A review requested by Will T, with thanks for contributing to the ACS Fundraiser.

In celebration of the late Irwin Allen on the occasion of his centennial


There are very few movies that you can point to that single-handedly killed off a thriving career. The Swarm is one of these. Prior to making this film, producer Irwin Allen was at the pinnacle of his profession. After creating a handful of iconic, highly successful TV sci-fi shows in the 1960s, most prominently Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (based on his movie of the same title) and Lost in Space, Allen spent the first half the 1970s transforming itself into a super-producer of some of the decade's most successful movies. His luxury liner disaster picture The Poseidon Adventure from 1972 codified the formula for the 1970s disaster film cycle that had been initiated but not really given much fuel by Airport in 1970, and socked away a huge quantity of cash in the process; two years later, he made even more money on the burning skyscraper epic The Towering Inferno, which also snagged three Oscars out of eight nominations, including an astonishing Best Picture nom for the producer himself.

I think it is surely fair to say that, at the start of 1975, Allen had the world in the palm of his hands. With all that power, he began developing a new movie, based on Arthur Herzog's 1974 novel about killer bees, taking three years to get it all figured out. In the meantime, Allen kept himself busy with a handful of TV productions, but The Swarm was the big deal: at $21 million, it was his most expensive movie ever, and one of the most costly films produced in the waning years of the '70s, an era when spending was starting to get ludicrously out-of-hand. It was the first film Allen directed himself since the 1960s (he'd directed the action scenes in both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), adding to the sense that he had great personal investment in this project.

It opened in the summer of 1978, and it tanked, making back less than half of its production cost domestically. Allen's career never came close to recovering: he only managed to produce two more theatrically-released films, 1979's Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (which he also directed) and 1980's When Time Ran Out..., both of which lost money. The Swarm's failure also marked the beginning of the end of the '70s disaster cycle itself, which limped on through a number of box-office failures until it was mostly a corpse when Airplane! finally chopped its head off in 1980. The actual reason for this is probably cultural: no individual breed of big-budget spectacle filmmaking stays at the top for very long, and besides, the dates involved with the decline of the disaster film strongly suggest that it was the new vogue for adventure and sci-fi films in the wake of Star Wars that really doomed Allen and his ilk. Still, if we wanted to put all the blame on The Swarm itself for turning off audiences, I think that's no more than the film deserves. It's quite unbelievably terrible, just campy enough to be fun-bad instead of merely bad-bad, but even then you'd need to have a decent background in bad movie mocking to survive the experience.

The Swarm is a trend-hopper, hardly new territory for Allen. In the 1970s, one of the big media scares was the infestation of killer bees that was absolutely going to slam into the United States one of these days, eventually, nobody knows quite when (it ended up happening in the back half of the 1980s, right about the time that the genius entomologist protagonist of The Swarm had expected prior to the events of the plot). Besides Herzog's book, there'd been a miniature cycle of killer bee movies on TV, capitalising on the media furor, but The Swarm was to be first big-screen treatment of the subject matter. And the last, for a great many years. The plot begins as a mystery: Major Baker (Bradford Dillman) of the US Air Force, is leading a team to a base in Texas that has apparently been attacked, and certainly seems to be devoid of life. As they pick their way around the dead bodies, with nary a single enemy soldier to be found, Baker's team stumbles into the kind of person who absolutely should not be there: civilian scientist Brad Crane (Michael Caine), an entomologist who found the gates to the base unlocked, and who has a theory about what happened that he's not sharing. When command of the operation is turned over to General Slater (Richard Widmark), he takes an immediate disliking to Crane, but he has to credit the man's theory that the base was attacked by a huge swarm of bees, especially after just such a swarm is responsible for downing two helicopters, and after Air Force medical officer Dr. Helena Anderson (Katharine Ross) pops out of her hidey-hole with four barely-alive men to corroborate Crane's theory.

