While it’s certainly a battle of champions, there’s little doubt in my mind that the “Disaster Movie” cycle of the 1970’s reached its nadir with this big budget, star laden messterpiece. Producer/director Irwin Allen reached the heights of the genre with The Poseidon Adventure and particularly The Towering Inferno (nominated for a Best Picture Oscarâ„¢!!). However, Allen, nicknamed “The Master of Disaster” for his work in the field, is primarily known for his schlock TV sci-fi series. Such rather un-scientific fare as Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space (remember the “Carrot Man” episode?) were the result of his fervid imagination. So it’s more surprising that Allen made some fairly decent disaster movies than that he also was responsible for dogs like Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, When Time Ran Out and, of course, The Swarm. Still, despite his other impressive “achievements,” for our purposes the later work remains his towering, uh, glory. And now, amazingly, someone went back to the vaults and reinserted forty minutes of deleted footage. The result is an “expanded video edition” of The Swarm that clocks (aside from the audience) an impressive, and horrifying, two and a half hours (!). To be fair, though, the added running time does make the movie more, uhm, longer.
An Armored Personnel Carrier enters a deserted missile base. Guys in rather non-functional NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) suits jump out and check out the base. One notices that the white NBC suits aren’t particularly well designed. However, the orange ones, equipped with helmets unconnected to the rest of the suit, look especially ineffective for protection against biological, chemical or radioactive materials. This is confirmed later. In spite of the fact that no one yet knows the cause of death of the base’s personnel, one character actually removes his helmet (!). Apparently, this is so he can radio in a report on the walkie-talkie attached to his belt (!!). Note to NBC Gear designers: perhaps microphones installed inside of the headgear would be a good idea. So you could, you know, report in without causing your own imminent and horrible death.
A ride down the base’s elevator to the underground levels reveals all the personnel to be dead. This is the “mystery” part of the movie, so no one knows yet how they died. This is aided by the fact that there are no dead bees to be found. The fact that bees die when stinging is, in fact, never once mentioned by any of the film’s insect “experts.” That this rather commonly known factoid is ignored suggests that screenwriter Sterling Silliphant didn’t exactly pursue a rigorous study of bees when he wrote the script. It’s also odd that, even ignoring the self-evisceration thing, no one managed to kill even one bee in the attack. Or that none of the bodies show any of the common reactions one experiences when stung by bees, like swellings or hives.
Luckily, all will be explained by Our Hero, entomologist Brad Crane (Michael Caine). The civilian Crane is, oddly, wandering around the lower levels of the high security base. Found by Major Baker (Bradford Dillman), Crane is immediately suspected by him and his superior officer, General Slater (Richard Widmark). This, of course, establishes the tired old Thoughtful Scientists vs. Boneheaded Military Types scenario. Despite their suspicions (which, far from paranoid, are rather sensible), Baker and Slater must admit the Crane was right about the bees when a swarm attacks and destroys two military search helicopters. Even worse, General Thompson from Washington reports that the President has put Crane in total command of the situation. “What are the limits of my authority?”, Crane queries. “None,” comes the reply. Apparently, Crane will remain unconstrained by any higher authority (like, say, the Constitution) in this matter.
Outside the nearby town of Marysville, we witness our first attack. Mom and Pop Durant are killed by painted Styrofoam pellets, er, bees, while their young teen son Paul escapes in the family car. Luckily for him, the bees apparently have a harder time disabling a Ford Mustang than military helicopters. Meanwhile, in town, we meet three old coots: Clarence, Felix and Maureen (Fred MacMurray and Oscarâ„¢ Winners Ben Johnson and Olivia de Havilland). To our profound regret, they will engage in an alternately “comical” and maudlin romantic triangle, by far the film’s most grueling subplot. After having our nerves scraped over by the first such scene, we are saved when the hysterical Paul comes crashing into town.
