Sunday Night Movie: The Towering Inferno

towering inferno

I have a confession, I like disaster movies. I guess part of it comes from the fact that came of age as a movie watcher during the 1970s when the disaster film was created as a genre. Oh before the seventies there were films that had disasters in them and films about the Titanic, but as its own genre the disaster film dates to the 70s.

The genre started with 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. Based on a novel by Paul Gallico that film became an enormous success and in Hollywood that means one thing, imitations.

The Towering Inferno for me represents the apex of the disaster genre. Made and released in 1974 the film boasted an all star cast, was the first film that required two studios to produce it and made a vat-load of money at the box office. (the film cost 14 million to make and grossed 116 million at the box office.[Domestically])

I was thirteen when The Towering Inferno hit the theaters in the winter of 1974 and I saw it at the Sunrise Theater in Ft. Pierce, Fl. The film was thrilling and action packed and a good staple of the disaster film genre. You didn’t know who was going to live and who was going to die.

The Towering Inferno is the story of the world’s tallest building — a fictional one set in San Francisco — that catches fire on its opening night. With an all star cast, led by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, it is the story of people trapped far above the ground with a deadly and uncontrollable fire racing up the floors of the tower.

All through the 70’s other producers tried to follow in Irwin Allen’s footsteps. There were all sort of disaster movies and some were better than others, but I think that the ones made by Irwin Allen have survived the test of time over the imitators for a simple reason. The two films that represent the high budget big-star disaster movie made by Irwin Allen, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno were not cynical movies.

The films of the 70’s were very much drenched in cynicism.  People are no damn good, governments are no damn good, companies are no damn good, and it’s all going to end in nuclear holocaust. While in Irwin’s films there are nasty and greedy men who cause terror and death by their greed, there are also heroes. Even when the heroes do not get along and snap and fight with each other, their core motivations are good and they look out for those who cannot look out for themselves. That is the polar opposite of the cynical outlook.

An example of this is the character of Gary Parker, a US senator . If this film was made today the senator would be a self-centered egotist who only cared about saving his own hide and about not looking like he was scared. It would be a character of image and lies. This is not the character played by Robert Vaughn in The Towering Inferno. This Senator is heroic, works to help save others, and never seems to be motivated by his own self-interest. We would not expect such behavior because we are too cynical now, and it was worse in the 70’s.  Then as now too many people mistook cynicism for wisdom.

It’s really interesting how quickly this film was made. The production company started filming in late spring on 1974 and the prints were released to theaters nationwide, not in a limited grab-the-Oscar-nomination but a wide release, in December of the same year. A film of this scope and complexity simply could not be done that quickly today.

The disaster movie is not for everyone, but if it’s is your taste or you want to see a good example of this genre rent The Towering Inferno.

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