The Swarm (1978)
Directed by: Irwin Allen
Starring: Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Henry Fonda
1/2 (out of 4)
The king of disaster flicks of the 70s – Irwin Allen (producer of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), goes to the well one time too often with The Swarm, a beautiful failure of a film about killer bees. My guess is that he was inspired by the TV success of The Savage Bees or perhaps he caught a late night viewing of Kingdom of the Spiders (like that movie, part of The Swarm is set in small town Hicksville). At this point, Allen knows what notes to hit for a disaster movie but he doesn’t know how to make you give a damn about any of the victims, which is something of an effort considering that I had to sit through two and a half hours of this stuff. 2.5 hours of a killer bee movie? Irwin, surely you jest!
The beginning of The Swarm takes place inside a missile installation in Texas, where all the soldiers in the communication center are dead. Michael Caine shows up, playing Dr. Bradford Crane, a British-American entomologist with a huge ego, who says a giant swarm of bees did it. Nobody likes him, but the White House sees fit to put him in charge of the entire operation! Hence we begin interminable subplot #1, where Major Slater (Widmark) decides to build a dossier on him, thinking him some kind of spy, or something. Subplot #2 involves a semi-romantic relationship between Crane and Capt. Helena Anderson (Ross), which is your typical syrupy bad-70s acting punctuated by poignant piano notes courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith (just collecting a paycheck, thanks!). Dr. Crane decides to call in the A-team, including Dr. Hubbard (Chamberlain) and personal friend Dr. Walter Krim (Fonda), who will obviously have to sacrifice himself for the greater cause and give Caine a chance to brood later. In the meantime we can enjoy the numerous bee attacks, which are quite funny and grow more absurd as the movie goes on. It is decided early that these are African killer bees who have invaded our shores – one of the weirdest things I have ever seen is when all main characters drop the word “bees” from conversation and simply refer to the enemy as the “Africans”. For example, at one point General Slater says this: “By tomorrow there will be no more Africans… at least not in the Houston sector. ” What??
This is an actual frame from the end credits, reassuring us that the hard-working American bee is still the greatest bee, not like those damned commie bees!
The bad dialogue and goofy drama are a given and I can even forgive that. What’s surprising is the amount of disbelief I have to suspend so that I can accept the fact that bees can cause two army helicopters to crash or invade a nuclear power plant and cause it to explode. Uh, yeah, that’s highly unlikely, Irwin. We also have Widmark’s character ordering the burning of the city of Houston – cut to a bunch of dudes with flame throwers (hmm, I don’t think that’s a very efficient way of burning a large city!) Then we have the strange case of Caine’s acting, which is one of two notes – subdued, or delivering lines in a screaming rage. There’s a subplot involving a boy trying to get revenge on the bees for the death of his parents. A subplot about a pregnant girl (Patty Duke) and her doctor falling in love with her (that one lasts no more than about 5 minutes). A subplot involving a love triangle between a small town mechanic (Ben Johnson), the town mayor (Fred MacMurray), and the town schoolteacher (Olivia de Havilland), where just enough time is spent on it to make it absolutely silly. Its resolution – and I’ll try not to give it away – is an example of Allen giving up towards the end of the film after trying to juggle all these multiple plot strands in what should be a simple B-movie. He gives up, for example, on trying to maintain continuity for simple things like what the proper time of day is. The most maddening is the nonsensical rules about the effects of the killer bee sting, where characters who are stung seem to recover 100%, and then a scene or two later they’re dead! After Ross’ character is stung, this particular plot point is dropped, probably because everybody realized that if she died she wouldn’t be able to deliver more embarrassing lines. (Staring at a massive inferno of scorched bees, she asks “Did we finally beat them…. or is this… a temporary victory?” Bless her heart).
Despite the laughable badness of The Swarm, I enjoyed it on the level that I enjoy most bad movies. It’s so sincere that hating on it would be like kicking a dog when he’s down. Ultimately, I think perhaps it was a mistake to release the film in an uncut 156 minute version – B pictures (and bee pictures) need to be tightly edited for maximum effect. Those TV-like subplots were probably left out of the theatrical print for a good reason, after all.
The Swarm comes in a good-looking Widescreen Anamorphic print, with a 2.35:1 ratio. It’s a nice print for such a silly vehicle. The trailer (seen above) and a short documentary round out the disc.