Directed by George Pan Cosmatos. Written by Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Katz and George Pan Cosmatos. Cast: Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, O.J. Simpson, Ingrid Thulin, Lee Strasberg, Lionel Stander, Ann Turkel, Lou Castel, John Phillip Law, Ray Lovelock, Alida Valli, Tom Hunter, Stefano Patrizi, Carlo De Mejo, Fausta Avelli, Angela Goodwin, Renzo Palmer, John P. Dulaney. (R, 129 mins)
SPOILERS DISCUSSED THROUGHOUT
Disaster movies were one of the signature genres of 1970s cinema. Though the concept wasn't new and dated back to the early days of the movies to SAN FRANCISCO (1936) and 1950s hits like THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) and ZERO HOUR! (1957), and would continue later with the likes of ARMAGEDDON (1998), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2008), the subgenre really exploded in the 1970s. Starting with box-office blockbusters like AIRPORT (1970), THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) to less-popular but still entertaining later offerings like the sniper-in-a-football-stadium TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976), the Goodyear Blimp-blowing-up-the-Super Bowl BLACK SUNDAY (1977), and the mad-bomber-terrorizing-amusement-parks ROLLERCOASTER (1977), disaster films showcased then-state-of-the-art special effects depicting catastrophes both natural and man-made, and a large cast of stars both current and from Hollywood's golden age. The incredible success of these films spawned countless imitations, from exclamatory made-for-TV disaster movies like HEAT WAVE! (1974), FLOOD! (1976), and FIRE! (1977) to drive-in exploitation like THE BEES (1978) and AVALANCHE (1978) to the inevitable foreign-made ripoffs with films like TIDAL WAVE (1975), which inserted new footage of Lorne Greene into a Japanese disaster movie; the Italian oil fire thriller OIL (1977); the Canadian city-on-fire thriller CITY ON FIRE (1979); and the Italian/Brazilian co-production KILLER FISH (1979), which involved an emerald heist, a laughable tornado, and a river filled with hungry piranha. It's unfortunate that most of these films lacked the hyperbolic punctuation that the TV movies used--think how much better KILLER FISH would be if it was called KILLER FISH!
In addition to the mandatory "faces in boxes" poster design, disaster movies frequently featured supporting roles for an off-season or retired sports star, usually from the NFL, such as Rosey Grier in SKYJACKED (1972), O.J. Simpson in THE TOWERING INFERNO, Alex Karras in WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980), and then-Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini in the aforementioned KILLER FISH, as well as college football star Mark Harmon in BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979). Other such stunt casting included the likes of fake evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner in EARTHQUAKE (1974), singer Helen Reddy in AIRPORT 1975 (1974), and game-show host and frequent TONIGHT SHOW guest host John Davidson--the Ryan Seacrest of the 1970s--in THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 (1979). Audiences grew tired of the increasingly silly and often shoddy spectacles (how can we forget 1978's THE SWARM or 1979's METEOR?) and the demand for these things vanished. Kinji Fukasaku's mega-budget Japanese epic VIRUS (1980), featuring such stars as Glenn Ford, George Kennedy, Henry Silva, Sonny Chiba, and Robert Vaughn, was perhaps the most ambitious disaster film of them all, but couldn't find a US distributor even with a sappy Janis Ian theme song, and was cut by nearly an hour and drastically re-edited before going straight-to-video in 1984 (Fukasaku's complete 155-minute version is a masterpiece). By the time so-called "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen, the man behind THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, and THE SWARM, unveiled the volcano epic WHEN TIME RAN OUT, the title could've applied to the genre itself, especially when it was expertly parodied that same year by AIRPLANE!, from the gathering of stoical, serious actors known for their stern gravitas (Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack), right down to the casting of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as himself, moonlighting as a pilot named "Roger Murdock." Disaster movies, at least in their 1970s incarnation, were done.
TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, a bile-soaked screed of a conspiracy thriller that depicted the US President's own cabinet members sending the newly-elected and earnestly naïve Commander-in-Chief (Charles Durning) to his own execution when he decides to go public with his predecessors' classified memos that will expose the truth about America's Vietnam policies. He's advised against it by those in his inner circle, old men who tell him "This is just how it's always been," and he pays the price for breaking tradition.
makes his way through the train, quickly infecting many of the passengers, things pick up considerably.
"The Morning After" from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from THE TOWERING INFERNO. Both of those songs were sung by Maureen McGovern and both won Oscars for Best Original Song. THE CASSANDRA CROSSING gives us a fine Ennio Morricone-esque score by Jerry Goldsmith, but also offered co-star Turkel--who was married to Harris at the time--singing something called "I'm Still on My Way," and she sings it early in the film, as she and Lovelock and some other hippie pals are jamming in one of the train cars. And just when you think it can't get any sillier, train conductor Max (Lionel Stander) takes a break from his duties to just hang out with them. It seems unnecessary to mention that their efforts were not rewarded with a Best Original Song Oscar. It's easily the worst scene in the film, and one that completely stops it cold and one that I never knew existed until I saw it on Turner Classic Movies some years back. For decades, I only knew the version that aired on NBC and in syndication, which mercifully cut that scene out entirely. Also absent from the television version are some gory bits from the finale, as the train indeed crashes and a good chunk of the passengers die horribly violent deaths: watch for the train rail cutting through a car and impaling a passenger right through his gut, yet another example of this film's unrepentant mean streak.