San Andreas hits cinemas this weekend, but like all modern disaster movies it owes a debt to one Seventies blockbuster

One of the smartest ideas anyone ever had in Hollywood was planting a bomb on a passenger jet. In the late Sixties, American cinema was turning feral. In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde imported French New Wave cool and full-blooded violence to the dust-blown streets of small-town Texas. Two years later, Easy Rider had a young Jack Nicholson in horn-rimmed glasses, fulminating about freedom by a desert campfire.

The film industry was in the throes of an identity crisis, and while its new, radical output was opium for daring young cinemagoers, the mass-market audience had started looking elsewhere for their fun. Rather than going to the cinema, ordinary people were unwinding at home with television and popular novels. But Ross Hunter, a successful producer of “women’s pictures” – spun-sugar Doris Day romances and swoony melodramas – thought he knew how to win them back.

The bestselling new American novel of 1968 had been Arthur Hailey’s Airport, a page-turner about a series of crises over one long night at Chicago’s (fictional) Lincoln International terminal. It had a multi-strand, soap-opera storyline, and its overarching plot was like a gripping, unfolding TV news story: one commercial airliner trapped in a snowdrift, another with a suitcase rigged to explode in its cabin. 

Hunter secured the rights and enlisted as his writer and director George Seaton, not an action-movie veteran, but the director of various comedies, musicals and light fantasy films in the Fifties, including the original Miracle on 34th Street. The projected budget was $10 million, but Universal was so wary of the pitch that it capped its contribution at $7 million. Hunter, certain he was on to a winner, raised the final $3 million himself.

The Hollywood disaster movie feels like a genre that’s been around forever – and, in one shape or another, it has. The latest example, San Andreas, in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot hunting for his wife and daughter in earthquake-torn California, arrives in cinemas this weekend, but films about disasters both natural and man-made have been produced ever since the film studios first set up shop. One of the first narrative films ever made in Hollywood, the 1903 short Life of an American Fireman, was about a woman and a baby being rescued from a burning house.

The genre had always been a little disreputable, and its popularity tended to flare up around times of social unrest. During the Great Depression of the Thirties, films about earthquakes, tidal waves and citywide fires were some of the biggest box office hits of their day, while worldwide anxiety over nuclear weapons following the end of the Second World War prompted the rise of the giant monsters: Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea’s bridge-straddling octopus, and many more.

But these were B-movies and guilty pleasures. Hunter’s eureka moment was in shifting these stories into the mainstream, where all-star casts and significantly larger budgets (allowing for more persuasive special effects) became possible.

The political climate was just right for his idea to take. Ordinary American citizens’ faith in the system was being shaken not just by the rise of the counterculture, but also by the war in Vietnam, which the world now knew was going nowhere fast. To Hunter, the appeal of an old-fashioned film that showed average people banding together to prevent disaster in the face of grand, systemic failure was clear.

Even in 1970, Airport felt old-fashioned. Writing in TV Guide, the film critic Judith Crist called it “the best film of 1944”. Others likened it to Grand Hotel, MGM’s 1932 confection, in which Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford and many more famous names had been corralled into the same ensemble picture for a nuclear display of star power from the studio.

In Airport’s opening scenes, we see a blizzard blowing across the runways of Lincoln International, where Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), the airport’s overstretched general manager, is preparing for a long night of crisis micromanagement. Almost instantly, he clashes with Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), a married pilot with an eye for air stewardesses, who has little time for the health and safety procedures that might cause his flight to Rome to be delayed. 

The characters aren’t much more than stereotypes, but there are so many, there’s no room for them to be anything else. Soon enough, the film’s also juggling Jean Seberg as an airline PR manager, Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful stewardess carrying Demerest’s child, George Kennedy as a virile engineer, pointedly chomping on girthy cigars, Helen Hayes as a dotty old serial stowaway, and more. The film spins its plots like plates, and by the time the aeroplane with the bomb on board has actually taken off, more than 70 minutes have passed.

