. Sinai. There, he received the Ten Commandments, imprinted by God on a stone tablet, to the people.
The successful historical epic had many special effects of natural disasters or other events (especially during the plagues):
Zero Hour! (1957)
This relatively obscure and dramatic disaster film from Paramount Pictures 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)
Producer/director Stanley Kramer's bleak black and white melodramatic film, based on Nevil Shute's 1957 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 the last US nuclear submarine (the USS Sawfish) took a reconnaissance mission to San Diego, CA in search of the source of a Morse Code radio signal - despairingly finding that a Coke bottle was caught in a window shade being blown by the wind against a radio transmitter key.
Its major stars were Gregory Peck (as submarine Captain Dwight Towers), Ava Gardner (as the Captain's alcoholic Australian love interest Moira Davidson), Anthony Perkins (as Australian naval officer Lt. Peter Holmes), and Fred Astaire (in a rare dramatic role as Australian scientist and race driver Julian Osborn).
(chronological, by film title)
Introduction | 1900s-1920s | 1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960s | 1970s
1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s