The Swarm directed by Irwin Allen
Immediately before the release of his $21 million disaster epic The Swarm in July ’78, producer/director Irwin Allen boasted to the press that he thought the film would be “the most terrifying movie ever made.” And the so-called “Master of Disaster” had good reason to feel confident; his previous films, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, had been monster hits, performing remarkably well at the box office. But The Swarm, which dealt with an attack of African killer bees in the American Southwest, failed to live up to expectations, and indeed brought in a mere $7 million in box office returns.
The reviews were scathing, with The New York Times calling the film “the surprise comedy hit of the season” and London’s Sunday Times deeming it “simply the worst film ever made.” Time Out has gone on to call it a “risibly inadequate disaster movie,” the Maltin Movie Guide has awarded it its lowest BOMB rating, while the Medved Brothers, in their Golden Turkey Awards book, give it the prize for The Most Badly Bumbled Bee Movie of All Time. So IS The Swarm the worst movie ever made? Well, of course not, and all those who have heaped such savage and hyperbolic condemnations on the film have obviously never seen such truly awful and ineptly made motion pictures as The Beast of Yucca Flats, Horror of the Blood Monsters, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, The Worm Eaters and Blood Freak. But is The Swarm a good film; a quality motion picture? Well, I wouldn’t go THAT far.
The film, to my great surprise, is fun to watch, and several of the sequences involving those bee attacks are exciting and fairly well done. And if the film truly IS as bad as they say (perhaps I should add here that I have a very high tolerance for shlock cinema, and that the print of The Swarm that I recently watched was the theatrical, 116-minute version, and not the 156-minute extended cut that some say is the preferable way to go), its exceedingly large cast of famous faces is surely not to blame, all of whom give it their professional best. Thus, we have Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Henry Fonda and Alejandro Rey as scientists desperately searching for a defense against the venomous critters; Richard Widmark, Bradford Dillman and Cameron Mitchell as military men; Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray and Ben Johnson representing three sides of a love triangle in the quaint little town of Marysville, Texas; Patty Duke Astin as a pregnant widow; Slim Pickens as a grieving father; Lee Grant as a reporter; and José Ferrer as the head of a nuclear power plant.
Rather, and to my huge amazement, the blame here must rest squarely on the shoulders of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, whose script contains many lines of stunning banality, and plot points that just peter away into nothingness. I say “amazement” because Silliphant had previously been responsible for the majority of the scripts for one of my favorite television programs of the ’60s, Route 66, many of which were remarkable for their poetic and literary qualities. His script for The Swarm, however, is far, far from the work he had done for that show some 15 years earlier.
Still, the film does have some compensations, and, as I say, some nice touches. I did enjoy the scene in which three kids chuck Molotov cocktails at the swarm’s tree trunk nest, and then cower beneath metal garbage cans in the resultant bee storm. The film has a VERY high body count (the ridiculous scene in which the bees invade that nuclear power plant and cause an immediate mushroom cloud accounts for the deaths of 36,422 people alone!), and is not afraid to show youngsters being both attacked and killed by the vicious little monsters. In what is surely the film’s most suspenseful sequence, Fonda self-administers a 6X lethal dose of the bee venom into his system, and then injects himself with a possible antidote, as we wait breathlessly to see the result. The bee attack on the Marysville population (resulting in 232 dead) forcefully brings to mind a similar scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds (it is hardly as well done, of course), although the attack on a speeding train is not nearly as convincing.
As I mentioned earlier, many story lines simply dwindle away, such as the one with Patty Duke and her baby, and that love triangle is, surprisingly, summarily snuffed out in the train disaster. Perhaps the longer cut brought these story lines more satisfactorily to a conclusion? I would like to think so. And then there are the questions of why didn’t the fireball at the nuclear plant destroy all the bees, when fire is shown to be a very effective means of combating them later on? And, as the Widmark character mentions early in the film, just what WAS Caine’s civilian character doing at the Air Force base at the film’s beginning anyway?
Gaping plot holes and inconsistencies aside, however, The Swarm remains a moderately fun watch, and is most assuredly NOT the worst movie ever made. And really, any film with a POV shot from a bee’s eyeballs can’t be ALL bad, right?