Thus begins a quest by Crane, who is unexpectedly placed in command of the mission, to find a way to stop the bees before they can take human life. Among his dream team of scientists flown in, we find antivenin expert Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda), and biologist Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain); all of them together can barely work fast enough to stay ahead of the bees, and that's even without the wrinkle that Slater has assigned Baker to spy on Crane, suspecting the scientist may well be a foreign spy, secretly controlling the bees for nefarious ends.

Not that it's much of a wrinkle. If there's one thing that The Swarm is extravagantly good at, it's introducing subplots that it loses interest in, or forgets about. There are two cuts of the film: the long one is 116 minutes and is positively rotten with plot holes and abandoned thoughts; the excruciatingly long one is 155 minutes, re-edited for the film's first home video release in the 1980s, and it fixes only some of those problems. Having now seen both cuts, I can't really claim that one is "better"; I like that the shorter one is shorter, but time kind of ceases to have meaning when you're up to your knees in The Swarm, and my inclination is that the extended cut is a little less aggravating. Both are deathly boring, and both find screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (one of several Towering Inferno vets brought on board to make this film) coming up with all kind of hokey nonsense and diabolically overwrought dialogue. But the extended cut is much easier to find, so that's the one I'm talking about.

Anyway, what I've laid out so far is basically just a 1950s "nature gone amok" horror-thriller dressed up a bit with 1970s technology (though for such a godalmighty expensive movie, I can't begin to say what they spent the money on - The Swarm isn't remotely cutting-edge or even especially impressive by 1978 standards). Especially at the point where the bees start to advance on Houston, and the city is taken over by the military, and the sense that this whole time we've been watching a stupid, charmless variant on 1954's Them! becomes entirely impossible to swallow back down. And that would be fine. It would be stupid, charmless, and boring, and fine. But this is an Irwin Allen joint: he didn't make lean genre movies. He didn't even make bloated, lumpy genre movies. He made Irwin Allen All-Star Extravaganzas, and the point where The Swarm ceases to be an idiotic "killer animal" thriller full of some atrocious, fear-mongering bad science, and starts to become a delectable camp triumph is the same point that it decides to find some way of stapling together the B-movie sensibility of Them!/Beginning of the End with the formula that had brought Allen so much success with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

I would say that the results are predictably terrible, but that's not giving the film enough credit. You could know the Allen formula front to back and still not be prepared for how badly it maps onto The Swarm. The idea behind the films, refining the Airport model, is simplicity itself: take a bunch of characters with a single, clearly-articulated definition, and cast them with a mixture of TV stars, Old Hollywood legends who can be had for cheap, willing character actors, B-listers just a few years past the point they were really on fire, and grab one or two major stars for the leads, just to add the hint of class. Put all of them in a tightly confined space where everything is going to hell, and kill a third to half of them as they try to escape.

The first thing The Swarm fails to do is to keep the enclosed space: bees, of course, are outdoor creatures, and they float around the countryside, and the hybrid honeybees in question are especially prone to doing so. This means that most of the characters aren't part of the military quest to stop the bees, they're from the nearby town of Marysville, Texas. And they are fucking usless. We have the senior citizen romantic triangle of Clarence they mayor (Fred MacMurray), Maureen the school board president (Olivia de Havilland), and Felix the local businessman (Ben Johnson); we have the very pregnant Rita (Patty Duke); we have young Paul Durant (Christian Juttner), who watched his parents get stung to death at a picnic and managed to barely drive himself back to town to warn the others, before collapsing into a semi-conscious state due to the intensely toxic bee venom that Africanised honeybees don't actually possess; they are "killers" only because they are extremely aggressive. But without the film's bullshit ideas about supervenom, we wouldn't have the three - count 'em, three - scenes scattered throughout the film that find a beesting victim hallucinating a bee the size of a black bear hovering over their bed, cleaning its mandibles threateningly. And I would surely not wish for scientific accuracy be responsible for taking that gloriously misguided image away from The Swarm.

