“The Swarm is coming!” I wish I could somehow convey how imperative and compelling and flat-out exciting those words were to me, way back in 1978, when they were so dramatically intoned in the trailer that seemed to pop up constantly on TV and at every other movie I went to that winter and spring.
Too bad I actually saw the movie.
By Paul Mavis
Long considered one of the worst movies ever made (maybe…but it’s still better than Ghandi), producer/director Irwin “The Master of Disaster” Allen‘s The Swarm, the killer bee epic from Warner Bros. starring Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Bradford Dillman, Henry Fonda, Cameron Mitchell, Christian Juttner, Alejandro Rey, Don “Red” Barry, and Fred MacMurray, was a seismic shift in Allen’s career. Its critical and commercial failure was the beginning of the end for the longtime Hollywood player, as well as concrete proof that the party was well and truly over for the 1970s disaster genre. Still, The Swarm occupies a very special place in my childhood memories (which ain’t saying much), and it’s always a fun go-to whenever I’m in a schlocky, self-destructive mood…particularly now that’s it even longer in Blu-ray (the original theatrical run time was a long, long 116 minutes, but some sadist at WB decided all home video versions would be the extended international version, which runs an interminable 156 minutes).
Click to order The Swarm on Blu-ray:
A 20-story underground Air Force base in the Texas scrub. A rather thin tactical first response team, lead by sweaty Major Baker (Bradford Dillman), enters the eerily quiet facility to discover everyone’s dead…except for civilian entomologist Dr. Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), PhD at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton via Cambridge (yep. Liberal). How did Crane get in this restricted facility, and why is he still alive? That’s what stick-up-his-ass-apparently General Thaddeus Slater (Richard Widmark) would like to know, who can’t accept the coincidence of a world-class bug doctor being on hand for a killer bee attack that wiped out an Air Force missile base. Sparks fly between the two almost immediately—far more than between future lovers Crane and Air Force Dr. Helena Anderson (Katharine Ross), who, along with the six bee sting victims she saved, managed to survive the onslaught in a locked lab.
General Slater is pissed, however, when Crane’s credentials are backed up by the White House; specifically, by the President’s own advisor, Dr. Walter Krim (Henry Fonda), the world’s leading immunologist (funny how all of this is falling into place). The Prez puts Crane in charge of the entire operation (Slater just bit through his chest medals), with Crane seeking to find a non-aggressive, scientific way to stop the killer African/Brazilian hybrid bees without slaughtering our best friend in nature, the “industrious, hardworking” law-abiding, teetotalling, church-going American honey bee. This of course drives by-the-book Slater absolutely nuts. He wants to take the world’s biggest can of Raid and lay waste to every insect in the American Southwest…and screw it if the winds shift and kills a few hundred thousand people by accident.
Meanwhile, the hick town of Marysville is all a’buzz getting ready for its annual Flower Festival (“Gee, Mom and Dad can we go?!” “No, Jimmy, the whole family’s getting root canals instead,” “Oh thank God!”). The hottest action in town, though, isn’t on the parade floats; it’s in the nas-tay, dirty streets, where a geriatric three-way is working itself into a fevered frenzy. Town tramp and elementary school principle Maureen Schuester (Olivia de Havilland) likes to sashay her pretty little plump self in front of anything in pants, especially if it’s her two beaux: clinically diagnosed dullard Clarence Tuttle (Fred MacMurray), Marysville’s mayor and druggist (or more likely, druggee), and growling, perpetually aroused retiree Felix Austin (Ben Johnson). Now, what exactly do these three sizzling seniors have to do with our main story? Absolutely nothing—we just have to mark time with them until the bees sting them to death.
Other disinterested parties and/or future stiffs include Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain), fellow bug scientist and Crane antagonist (Crane’s supply list must have included “supercilious snot”); TV reporter Anne MacGregor (Lee Grant), who apparently thinks we can’t see her reading her cue cards (I mean Grant, not MacGregor); whining pregnant widow Rita Bard (Patty Duke); blink-and-you’ll-miss-him nuclear power plant supervisor Dr. Andrews (Jose Ferrer); grieving father and county engineer Jud Hawkins (Slim Pickens); and completely superfluous local sawbones, Dr. Martinez (Alejandro Rey). Can these has-beens get out of the way long enough for Caine & Co. to burn down Houston in hopes of zapping all those yellowjackets?
