Monday, December 11, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #32: The Swarm

Cast: Michael Caine (Brad Crane), Katharine Ross (Helena), Richard Widmark (General Slater), Richard Chamberlain (Dr Hubbard), Olivia de Havilland (Maureen), Ben Johnson (Felix), Lee Grant (Anne MacGregor), Jose Ferrer (Dr Andrews), Patty Duke Astin (Rita), Slim Pickens (Jud Hawkins), Bradford Dillman (Major Baker), Fred MacMurray (Clarence) and Henry Fonda (Dr Krim).

Crew: Irwin Allen (director and producer), Stirling Silliphant (writer), Jerry Goldsmith (music), Fred J Koenekamp (cinematography), Harold F Kress (editor), Stan Jolley (production design).

Synopsis: Soldiers at a missile base in Texas are killed by an unknown foe. Entomologist Brad Crane is already on the scene when US military investigators arrive, led by General Slater. Crane claims the base was attacked by a swarm of African killer bees. His story is backed up by Dr Helena Anderson, one of the few staff to survive. The US President puts Crane in charge of efforts to stop the bees. Crane calls in experts from across the country, including America’s top immunologist, Dr Krim. The swarm attacks a nearby town of Marysville, killing 232 people. The rest of the townsfolk are evacuated by train, but this also encounters the bees. The train crashes and burns – only 17 people survive.

A massive airdrop of poison pellets fails to stop the swarm. Dr Krim dies after using killer bee stings to test a possible antidote on himself. The bees are flying towards the city of Houston, which is evacuated. The swarm attacks a nuclear power plant in its path. This explodes, killing more than 36,000. Slater gets presidential authority to replace Crane. He uses a deadly pesticide against the bees without success. The swarm attacks Houston. The military decides to set fire to the city. Crane discovers the missile base’s sonic alarm system is identical to the vibrations of the killer bees’ mating ritual – that’s why the swarm attacked the base. He uses sonic lures to lead the bees away from Houston to an oil slick. When the bees converge on the oil, it is set alight, destroying the swarm. Mankind is safe – for now…


Irwin Allen produced the most successful disaster movies of the 1970s. He also directed several action sequences in The Towering Inferno (1974) and lensed uncredited scenes for The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Allen decided he wanted to direct an entire film and acquired the rights for Arthur Herzog’s killer bees novel, The Swarm, first published in 1974. Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant was hired to adapt the book and an all-star cast assembled, with Caine taking the lead as entomologist Brad Crane.

In 1978 Caine told Film Review he had always wanted to work with Allen. ‘I met him a couple of years ago and he said, “The next time I do a picture, I’ll do it with you.” You get lots of those sort of promises. But he’s obviously a man of his word because he next time he did a picture, he did indeed cast me.’ The actor said he used to dream about making a big Hollywood movie. He described what it was like working with screen legends like Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland and Richard Widmark. ‘A bit nerve-racking actually! But quite extraordinary!’

The Swarm was shot principally at Burbank Studios in California, with some location filming in Houston. The film had a reported budget of $15-21 million, but was a box office disaster when it reached US cinemas in July 1978. Rated PG, the picture grossed less than half its budget. Critics had a field day deriding the script, acting and direction, amongst other things. The picture was just an unsuccessful in Britain, where it was rated A.

‘The Swarm was one of the most difficult picture I’ve made,’ Caine told Film Comment in 1980. ‘Getting that dialogue and trying to make a reality for the character was an extraordinary exercise – like doing push-ups – and I’d recommend a picture like that to every actor. It’s funny about films like The Swarm … you’re a sort of catalyst for a whole group of people, pushing, pushing, pushing. And it’s very hard to do.’

Caine attributed the flop to its special effects. ‘Everyone keeps threatening to show it to me,’ he told the Sunday Express in 1978. ‘And I will see it one day. But I can tell you one thing – if it didn’t work, it was all the bees’ fault. I always knew they couldn’t act.’ Surprisingly, the picture received an Oscar nomination for best costume design (the award went to Death on the Nile (1978)). The Swarm was released on video in 1987, reclassified as PG. Eleven years later it was reissued with 30 minutes of extra footage incorporated. This pushed the classification up to a 12 in Britain. The film is available on DVD, but only in its extended version.

Caine recalled the film when interviewed by Empire in 1992. ‘It looked like it was gonna be good. If it were possible to know in advance how good a film will be, we’d all be in one box office smash after another and I’d be as rich as Paul McCartney.’

Reviews: ‘Killer bees periodically interrupt the arch writing, stilted direction and ludicrous acting in Irwin Allen’s disappointing and tired non-thriller.’ – Variety
‘It seems to be Caine’s sad fate to go around being intelligent in dumb movies.’ – Time

Verdict: The Swarm is so bad, it’s good. This film deserves to be included on any list of cult classic clunkers, such is the unbridled awfulness on show. In a single effort behind the camera Irwin Allen gave new meaning to the term disaster movie. Highlights in this unintentional comedy of terrors are a script packed with dialogue that beggars belief and a cast of stars who deliver their performances without a shred of irony. Caine appears to be channelling the acting talents of William Shatner, such is the gut-wrenching intensity of his characterisation in this addle-brained endeavour. The Swarm is not just a cheesy delight, it’s a quattro formaggi feast. Highly recommended, especially after excess alcohol imbibing.

No comments: