Comfortable and Furious

Disaster, 70’s Style: Part 5

Movie: The Swarm

“Oh, my God! Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!” The Swarm (1978)

Preamble: The so-called Master of Disaster Irwin Allen produced two of the sub-genre’s biggest hits in Poseidon and Towering Inferno. Suitably pumped up, it was obviously time to handle the directorial reins himself. In doing so he managed to deliver one of the worst-regarded films of all time. Two and a half uncompromising hours of pure fucking nonsense, fiery slaughter and mad Apocalypse Now-like poetry. This is delirious filmmaking that throws all caution and any semblance of commonsense to the wind. I think that makes Allen an auteur.

Is a doomsayer ignored? Disaster movies overwhelmingly tend to start with overlong, soapy bullshit. The Cassandra Crossing (with a terrorist raid on a top security US facility) and The Swarm are exceptions. The bees create havoc straightaway, stinging to death almost the entire personnel of an underground missile base in Texas. Bizarrely, none of the victims have any red, swollen signs of trauma. Perhaps they suffocated on bee farts. 

Anyway, bug expert Michael Caine turns up to underline the threat and slip on an invisible clown’s nose. “There are probably other invading swarms,” he announces while surrounded by serene-looking corpses, “and what these bees did here they can do again all over the Southwest and, ultimately, all over the country.”

How do the special effects hold up? The Swarm has a big budget that is mostly spent on Allen’s gleeful insistence on destroying hardware like helicopters and trains. Elsewhere, there are plenty of naff superimposed swarms and a less than successful attempt to put us in a bee’s POV. Perhaps the worst effect is a shot of a real bee blown up to giant size whenever stung people suffer venom-induced, supposedly terrifying hallucinations. By the climax Allen is doing some sort of Towering Inferno rerun, complete with flaming bodies falling out of windows. I was more impressed by a handful of actors allowing themselves to be covered in bees. All over their faces and everything. Even if their stingers were removed, I wouldn’t fancy that.

Most ridiculous character/relationship: In career nadirs, it’s a tie between military man Richard Widmark and unbelievably smug entomologist Caine. Widmark plays the most humorless and dimmest general of all time, comparing badly to The Cassandra Crossing’s subtly sinister Burt Lancaster. He delivers every line with the utmost seriousness, especially the ones where he hypothesizes that the bees are taking revenge before crediting them with having equal intelligence. Convinced he’s refighting Nam, he orders choppers into the fray, gets bombers to drop chemical agents, and sends battalions of flamethrowers into action. Mostly, however, he stares at people as if steam is about to shoot out of his ears.

At the start he’s convinced the contemptible civilian Caine (with his pronounced fondness for wearing beige and snacking on sunflower seeds) is a combination of saboteur and mass murderer at his beloved ICBM base. You should see the look on his face when he’s put under Caine’s command about five minutes later. Having already infected Caine with his brand of military self-importance, Caine then starts pacing around with hands linked behind his back like Winston Churchill. “We have been invaded by an enemy far more lethal than any human force,” he concludes, as if trying to galvanize a demoralized nation into fighting the six-legged threat on the beaches.

Caine and Widmark make a certifiably brilliant double act.

Worst line: Pretty much every bit of dialogue. Expository, hysterical, meandering, redundant, earnest, cringeworthy, phony, clunky, unintentionally funny and unbelievably stiff”. it’s got the lot. The only type of dialogue lacking is the good. If I had to pick a line, I’d plump for Caine’s po-faced pearl: “The war that I’ve always talked about has finally started.” Bloody hell, an evening in the pub with him must be fun. Allen’s direction doesn’t help, either, often leaving characters two feet apart to bellow at each other or awkwardly stand around in firing squad formations. I’d say it’s on the level of a daytime soap but, then again, it’s probably more like a school play.

Is Kennedy, Borgnine or Heston in it? Obviously, that glitch in the matrix hasn’t been fixed yet. Still, let’s give ’em a break, eh? In 1977 Kennedy was in the hit Airport ’77 while Borgnine was slumming it in a TV movie called Fire! about an inferno threatening some hicks. I dunno what Heston’s excuse was, but it probably had something to do with learning his lines for 1978’s cheese-free, routine and rather dull submarine drama, Gray Lady Down. Whatever the case, by now it didn’t matter who put their hand up for a disaster flick. The sub-genre was floundering, as demonstrated by Sean Connery helping to fire plastic nuclear missiles at a giant, slowly rotating, polystyrene rock from outer space in the 1979 fiasco, Meteor. Mia Farrow also didn’t learn her lesson, ending up with her skirt blown over her face in the same year’s big budget flop, Hurricane.

Funniest deaths: Two blundering army helicopter pilots go into a tailspin after a few seconds of contact with the bees. Another helicopter manages to withstand a ten-second onslaught before also plummeting to the ground. Maybe America’s numerous enemies should forget about developing costly, ultra-sophisticated ground to air missiles and instead focus on launching beehives.

Who shits their pants or goes mad? Well, we get a corker here. One of those pesky bees lands on the back of a train driver’s hand. “What do I do now?” he nervously asks a colleague. “Don’t move, don’t get him mad,” comes the calm reply. The driver considers the response for a good second, then whips off his hat and tries to swat it. Bad move, buddy. A blizzard of bees invades the cab, obviously upset at this unjust execution of their friend. Now in an understandable panic, the driver loses control, resulting in the passenger train plunging down a mountainside and exploding. He won’t be getting a raise.

Does a child die? Early on a picnicking family at a park gets attacked. Mom and dad are killed. Their young son Paul makes it to the safety of their nearby parked car. There are so many bees covering it that it darkens inside. He has to put on the windscreen wipers to see out. Paul manages to drive off, suggesting the average car is a lot more bee-proof than a military chopper. Not that he’s a very good driver. He careens into town, smacking into other vehicles. It’s a miracle no one’s killed. The reckless little shit. Goddamn youth of today. Personally, I blame the parents.

And then just as I’m convinced The Swarm is built from the disaster movie blueprint, it does something wonderful. The winged foes attack a school killing, yes killing, at least eight kids, a scene complemented by the principal’s comically overwrought anguish at the sight of their fallen, bee-covered bodies decorating the courtyard. Hallelujah, dead children, we have liftoff!

The inevitable self-sacrifice: Henry Fonda. He plays a wheelchair-bound scientist, although sadly we never get to see this Hollywood legend trying to frantically out wheel a dense swarm of irritated insects. He’s working on an antidote to the bees’ deadly toxin, a process that eventually involves a self-test. For a few seconds it looks like he’s about to save humanity. Then it all goes to shit. No matter. Fonda’s absurd contribution is far more enjoyable than his tediously grumpy, Oscar-winning turn in On Golden Pond a few years later.

What does the token black do? As it has long been proven that black Texans possess natural immunity against killer African bees, it wouldn’t have made much sense for Allen to cast anyone other than one hundred percent whites.

Conclusion: Inept from start to finish, The Swarm is also a continual joy, especially if watched half-drunk. Every performance is woeful, despite there being nine Oscar winners onboard, while the fantastic dialogue never fails to delight. The subplots, including an elderly love triangle and a mother falling in love with the doctor who just delivered her baby, are drivel. There’s no cheesier film in existence yet I love it because it resolutely resists pulling any punches. For centuries to come people are going to ponder how such an array of artistic talent and supposedly intelligent adults signed up for such astonishing shit.



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