RELATED | More 1970s film reviews
I know, I know. I’ve already written several times about 1970s disaster movies here on the beer-soaked pages of Movies & Drinks, so I won’t bore you with a historical retread of the genre, or what those movies meant to me. Instead, I’ll quickly direct you to click on Two-Minute Warning, Rollercoaster, When Time Ran Out…, The Beasts are on the Streets, and Skyjacked to get you up to speed…and to quadruple our hits for today.
We’re cool? Okay. So…when The Swarm came out in July, 1978, I had good reason to believe that it would be a high-flying effort compared to the recent disaster outings that had bowed after 1975, the genre’s peak year for both quality and box office. After all, The Swarm was Irwin Allen‘s baby, the “Master of Disaster,” the man who put together two of the greatest examples of the genre: The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. I’m sure I didn’t know back then that he was employing the same behind-the-camera crew as The Towering Inferno, including screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and editor Harold F. Kress (both of whom also worked on The Poseidon Adventure), and cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp. But if I had, no doubt that would made an even stronger impression on me, in terms of what I would expect going into that theater (“Now, from the people that brought you…!”).
Unfortunately, I also probably didn’t realize that Irwin Allen did not, in fact, direct those classics. When all the ballyhoo was ramped up for Poseidon and Inferno, I don’t remember the words, “Ronald Neame” or “John Guillermin,” getting thrown around too much. All I heard was “Irwin Allen,” and I suspect that’s exactly what the wily Hollywood producer wanted. So when the posters for The Swarm came out, with the top credit line reading, “Irwin Allen’s production of ‘The Swarm‘,” I think most people in the theater lobbies or seeing the print work in the newspapers could have been forgiven for thinking The Swarm was going to be at least on par with Allen’s previous two blockbusters. After all he directed them. Didn’t he?….
It didn’t quite work out that way. Despite a (seemingly) splashy cast, a (seemingly) trendy subject, and a hefty budget of $11 million, with an additional $4 million promotional budget (for comparison, The Poseidon Adventure‘s entire production cost was only about a million more than The Swarm‘s promo budget), the public’s response to The Swarm was underwhelming to say the least, with only about $8 million in rentals returned to Warners. The critics’ reactions, for the most part, were decidedly more vicious.
In those pre-internet days, I wouldn’t have known what the grosses were, but I didn’t need Variety to tell me something might be wrong with The Swarm. Every Friday, I would scan our local newspaper’s movie ads for the latest releases (“The Toledo Blade: One of America’s Great Newspapers…that’s Fit to Line Your Bird Cage”). That July 14th, in 1978, I noticed that The Swarm was debuting at our local drive-ins and our second-run multiplex, Southwyck 8. Uh oh: the kiss of death. I may not have known anything about the actual mechanics of blind booking and exhibitor bids on upcoming movies, but I did know that any new major movie that didn’t open at our premier first-run houses (Redstone’s Showcase and Franklin Park Cinemas), was usually a dog or a cheap indie. Something was seriously off with The Swarm if it was getting dumped this way.
According to a lawsuit filed by a Texas theater chain, Warner Bros. knew The Swarm was going to tank, with pre-release test marketing indicating there was very little interest for it from potential audiences (the chain actually won the suit, claiming WB “tricked” them into blind booking a blockbuster when they knew it was no such thing, but lost on appeal). Unfortunately, the studio was locked into an iron-clad $38 million deal with Allen, which was used to lure him away from 20th Century-Fox after The Towering Inferno exploded. So, there wasn’t much WB could do…except book The Swarm in a then-huge number of theaters (1228), with no press screenings, in the hopes of getting as much cash back as quickly as possible before word of mouth killed the movie. Debuting the same weekend as two massive summer grossers, Burt Reynold’s Hooper and Goldie Hawn’s and Chevy Chase’s Foul Play, and only a week before the smash return of Peter Sellers in Revenge of the Pink Panther, The Swarm was out of most cities’ theaters within two or three short weeks.
What I remember most about watching The Swarm at the long-gone Maumee Drive-In (a historical landmark that this characteristically short-sighted podunk town let get bulldozed), was a terrible sinking feeling of what I call “inverse expectation ratio.” It’s where you’re mightily jacked up to see something, and the person going with you, simply isn’t (I had to badger my old man to take me, and he only finally agreed because Clint Eastwood’s The Enforcer was on the bottom of the double bill). After the trailers, when the red and black Warner Bros. logo came on, and composer Jerry Goldsmith’s French horns started trilling over it, an apt musical equivalent of a nasty, humming swarm of bees, I was positively vibrating in my seat with anticipation. The old man, however, stared straight ahead. Stone-faced.
Within the first few minutes I saw that he might be right. The flat, stale TV-style framing, and the surprisingly paltry production values (one little armored personnel carrier, with guys in plastic suits and, um…flame throwers, to check out a disabled missile base?) didn’t go unnoticed by me. When I watch The Swarm today, it can, if I’m not careful, become a sad, even masochistic exercise in thwarted nostalgia for me. It came out right when I was being dragged from “little kid” into “teenager,” and, in a small way, it represented a larger (and certainly not uncommon) effort, a desire, to hold everything back. I wanted to will this crappy movie into being more entertaining than it was, not just because the old man was alternately bored and annoyed (that pesky “inverse expectation ratio”), but because seeing The Swarm too clearly, simply wasn’t any fun for me. “Little kid” Paul would have loved The Swarm unconditionally, but “teenager” Paul just saw how he got screwed by the hype, and how empty the package was—the same thing the old man saw. That’s why I “get my mind right” before watching The Swarm now. After all, who needs to remember those kinds of feelings?
And the easiest way to do that, to actually enjoy The Swarm, is to laugh at it, to take pleasure from its mistakes and miscalculations, and to do so with the genuine sense of relief that one feels when one watches these kinds of entertainments from this time period. That’s where The Swarm‘s ultimate salvation lies: its relative innocence. Sure, it’s calculated swill, but it does seek only to entertain. Today, everything in pop culture has to “mean” something, which translates into a dire message, or lesson, or harangue, or finger-wagging, or guilt trip. Even the simplest content is all one-side political ideology or moral high-ground frippery from our new liberal Puritan overlords. It’s all so boring and dreary and pre-digested and violently dogmatic and Soviet, for lack of a better word. The Swarm is none of that. It’s just trying to entertain you and thrill you. That it does so, so poorly, is most of its charm.
It’s not difficult, either, to see all of The Swarm‘s elements that led to that latter-day, um…charm. Although he couldn’t have known it at the time (although don’t you think he should have anticipated this?), Allen didn’t foresee the inevitable waning of interest in the disaster fad, once other studios jumped on the bandwagon and flooded the market with similar product. By 1978, audiences had pretty much had it with the genre, so no amount of pedigree and leftover good feelings for the producer of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno was going to drag The Swarm over the finish line.
Not helping audiences, either, was the fact that The Swarm‘s subject matter was already so warmed-over and familiar. Allen may have thought that ticket buyers were still interested in the hysterical news reports of killer bees coming into the Southwest, but similarly-themed “killer insect horror/sci-fi” outings had already beaten him to the punch, including Freddie Francis’ fun 1966 Amicus production, The Deadly Bees, the 1976 made-for-TV movie, The Savage Bees (starring The Swarm‘s Ben Johnson), and 1974’s excellent made-for-TV movie, Locusts (granted, not bees, but it was the same exact story…with Ben Johnson again).