Some meager attempt is made to link the action in Marysville with the goings-on at the air force base: Anderson is from the town, and she had a personal connection to the Durant family, and its Paul's sickness that kicks her into overdrive. The overwhelming sense is that we're watching the film laboriously, even painfully spinning its wheels, though. Having paid for MacMurray, Johnson, and the living Hollywood royalty de Havilland, Allen was sure as hell going to use them, which means just pages of screenplay devoted to their aimless plot, one of no less than three love stories that get bolted onto the actual plot anyplace they fit. Or even any place they don't fit: even in the 155-minute cut, I can't begin to say why or when Crane and Anderson start to fall in love, but there they are, stiffly canoodling despite Caine and Ross's extreme lack of chemistry (and Ross's inability to disguise how little she enjoys being a part of the film in any capacity. But I was talking about Marysville, and about how it does nothing but add padding in the form of crummy melodrama that never feels like it's actually connected to the film. At least the crummy melodrama in The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno legitimately gets thrown into heightened tension by the death and destruction; in The Swarm, we're watching life in a small Texas town that has not a god-damned thing to do with bees until it gets swiftly written in and then the plots are all wrapped up by killing the entire town in a tranwreck before the second act is even done.

At least knowing that de Havilland painfully burned to ashes without choosing between MacMurray and Johnson gives some sense of finality to that plotline. Just as often, The Swarm doesn't even bother: Duke's Rita wafts out of the film without having made any impression upon it beyond the ability to put her name in the advertising, and Slim Pickens enters and leaves the film entirely within the span of a single sequence that adds nothing whatsoever, though I think it's trying to make us sad (the biggest example of mindless celebrity casting, however, is unquestionably JosΓ© Ferrer, whose initial appearance and death by bees are separated by less than 90 seconds of screentime). It's the Allen principle - grab as many semi-famous people as you can manage and give them very little to do - at its most embarrassingly undisciplined, resulting in a film that at times feels like nothing but loose threads being introduced for the sake of it, even in the longer cut. Even plot-related developments, like the suggestion that the bees are intelligent on top of everything, get unceremoniously dropped.

What saves the film... well, nothing saves the film. What makes the film slightly enjoyable if you're ready to do some work to charge through the awful, boring stretches (including all of the subplots, though de Havilland's flutey Southern belle line deliveries are at least corny) is down to a few things, beginning with Sillphant's dialogue, which is profoundly bad. A lot of the really good stuff is given to Crane. There's his philosophically sorrowful observation: "We've been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years, but I never thought I'd see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed, that it would turn out to be the bees. They've always been our friend". There is his bald-faced attempt to save Silliphant some exposition: "That's a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let's skip that." There is, best of all, his spectacularly wrathful biology lesson: "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 crop! 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!"

That last bit is the culmination to the film's greatest scene that doesn't involve a giant-ass bee superimposed over the action: Caine and Widmark screaming at each other as loud as they can. And that's one of the other fun things in the film: Caine obviously knew what kind of film he was in, and played down to it. There's not a single other good performance, either do to obvious embarassment, in Fonda's case, general lack of talent, in Chamberlain's case, or a clear confusion about what she's supposed to be doing, in Ross's case. Even Caine's performance isn't "good" - but it is splendid. He bellows for no reason, he get randomly thoughtful, he looks constantly annoyed, he puts on a smug grin to puncture the mood of scenes. It's the hammiest part of the film, and it's wonderful, especially when he pulls Widmark into his rhythm (Widmark, to be fair, is the recipient of the most wonderful-terrible lines after Caine); if the whole movie was just the two of them carping about each other or having fights, The Swarm would really have something awesome going on. They manage to take the sullen seriousness out of the movie (their first fight finds Allen sending the camera around them in a circle, in a woefully misguided attempt to amp up the gravity and tension of what amounts to a pissy shouting match), and Caine in particular allows us to laugh with something, rather than just constantly at something. The film is tediously plotted and the characters are bores, but when they're play-acting at military gravitas or scientific grandeur, at least the mismatch between the film's sense of epic size and the ridiculousness of its garbage fire of a script offers some deep, if thoroughly ironic humor.