Only the stars survive: disaster movies in the seventies

Nick Roddick’s essay in Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800-1976 is an excellent reference in my ongoing disaster movie research. Stephen Keane relied heavily on Roddick’s analysis, so I went straight to the source for my own read. The title of Roddick’s piece comes from an interview with Irwin Allen who described The Poseidon Adventure as “a perfect set-up of a group of people who have never met before and who are thrown together in terrible circumstances. In the first six minutes, 1,400 people are killed and only the stars survive.”

Interestingly, in Keane’s regurgitation of Roddick, it seems like he was saying that Roddick blamed “a post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex” on the appeal of the movies, but Roddick calls those things “a little too obvious and wholly impossible to substantiate.” Instead, Roddick aims to study these movies “because they give clear indications of how a cultural industry reacts to a period of economic and political crisis in capitalist society, and how culture can become ideologically active.” He then goes on to quote Karl Marx by saying disaster movies are a great example of reactionary culture, and as Marx says, “in each period, reactionaries are as sure indicators of its spiritual condition as dogs are of the weather.”

The narrative structure of the films is usually three parts: world before disaster, the disaster, and world after disaster. When movies don’t spend enough time examining the world after disaster, they are less successful, making it seem that showing how people cope with the disaster is an essential part of the cycle.

Elements of disaster movies: isolation, luxurious environments, random gathering of people, elemental cause of disaster (earth, fire, air, water), limited violent deaths (usually just one striking example), reaction to disaster.

Who is killed? The weak, the criminal, people in positions of power for which they are not suited (judgement strips them of power).

Our leaders have been shown to be wanting at times of crisis. This fear, fuelled by Watergate… is evidently a very real one. And disaster movies respond to it in a typically demagogic fashion: by portraying the transfer of power from the old, the incompetent and the corrupt to the new race of super-heroes, brave, morally upright and technologically brilliant. Behind them, the people can be united into a corporate identity, free from the divisions and the individual selfishness which characterised them before the disaster.

This is more than a merely thematic process: the narrative devices of the disaster movie actively encourage our allegiance to it. In addition to providing a character for each member of the audience to identify with, the characterisation of the world in terms of archetypes may be seen as a tacit statement that the world is simple, easily organised and hierarchically structured. Complexity of motivation and a problematic social structure, it is implied, are products of degeneracy…. for Michel Marmin in Valeurs actuelles, disaster movies ‘call for a kind of reassessment of our values. In particular, they stress the incapacity of the masses to govern themselves alone, and the need for hierarchies and masculine supremacy.’… [Disaster movies] are consistently and seductively the embodiment of a corporatist world view, a pleasingly simple solution to the troubling problems of our age within an effective narrative framework. These disasters may happen, they suggest; and if not these, very similar ones: when they come, you will know what to do.

Would like to read Stéphane Sorel’s Catastrophique virilité in Téléciné May 1975 for its analysis of the role of women in disaster movies but I can’t find any trace of this publication.