Warners even went so far as to fork out a hefty pay-off to Roger Corman to get him to delay a Mexican cheapie he had picked up for his New World Pictures (The Bees, with John Saxon and Angel Tompkins), so it wouldn’t compete head-to-head The Swarm. Worst of all (and I’d bet money the square Allen was unaware of it), the whole “killer bees” hype had already been thoroughly deflated and lampooned on Saturday Night Live, helping to turn the media ginned-up fear about the imminent bee invasion into laughs. There hadn’t been any big movies about an ocean liner capsizing prior to 1972, or a skyscraper catching on fire before 1974…but audiences had had plenty of chances to see insects, and specifically bees, attack people prior to July 14th, 1978.
Had costs been kept down, The Swarm‘s relatively decent box office gross might not have stung so bad. What’s so strange, then, is where were all those $11 million dollars spent? Certainly not on the cheap production values that appear on the screen. If you look at Silliphant’s story outline (based on the far superior, best-selling book by Arthur Herzog), it’s filled with big “set pieces” that somehow look impoverished in Irwin Allen’s hands. The opening scene’s a good example. It was a huge mistake not to show the actual bee attack on the Air Force base, because we simply can’t buy that they had somehow taken out the missile site. How did they get in? And how were they able to work that elevator down 20 stories? Did sections of the swarm wait patiently for their turn on that small elevator? How’d they fly back out again?
The lack of even the most basic, simple production detail in these scenes is disconcerting, as well. Don’t bees die after they’ve stung someone? Wouldn’t there be at least a few dead bees on the floor? Or a few hundred errant flyboys that didn’t get on the last elevator, or who got lost down some hallway? The missile base set itself is unbelievable-looking, in a plain, unadorned, cavernous space, filled with those big, bulky plywood cabinets holding all those silly, cheap Lite Brite blinking lights that obviously don’t do anything (it’s as if Allen hadn’t learned anything from his Lost in Space days). For a town that’s known for its flower festival…why don’t we see any flowers (can you grow flowers out in the desert scrub Allen keeps showing?)? When we learn that over 200 Marysville citizens are killed in a bee attack, it doesn’t register because Allen kept the too-familiar WB Burbank “Midwest Street” backlot set (that stands in for Marysville) so underpopulated. $11 million 1978 bucks (over $50 million in today’s coin) couldn’t have bought at least one quick scene of say, a thousand extras just milling around a bunch of flower floats?
The Swarm‘s special effects are even more problematic. While a lot of critics didn’t like the massed bee clouds created by special effects legend I.B. Abbott, they work okay, as do a couple of shock cuts to bees jetting out of their massive hive in a tree trunk, and the pre-CGI necessity of having actual clouds of real (stinger-less) bees swirling around the stuntmen and stuntwomen playing the victims. You know what doesn’t work? Toy trains. I remember hearing quite a bit of laughter coming from the cars at the drive-in when that HO model, supposedly representing the Amtrak evacuating the rest of Marysville’s residents, derailed on a dirt mound masquerading as a mountaintop (the conductor…couldn’t just shut the window when he saw the bees coming?).
Same for the model of the nuke plant (did you know that if you fall back on a control panel, they immediately blow up?). The burning of Houston is even sadder. Just twelve guys with flamethrowers? You’ll only need two years to get it done. Notice how none of the exteriors of Warners’ Burbank backlot are actually catching fire—no way were the WB suits going to let him torch that (one can’t help but compare—unfavorably—these final fire sequences as last-ditch Hail Mary lifts from the far better Towering Inferno). The years and years of Allen’s TV sensibility of “let’s do this as cheaply and quickly and as easily as we can” utterly sabotages the epic scope he’s trying to achieve in The Swarm.
There’s no question that The Swarm would have benefited from another director, someone with their own vision who could have pushed Allen into a stronger presentation of the material. Allen’s admitted love of content produced for TV obviously negatively impacts his big screen efforts, not only in the area of technique (his square, boring A-B-C structuring, the hands-off approach to the actors and the subtler aspects of the narrative), but also in his 1960s-1970s TV-influenced view of “family entertainment,” an aesthetic that was already stale by 1978. That’s why there’s not one drop of blood seen in the barely-PG-rated The Swarm, nor one swollen bee sting on an actor’s face or arm.
