Disaster!

Big-screen catastrophes – on both sides of the camera

Gone East
Ishtar was the ancient Sumero-Babylonian goddess of love and fertility. It is also the title of one of the most monumental film flops in 100 years of cinema. Written and directed in 1987 by Elaine May, this lame tale of two hopeless songwriters caught in Middle Eastern intrigue – the sort of movie Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used to churn out by the yard – somehow ended up costing Columbia US $55 million. A large chunk of that went on the stars, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Perhaps realising that the film wasn’t turning out quite the way she imagined it, Elaine May worked on the editing for months, only turning in a finished cut when the studio threatened legal action.

On its eventual release, Ishtar did, in fact, hold the No. 1 box-office position for a week. However, in its second week, with the release of Beverly Hills Cop II, it quickly dropped to fourth place, and ended up taking only US $12.7 million, a mere fraction of its budget.

Mass destruction
An up-close view of spectacular disasters has been meat and potatoes cinema for 100 years – a train derailing, an airship exploding, an ocean liner sinking. Nothing in the cinematic canon compares to whole cities being destroyed – by meteor, tidal wave or (most commonly) the large scaly feet of a giant dinosaur. The most destroyed American city in movie history has to be New York, which got it in the neck in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998) and Deep Impact (1998), among others, while its ruins were featured in Planet of the Apes (1968) and AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). In Fail-Safe (1964), President Henry Fonda even encourages the Soviets to nuke it, after American bombers have accidentally nuked Moscow.

But far and away the most destroyed city in the world (movieworld, anyway) is the Japanese capital of Tokyo. Its indigenous monster franchise studio Toho has for the last five decades recorded the flattening of Tokyo more than 100 times. Mothra (1961), a gigantic moth, did it, as did Rodan (1956), a giant pterodactyl. Godzilla (Gojira) did it over and over again. Most impressively, all the Toho monsters ganged up on poor battered Tokyo in 1968’s astonishing Destroy All Monsters! Several men in rubber suits crushed the toy town Nipponese capital as Godzilla, Baby Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Angilas and Minya battled against a three-headed alien-controlled dragon. Of course, Tokyo has been destroyed in real life, too, by American bombers in World War II, as seen at the end of Pearl Harbor (2001).

The Blitz revisited
London may have taken a real-life beating during the Blitz, but since then it has suffered more than its fair share of large-scale destruction on the big screen. Back in the 1950s the Quatermass series began with ancient giant bugs heralding the return of Martians to the city in Quatermass and the Pit (1958), which was bad enough for a remake in 1967. Sweltering heat, from global warming on a scale no one predicted – the earth falling into the sun – roasted the city in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). Speaking of fire, Reign of Fire (2002) brought a brood of fire-breathing dragons to town from the bowels of the Earth for purposes of planetary domination. Britain’s capital also cracked under the indignity of pestilence and a plague of zombies in 28 Days Later (2002) and, of course, Shaun of the Dead (2004). Split Second (1992) saw rising sea levels put large areas of London under fathoms of water. The greatest blitz on Westminster and environs wasn’t the Blitz, after all, but Tobe Hooper’s assault on all things English in the devastating Lifeforce (1985). Based on Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires, this intergalactic bloodfest kicks off when a space shuttle mission investigating Halley’s Comet brings back malevolent aliens who transform most of London’s population into zombies.

A drop in the ocean
Unlike so many of his fellow Texans – including the one in the White House, for example – director Kevin Reynolds, best known for the Kevin Costner epic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), is clearly given to worrying about the environment. His 1994 film Rapa Nui was a speculation about the fate of civilisation on Easter Island, where human life became unsustainable after the population chopped down all the trees. The island was abandoned, only the huge stone heads – or moai – left behind as monuments to the lost civilisation.

The following year Reynolds embarked on an even more ambitious project, set in a future where the ice caps have melted and the world is covered by oceans. Starring Reynolds’ old – but soon to be ex – friend Kevin Costner, Waterworld was to be shot entirely on the water off the coast of Hawaii, which caused problems, as the sets had a tendency to float away. Worse was to come when the floating set of the Slave Colony was sunk by a storm. Having decided on the first day of shooting that the script was no good, Reynolds flew in a new writer – Joss Whedon, who later found fame as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – to rewrite the script from day to day. Costs spiralled – at US $175 million, it ended up the most expensive film ever made, until another waterlogged disaster movie, Titanic, relieved it of that distinction two years later. Before it was even released, Waterworld was a world-famous disaster, variously dubbed ‘Fishtar’ or ‘Kevin’s Gate’ in tribute to previous movie white elephants. But all publicity is good publicity, and the film’s very notoriety ended up working in its favour. People were so keen to go and see the fiasco they’d read about in the press that the film ended up taking more than US $250 million worldwide – by no means a profit, after advertising and distribution costs, but more than a drop in the ocean.

Death on set
Expectation was high for Twilight Zone: the Movie, an adaptation of one of the cherished television series of the 1960s, brought to the big screen by four of the biggest directors in early 1980s Hollywood: Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante (Gremlins), George Miller (Mad Max) and John Landis (An American Werewolf in London).

But disaster struck during a night shoot on 23 July 1982, when character actor Vic Morrow (father of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and juvenile Asian actors Renee Chen and My-ca Le were killed during an accident on Landis’ set, after an un-aimed mortar explosion caused a helicopter to crash. Because it is illegal for children to work at such a late hour (the crash happened at about 2.30am), Chen and Le were not officially part of the cast; their parents had been paid in cash. A court case ensued. Only a decade later were director John Landis and four others found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Gone West
After winning Oscars for Best Film and Best Director on The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino was more or less given a blank cheque by United Artists for his follow-up. Heaven’s Gate started life as a simple western about a land war in Johnson County, Wyoming, starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and John Hurt. Almost immediately – and on every level – things started to turn bad. Thanks to Cimino’s perfectionism, by the fifth day of filming the shoot was already four days behind schedule. And so it went on. At one point during filming, he decided that the spacing of the buildings on one of the sets didn’t look right, despite it having been built to his exact specifications. He ordered both sides of the street torn down and rebuilt at a cost of US $1.2 million. Even the crew objected. They saw that it would be easier to knock down one side of the street and rebuild it twice as far away, for half the cost.

By the time it was finished, the film’s budget had ballooned from an initial $2 million to the then-astronomical sum of US $40 million. Heaven’s Gate was a commercial and critical disaster that destroyed Cimino’s career as a director and nearly drove United Artists to bankruptcy. The studio ended up being bought by MGM, but Cimino didn’t work for another five years. To date, his career has never fully recovered.

Movie Idols, excerpt from Chapter 10, © John Wrathall & Mick Molloy 2005, All Rights Reserved

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