Titanic Only Latest in Disaster Fascination


            Oh, yeah – the boat that sank.

            I have well over a dozen books and movies relating to the doomed passenger liner, Titanic. While many date back to my kids’ fascination with the subject after James Cameron’s move came out, I kept them because of my own fascination with both history and disasters … and, of course, the history of disasters.

            We just passed the 100th anniversary of the date the Titanic, on its maiden voyage, hit a patch of ice and slid off the surface of the ocean, despite the efforts of the crew to patch the leaks with third class passengers. It was a story of human error, class differences, heroism and cowardice, and no small amount of irony.

            You want irony? Over 1,500 people died that night, but three dogs made it onto the lifeboats. But in all fairness, they were small dogs.

            As humans we’re fascinated and appalled by large scale disasters like ships sinking, wars, and the Kardashians. We want to understand what happened, how it effects people and societies, and above all how to keep it from happening again (Or, if you’re a reality TV programmer, how to make it happen again).

We’re also – let’s face it – entertained. Disasters are like a train wreck: We’re horrified, but we can’t look away. (Well … a train wreck would be a disaster, wouldn’t it?) How many TV shows these days take advantage of the fact that everyone has a video camera? The Weather Channel used to be about forecasting – now it’s about finding and showing images of violent, damaging, terrifying things. The cast of The Jersey Shore should show up in a half hour Weather Channel program any day now.

I’ve been watching disaster movies since I was a kid, but still haven’t figured out why destruction is so much more fun than construction. Godzilla and similar Japanese monster movies were my thing. Every Saturday night, on The Double Creature Feature, some large beast that looked suspiciously like a guy in a cheap suit demolished Tokyo. The best ones were when Godzilla took on some other giant monster: Mothra, Ghidorah, King Kong …

King Kong? Well, I guess he was doing the tourist thing.

It didn’t take long for me to realize disasters are fun, as long as they’re on film and not in real life. Everyone else figured it out, too. The 70’s – in other words, my youth – were an especially strong decade for disasters. I give you the Carter administration. Since we’ve somehow segued into my youth, which was a catastrophe in its own way, let’s take a look at some of the big disaster movies of that decade:

Earthquake. Los Angeles goes down. I believe this was my first experience with young music composer Johnny Williams, who later went on to score sharks, aliens, lightsaber fights, and Nazi fighting archeologists. Why L.A. instead of the more earthquake prone San Francisco? Location shooting?

Meteor. A giant rock heads right toward Sean Connery, who later goes on to star in The Rock. See how it all works out? New York was the target this time.

The Poseidon Adventure. A freak wave, possibly a Kardashian hair perm, turns a passenger ship upside down, and the vessel begins sinking when a survivor unthinkingly flushes the toilet. Another John Williams scored film – he was scheduled to score Meteor, but backed out to have his composing muscles treated for exhaustion.

City On Fire. A city is on – oh, you guessed it. How did John Williams and I both miss this movie? Henry Fonda as a fire chief!

The Towering Inferno. We didn’t miss this one; in fact, this was the first Williams score I ever owned. It was, like many good disaster movies, basically an all-star soap opera set in a high rise that just happened to be burning.

The Andromeda Strain: An alien virus threatens to kill all life on Earth! Those aliens can get really touchy.

Where Have All the People Gone? The Sun flashes, and almost everyone turns into white powder. You can’t make up stuff like this. Okay, obviously you can …

The China Syndrome. Jane Fonda’s activism melts down a nuclear power plant. I might be remembering it wrong. By coincidence, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident happened just thirteen days after this movie was released. Coincidence … or was it? This movie was almost completely devoid of music and thus had no John Williams, so I skipped it.

Airport. A blizzard strikes an airport, stranding every Hollywood star of the time on an airplane that contained a bomb and was piloted by Dean Martin, who was probably bombed. The movie proved so successful that three sequels were released before the 70’s ended, despite the lack of Williams. It was a hard decade for airplanes.

The Black Hole. A spaceship is sucked into the US Federal debt.

That’s just a partial list – and that just of disaster films from the 70’s. Is there any question that we’re all fascinated when things go horribly wrong? It was good preparation for my later attempts at using power tools.

I wonder if I can get John Williams to score my next home repair job?


  1. Funny, of course. I, too, would stay up late to watch Godzilla and other creature movies.

    1. The big monsters were fun ... the human sized ones were often too scary for me, I guess because they were easier to imagine in real life.

  2. I've seen almost all of these, Mark...and I'm a longtime Godzilla fan. I've been a fan of disaster movies--even the really cheesy ones--since I was a kid watching Irwin Allen's films.

    I'm looking forward to seeing the Kardashians and the cast of Jersey Shore on the Weather Channel!

    1. Hopefully they'll be carried off by an EF5 tornado!

  3. I could never get into the Godzilla movies because of the poor job of dubbing in English where there mouths were moving and ten seconds later you heard the dialog. 70's disaster movies were an excuse to get a bunch of B list actors together and then put them in harms way. But I have to say I still enjoy a cheesy disaster movie.

    1. But the bad dubbing and cheesiness is part of the fun!

  4. I've seen some of these disaster films. Towering Inferno's really good, but any film with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen will tend to be that!

    1. True enough! There was a line in McQueen's contract stating that he and Newman were to have to exact same number of lines; that's why Newman's character got awfully quiet later in the movie.