A director doesn’t necessarily have to be graphic to convey a frightening scenario, but if your story centers on the mass killing of civilians by swarms of killer bees, don’t you think you should show that, and what happens to you when you’re stung? As creepy as Allen’s slo-mo shots are of people trying to ward off the bees (I love the green windbreaker guy, with his bendy rubber band arms flapping at improbable angles, before he crashes through a window), it’s not enough to just show bees crawling all over a stuntman. Couldn’t that potentially disturbing image be intercut with repeated split-second shots of a real bee, in huge close-up, stinging a prosthetic arm or hand or face? Allen may have thought he was making a disaster movie here, but The Swarm really needed to be a horror movie…and artistically, Allen could never go for the jugular.
And while Allen may have thought his Hollywood royalty supporting cast was money in the bank, the bottom line is the majority of kids streaming into movie theaters in the summer of 1978 (they who made up the majority of ticket buyers) would have been hard-pressed to even know who they were. Even though The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno had old Hollywood pros in the lineup that appealed to the older ticket buyers, they were headlined and anchored by then-current superstars: Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway. Those movies didn’t make money because Red Buttons, Jack Albertson, Jennifer Jones, and Fred Astaire came out of hiding. And certainly no one bought a ticket to The Swarm to see the latest Lee Grant/Fred MacMurray/Bradford Dillman/Henry Fonda/Jose Ferrer movie. They could get that kind of Hollywood old-timer gee-gawing over on The Love Boat for free, every Saturday night.
We may hold Michael Caine in reverence today, as much for the longevity of his career as for all the cool movies he’s been in, but let’s not forget he was never, ever a “superstar” who put asses in the seats, as they say, with just his name. He was never at that tier of movie stardom. A good example of that is The Swarm: he wasn’t anyone’s first choice for the lead. In fact, he was hired out of sheer desperation, two weeks before production was to start (panic mode, no doubt, for Allen and WB), when Allen and the studio could cajole no one else to take on the part. If any of the stars of the biggest movies of 1978 had anchored The Swarm—John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds, Roy Scheider, Peter Sellers, Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn, even John Belushi or Cheech & Chong, for god’s sake—it would have gathered up more box office dollars than using Caine (if Allen had taken just half a mil of his budget to get the Happy Days gang in there as “Special Guest Victims,” he could have added another $10 million to his take). And to be polite, let’s not even try and discuss Ross’s or Widmark’s b.o. potential…because it would stink (couldn’t resist).
Money considerations aside, The Swarm‘s cast (with a few exceptions…) is first-rate in terms of acting chops, but you’d never know it under Allen’s benevolent neglect (several actors in interviews have stated Allen never once discussed a scene with them outside of blocking considerations). Caine and Widmark telegraph their feelings about the project in their very first appearances on screen: Widmark employs his trademark sneering, disgusted snarl, while Caine lowers his chin, giving his usual “hooded cobra” look, while silently raising his hands in abject surrender. It’s a hilarious entrance, made even more amusing when he suddenly starts channeling Richard Harris, alternately whispering and screaming his lines.
How is it possible for all these great actors to come off looking so silly? Olivia de Havilland overdoes the coquettish Southern belle something awful (check out her marvelously over-acted reaction to the dead kids out on the playground, her mouth agape and her arm sweeping back like she’s Gloria Swanson in a silent epic). Richard Chamberlain, with more makeup on than a Bourbon Street tart, does a pale imitation of his Towering Inferno wretch, made incomprehensible because we have no idea of what his alluded-to backstory is with Caine (they hate each other…why?). Fred MacMurray dodders around as if he’s looking for Uncle Charlie, while romantic rival Ben Johnson looks frankly disgusted with him. And everyone else. In what world is a nuclear reactor (complete with a hilariously campy red glowing jewel at the base—total Lost in Space moment) supervised by a goateed, cigar-smoking Jose Ferrer, dressed to look exactly like Sigmund Freud (hey kids! Did you know he’s a Best Actor Oscar winner from a hundred years ago? What’s that? You don’t care ’cause he’s old and weird-looking? Got it.)?