But irrelevant as it may seem to the spectacle of watching ships sink and tall buildings burn, Airport made the bloated ensemble cast a non-negotiable feature of the disaster movie experience. It all helped to draw a general audience: chances were you’d like at least one of them enough to pay for a ticket. The Poseidon Adventure, which was rushed into production after Airport’s unexpected success, had 12 names on its poster; Earthquake had 10, while The Towering Inferno had 11. On adverts, the actors’ mugshots were lined up in rows, like squares on a bingo card to be crossed off when their characters bit the dirt.

A poster for The Poseidon Adventure

Except that’s the one staple the disaster-movie genre didn’t adopt from Airport: its body count. Despite the high levels of peril, only one of Airport’s characters actually dies in the film: D O Guerrero, the bomber himself. What’s more, his death is presented as sad and avoidable, rather than a bad guy’s just deserts. 

He’s a suicide bomber, but not a terrorist. The source of his distress is an incident in his military past that’s darkly referred to by his wife as she begs Lancaster and Seberg’s characters for help. She explains that her husband has been unable to hold down a job since his return from active service, and can’t keep out of fights: a story that would have been increasingly familiar to Airport’s audience, as US troops streamed back into the country from Vietnam with little to do but brood on the atrocities they’d witnessed. The scene is a little cold snap of reality in the midst of all the warmed-over melodrama.

Airport does have human villains, though: they’re the supporting characters on the sidelines, whose fussing and quibbling stalls the film’s everyday heroes in the business of doing their jobs properly. 

One of the main culprits is Cindy (Dana Wynter), Lancaster’s character’s possessive wife. She nags him on the telephone, and later in person, because he decides to stay at work and save lives rather than accompany her to a society dinner. A group of protesters from a nearby suburb, who are holding a rally to object to excessive engine noise, are also treated as nuisances. 

Whit Bissell and Helen Hayes in 'Airport' Credit: Everett/REX Shutterstock/Everett/REX Shutterstock

Then there’s the film’s strangest character of all: an interfering passenger who twice messes up the crew’s plans to restore order, and whose meddling eventually causes the bomb to be triggered. There’s a shot of him struggling to breathe when the cabin pressure suddenly drops that has an unmistakable air of serves-you-right. Later, just in case we didn’t get the message, he’s slapped by a priest.

At the film’s climax, Kennedy’s engineer turns the engines of the trapped plane up to full power against direct advice from air traffic control, in order to blast it free from the snowdrift.

“The instruction book said that was impossible,” marvels a colleague. “Ah, there’s one nice thing about the 707,” he replies. “It can do anything but read.”

And so, through the courage and ingenuity of ordinary men and women, order is restored. Lancaster’s character leaves his wife, who it transpires was cheating on him anyway, and gets together with Seberg. The stewardess keeps her baby. Family values win the day. The sky is blue again. As for the mass-market audience Hunter had been chasing, they loved it. Airport made $100 million in the US alone, spawning three sequels (not to mention the immortal spoof Airplane!) and setting the Hollywood disaster movie industry in motion.

Paul Newman in 'The Towering Inferno' Credit: 20th Century Fox/Everett/Rex Features/c.20thC.Fox/Everett / Rex Features

Perhaps even less plausibly, Airport was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, at the 1971 Academy Awards. In the end, Hayes won for best supporting actress, beating Maureen Stapleton, and three actresses who were nominated for work in edgier, “New Hollywood” pictures.

The craze burned brightly, but it also burned out. In 1975, between the release of the first and second Airport sequels, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws managed to combine the crowd-pleasing power of the disaster movie with New Hollywood’s artfulness and purpose – and by the time Star Wars arrived on the scene in 1977, with a Death Star that could destroy an entire planet in one go, blowing up individual aircraft, buildings and cities suddenly seemed like old hat.

Except the wildly successful mid-Nineties disaster-movie revival, which was triggered by Independence Day, and took in Twister, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Volcano, Dante’s Peak and James Cameron’s record-breaking Titanic, proved the genre hadn’t been extinct at all – it was just slumbering, like a dormant magma chamber, waiting for the right moment to erupt. 

San Andreas might be a delayed aftershock, but it could equally be the earliest tremors of the disaster movie’s third generation. There have been stirrings before, from The Day After Tomorrow to Battle: Los Angeles to Into the Storm, yet none have had a seismic effect. But we can be sure of one thing. When they finally come back – and they will – there can be no escape.

San Andreas is out now