If you want to see the mountains surrounding Houston, Texas, you can do no better than watch Irwin Allen’s 1978 disaster epic, The Swarm. You also get to see a train run over the cliffs into the Gulf of Mexico.
Mountains of Houston? Cliffs on the Gulf of Mexico? That’s just a start. Let’s add ludicrous dialog and cheesy special effects and a plot that tries to pull every heartstring but only manages to milk ever cliche.
Richard Velt in the Wilmington Morning Star stated “The Swarm may not be the worst movie ever made. I’d have to see them all to be sure. It’s certainly as bad as any I’ve seen.” Velt also stated “All the actors involved in this fiasco should be ashamed.” The film has a score of 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film is credited with killing off the whole genre of disaster movies.
I had the occasion of seeing the film recently on cable and could hardly believe my ears at some of the tin dialog.
“That’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.”
And don’t call me Shirley.
The plot involves an invasion of killer bees who, at the start of the movie have attacked a military base in Houston.
“So, the occupation of Houston has begun — and I am the first general in history to get is butt kicked by a mess of bugs!”
These are not your ordinary honeybees, but the Africanized variety, dubbed “killer bees,” and they are swarming by the billions. The American Bee Association was considering legal action against the filmmakers, claiming defamation. The film then ran a disclaimer at the end credits that read: “The African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hardworking American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation.”
Or as Michael Caine’s character says, “We’ve been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years … I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friend.”
Yes, Michael Caine, who signed onto the film without even reading the script, persuaded by the all-star cast that had already been corralled. You would think that a movie featuring Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Bradford Dillman, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray (in his last screen appearance) and costing somewhere between $12 million and $22 million (in 1978 dollars) would show some class on the screen. But you forget Irwin Allen, who was to film in the ’70s what Michael Bay is now: The ultimate in fromage. Allen’s most famous and successful films included The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Disasters R Us.
Commenting on this film being one of the worst films he had ever made in an interview, Michael Caine said, “It wasn’t just me, Henry Fonda was in it, too, but I got the blame for it!” The cast featured seven Oscar winners: Caine, Dame Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Lee Grant, and Fonda; and two Oscar nominees: Richard Widmark and Katharine Ross. Caine has claimed in interviews that he used his fee from this film to buy his mother a house in Los Angeles.
(Caine is famous for taking some roles just for the paycheck, and quite candid about doing so, for such films as Ashanti (1979), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), Jaws: The Revenge (1987), The Island (1980), The Hand (1981), and 1984’s Blame It on Rio. A working class boy takes whatever job he can get. Work is work.)
When the bees threaten a nuclear power plant, Jose Ferrer’s Dr. Andrews says, “Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe. Fail-safe! The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, Doctor!”
And Richard Chamberlain, as Dr. Hubbard asks, “I appreciate that, Doctor. But let me ask you. In all your fail-safe techniques, is there a provision for an attack by killer bees?”
One general (Richard Widmark) wants to blast them with insecticide, but our hero, Caine, warns him about the ecological disaster that would follow. “Can explain to me, how you air drop chemicals, without killing the native insect life! If your chemical will kill the African bee, it will also kill the American bee, right?”
Widmark: “Right! And better a few American bees than a lot of AMERICAN PEOPLE!”
Caine: “That is the point, General! The honey bee is vital to the environment! Every year in America, they pollinate six billion dollars worth of crops! If you kill the bee, you’re gonna kill the crops! If you kill the plants, you’ll kill the people! No! No, General! There will be no air drop, until we know exactly, what we are dropping, and where, and how! Excuse me!”
You will notice there are quite a few exclamation points in this script. You might call them a swarm of exclamation points.
The bees attack not only the nuclear plant, a missile silo and the military base, they go after a small town in Texas named Maryville. There is a real Maryville in the state, up on the border with Oklahoma. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of 15 people. Yet, in the movie, they are planning a flower festival. One young man, attacked by the bees has escaped and hallucinates a giant bee.
As the bees destroy Houston, Widmark, as General Slater, worries, “Houston on fire. Will history blame me … or the bees?”
Then, there’s the business with the army helicopter. “We have visual contact. … A black mass, sir. A moving black mass. Zero altitude. Dead ahead. They’re hitting us! Oh my God! We’re out … we’re out of control! Ahhhhhh!”
The copter spins wildly and as it tumbles in circles on the movie screen, the horizon, seen through the windows, tumbles in synch, making it crystal clear that the spinning is done by the camera, not the copter. Cheesy special effects are an Irwin Allen hallmark, as when the actors on the ship in The Poseidon Adventure all lean to one side and back on cue as the boat rocks — or doesn’t — and the camera alone lurches back and forth.
Then, there’s the issue of scenes that cannot make up their minds whether it’s daytime or night, as they switch in the editing. One cannot but remember the same issue in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, which gets its own votes for “worst film of all time.”
There are some oddly racist lines in the film, although probably through sloppiness and neglect rather than intent. The General repeatedly drops the words “Killer Bee” when referring to the African killer bees, so we get uncomfortable moments of him informing Caine they have been “Rounding up Africans“ and stating that, “By tomorrow there will be no more Africans … at least not in the Houston sector.”
Sloppiness seems to be the modus operandi for Allen and his crew. Henry Fonda plays a paraplegic doctor in a wheelchair who nevertheless manages to kick open a door when needed.
Chamberlain to Fonda about the bees: “They’re brighter than we thought.” Fonda: “They always are.”
Caine: “It’s damn hard to believe that insects have accomplished what nothing in the world could have done, except germ warfare or a neutron bomb: neutralize a ICBM site.”
Widmark, as General, to Chamberlain: “Well, you dropped your poison pellets and the Africans spit at it. Now they’re moving towards Houston faster than expected.” Chamberlain: “General, you should know that the enemy’s always expected to do the unexpected.”
It was claimed that something like 20 million bees were used in the making of the film. Managing them was a huge challenge. About 800,000 of them were individually “de-stung,” by having their stingers removed so they could be used interacting with the actors. The film’s production went through several beekeepers before finding one who hired people to remove the bees’ stingers. Cold weather incapacitates bees, so it was done in a refrigerated trailer. A few stingers were missed, and some lingering venom did get into the air on the sound stages, causing allergic reactions.
The bees in the film were housed in various countryside enclosures, and were moved every night to give them new forage and prevent “bee rustling” (i.e., theft of the bees or their honey). The bees on the film’s set were controlled by releasing queen bees, which beekeepers kept inside their protective bee suits. In addition, everyone had little yellow dots on their clothing, which were actually bee feces. Caine stated in an interview that during filming he thought the little yellow spots left by the bees on his clothing was honey so he began to eat it, unaware he was eating bee poop.
Killer bees were a hot topic in the news in the 1970s, with a fear that the Africanized honeybees would take over and present a real danger to humans. Of course, that led to quite a few killer bee movies, including Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), Killer Bees (1974), The Savage Bees (1976), The Bees (1978), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978). The last film on this list is the sequel to the third one on it. Lucky for all of us, The Swarm did so poorly at the box office, a planned sequel was never made
Of course, the final lines of any horror or disaster film ends with setting up the potential sequel, and The Swarm is no exception, as Katherine Ross says, “Did we finally beat them? Or is this just a temporary victory?”
And Michael Caine replies: “I — I don’t know. But we did gain time. If we use it wisely, and if we’re lucky, the world might just survive.”
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