Disaster!: The Art of the Disaster Movie (1970-1980)

A few nights ago I came across a cable channel playing the disaster movie When Time Ran Out… (1980). I didn’t know much about it, other than the fact that it was the last of the big disaster movies and if not the worst, then certainly the most unintentionally hilarious. Throughout the 70s there was an array of movies predicated on the possibility of horrible occurrences both natural and man-made: Airport had disaster on a plane (later sequels: Airport 1975, Airport ’77 and The Concorde… Airport ’79); The Poseidon Adventure had a sinking ship (sequel: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure); The Towering Inferno had an incredibly tall office building on fire; The Hindenburg dealt with the tragic historical event; Rollercoaster had something to do with terrorism and placing bombs in amusement parks; Earthquake, Avalanche, The Swarm, City on Fire and Meteor had self-explanatory quandaries. I’ve seen The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, the former being a frightening masterpiece of suspense (plus Fred Astaire!) and the latter being an uninvolving mess with a combination of over-the-top acting and unlikeable characters.

Filmed in the spring and summer of 1979, When Time Ran Out… (don’t you love that ellipsis?) was directed by James Goldstone, who also helmed Rollercoaster. When Time Ran Out… features a number of talented actors in its cast, many of whom had already appeared in other 70s disaster flicks: Paul Newman (The Towering Inferno), Jacqueline Bisset (Airport), William Holden (The Towering Inferno), Edward Albert, Red Buttons (The Poseidon Adventure), Barbara Carrera, Valentina Cortese, Veronica Hamel (Beyond the Poseidon Adventure), Alex Karras, Burgess Meredith (The Hindenburg), Ernest Borgnine (The Poseidon Adventure), James Franciscus (City on Fire), John Considine, Sheila Allen (The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), Pat Morita, Lonny Chapman (Earthquake), Darrell Larson, Sandy Kenyon, Marcus K. Mukai, Ted Gehring (Airport 1975 and The Hindenburg), Joe Papalimu, Ava Readdy (Rollercoaster) and Glynn Rubin. I’m not surprised that Sheila Allen was in the film, given the fact that her husband, Irwin Allen, was the producer/director who masterminded a number of disaster films both on the big screen and on TV. But what about the other actors like Newman, Bisset and Holden? Why were they involved?

According to this awesome blog post, Newman, Holden, Borgnine, Buttons and Hamel were under contract to Irwin Allen. The actors were obligated to appear whether they wanted to or not – and I’m guessing they didn’t want to do so. When Larry King asked Paul Newman in 1998 if he regretted any of the movies he had made, Newman said “that volcano movie.” The film was a massive flop and the era of the disaster movie was over. 1980 was the year that the modern classic spoof Airplane! came out.

To summarize, the film takes place on a remote Pacific island where there is both a big, fancy hotel owned by William Holden and a gigantic volcano. Funnily enough, the only safety precaution nobody took into consideration was the possibility of the volcano erupting. Lo and behold, the crisis of the film is that the volcano begins to erupt and not everyone at the hotel believes Paul Newman when he tries to warn them that there’s a crazy amount of danger. Naturally, chaos and a lot of death ensue.

Whenever any character falls into lava, it’s always from a great height. Those process shots of the volcano or the lava river are so ridiculous, I had to laugh every time. When I saw that the film was nominated for an Oscar, I prayed that it wasn’t for special effects. In fact, the nomination was for costume design, a fact I find more plausible than most of the events in the film. All those ugly polyester creations were made by Paul Zastupnevich, who somehow also received Oscar nominations for his work in The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm.

The only truly upsetting aspect of the film is William Holden. He looks even worse than he did in Network, a feat I hadn’t realized was possible. It’s hard to believe that the same man who was so impossibly handsome in classics like Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17 (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar), Sabrina, Picnic and The Bridge on the River Kwai could become so thoroughly ravaged by alcoholism. I remember the first time I saw Network, which was when I was about 14, and I thought, My God, he lost all his beauty. Network, however, contains what I believe is Holden’s best performance, proving that his looks were never more crucial than his acting ability and his gift for delivering lines with honesty and conviction. Anyway, back to When Time Ran Out…, Holden looks terrible and his lines are equally awful, but he does what he can in spite of it all.

Bottom line: When Time Ran Out… is worth seeing if you want to laugh at the glorious cheesiness. Just don’t expect anything on the level of, you know, a good movie.

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