Bradford Dillman looks perpetually nauseous (watch him literally cower when Caine addresses him), while Patty Duke rather miraculously simpers the instant she appears on screen (Duke plays “going into labor” like she ate a bad 7-11 burrito). Lee Grant proves yet again what a disagreeable screen presence she always was (hey, honey—we’re more bored with you than you are with your role), while perpetually startled-looking Alejandro Rey gets the biggest laughs because no one can figure out just what the hell he’s doing in this movie.
As for ham-handed acting honors, the winner, hands down, is ‘ol Hank Fonda. Inspired to test his own antidote after giving himself a double death dose of killer bee venom (sure hope it works, because your scientific method is “one and done,” stupid), profusely sweating Fonda grotesquely grimaces and rolls around in his wheelchair, gritting his teeth and goggling his eyes, to appreciative screams of laughter from the paying public. No director paying even half-attention would have let him go on like that, so…thank you, Mr. Allen! As for Ross, let’s just say she does what she does in every single movie she appears in: she stares straight ahead, unblinking, and delivers her assigned lines in a calm, gentle, unassuming monotone. She then walks off.
Astoundingly, there are two nice performances to be found in The Swarm. Only two. Child actor Christian Juttner comes off as very natural and unmannered as mass murderer Paul Durant, who couldn’t keep his rage in check after seeing his parents stung to death, selfishly deciding he’d firebomb the bees hives, which subsequently caused the attack on Marysville, killing over 200 people. Hope you feel better now, Paul. And Slim Pickens (yep), as a grieving father of one of the dead airmen, is 100% real from the second he’s on screen, first threatening to shut off the water to the base unless he sees his son, and then crying over him as he takes his dead son’s body away. Watch Caine, Fonda, and Widmark hang their heads in shame when witnessing an actor who’s really trying…and not just phoning it in for a paycheck.
Speaking of phoning it in…Stirling Silliphant, ladies and gentlemen! One of television’s greatest writers (Route 66) and numerous big screen entertainments, it’s hard not to believe that Silliphant turned in his script for The Swarm with the sole purpose of seeing whether or not Irwin Allen could spot it as a spoof. Awful, laughable—and entirely memorable—dialogue pops up in almost every single scene. It can’t be a coincidence. It had to be deliberate, perhaps a sick, naughty joke on Silliphant’s part, that unbelievably was taken seriously. My kids still yell ill-fated “Helicopter Pilot 1″‘s line, “Oh my god! Bees! Bees! Millions of bees!” whenever they see one outside. And whenever my wife serves up something inedible, I invariably reply with Fonda’s mouthful, “It’s more virulent than the Australian brown-box jellyfish!” (still beats the Covid vaxx), before she gets the rolling pin.
Widmark gets the lion’s share of The Swarm‘s risible lines (serves him right, going through the motions here with that same mirthless, smug, contemptuous schtick he’d been shoveling out for years). When Caine admits to being an unauthorized civilian in a decimated Air Force base, the best Widmark can come up with to scold him is, “Well, Dr. Crane…you’re in big trouble.” What, Caine’s 8-years-old? “Will history blame me…or the bees?” is a classic idiotic rumination, while nothing can top his reply to an already monumentally stupid set-up—”They seem to sense that it’s something that will kill them,”—when the bees don’t eat Chamberlain’s poison pellets. Widmark screws up his sniggering jackal face and cracks, “Maybe they should have tried bourbon and branch water and got ’em drunk.” To hear that impossibly stupid line is to know—really know—total and complete embarrassment for another human being.
It makes Caine’s more famous, “I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friends,” seem positively transcendent. Stick around for the end credits and you’ll see my favorite: the woke, grovelling apology to those brownshirts over at the American Beekeeping Association: “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.” If you can’t laugh at that, and take simple, honest pleasures out of excreta like The Swarm, then you deserve the pop culture we have today.