A few barricaded survivors have been found at the base, including base physician Dr. Helena Anderson (Katherine Ross). Unsurprisingly, her function will be to become romantically involved with Crane. Maybe because she comes to love him. Or perhaps she’s calculated that her best shot at not becoming one of the “celebrity” corpses littering the film is by being the hero’s love interest. Helena soon gets a call about the bee attack (conveniently, she was a friend of the Durants). Joined by Crane, she visits Paul at the town hospital. Paul is reacting to the bee sting he received by hallucinating a giant bee (well, actually a badly composited blow-up shot of a bee). Believably, the bee toxin will regularly cause hallucinations in its victims. Unbelievably, they will always be of the same giant bee. Crane shows an amazing talent when, merely by calmly repeating that the bee isn’t there, he manages to bring the on-the-brink-of-death Paul out of his fevered, psychotic state. This is the most amazing medical advance since Elvis cured an “autistic” girl in Change of Habit.
Crane left instructions to set up the missile base as headquarters of the anti-bee operation. He also provided a list of guest stars to be flown in. First up is Henry Fonda (!), as the wheelchair bound immunologist Walter Krim. He’s an old friend of Crane’s (wow, big surprise), and they will engage in some really awful “banter” in an effort to convince the audience that this is so. Also joining the Hall of Shame is Richard Chamberlain. Chamberlain initially challenges all of Crane’s theories, in a rather lame attempt to foster some “dramatic tension.” Later, chastened, he will become a loyal supporter until his inevitable death (oops, hope I didn’t blow anything there).
In one of the highlights, we cut to Judd Hawkins (Slim Pickens!) standing outside the base’s fence. He’s demanding to speak to someone in command, and General Slater (apparently a two star general has nothing better to do) comes out to see him. The bee attack on the base is being talked about in town. Hawkins’ son is stationed there, and he wants to verify whether he’s alive. Slater, trying to avoid telling him the truth, tries to brush him off. However, Hawkins is the “county engineer,” and he threatens to turn off the base’s water supply if they don’t let him in (!). Exactly why a high-security federal military installation would allow its water supply to be at the mercy of local officials isn’t explored. Nor why Slater doesn’t have Hawkins arrested for threatening a federal facility. Instead, he and Hawkins enter the base’s makeshift morgue, where Crane and Krim are already in conference. Slater examines the various toe tags, looking for Hawkins’ kid. “Poignant” music plays, so that we “get” that the whole lots-of-dead-guys thing is sad and all. Finally, Pickens is provided with the movie’s big “Oscarâ„¢ Clip” moment, as he wails hammily over the body of his son. Reaction shots of Widmark, Caine and Fonda are meant to convey their empathy for the man’s pain. Instead, they appear to be the chagrined and embarrassed reactions of professional actors at Pickens’ hamola antics. His big scene over, Hawkins exits the movie.
Meanwhile, Paul escapes from the hospital. With two pals, he checks out a huge, milling swarm that they’ve stumbled across. They leave to formulate their plans. In town, we pursue some time-wasting and boring subplots. We meet Pete and Rita at the local diner. Rita is the pregnant girlfriend of one of the base victims. Also, we see Felix make his pitch to Maureen. At the base, Crane and Slater get into one of their periodic arguments over the bees. Slater wants to immediately launch a chemical attack. Crane demands that they wait until the end of the movie, when a last minute impromptu scheme will allow them to destroy the bees (well, not in so many words). Crane is also the hero in a Hollywood movie, and so of course berates the idea of a chemical attack as environmentally incorrect. This makes his position somewhat confusing, as half the time he acts as if the bees threaten the very existence of Man himself. This would seem to outweigh the (in real life) rather limited environmental impact of Slater’s plan. Back in the field, we see Paul’s ingenious plan for wiping out the millions of bees they’ve found go into effect. He and his two buddies each throw a Molotov cocktail at them. Amazingly, some bees manage to survive this brilliantly conceived stratagem. The boys elude them by hiding under overturned garbage cans (how apt!). Pissed off, the swarm breaks away and heads into Marysville.
Crane and Helena are taking time off from dealing with Mankind’s potential annihilation by tooling around in Crane’s van, searching for Paul. Suddenly, a huge optical effect of billions of bees fills the entire sky. Crane helpfully points out the huge manifestation to Helena, to make sure she doesn’t miss it. They head into town. We now see one of the film’s “spectacular” set pieces, as the bees attack Marysville. Crane and Helena had arrived a good ten minutes before the bees, shouting for everybody to get inside. Logically, there was more than enough time for everyone to do so. Still, the film requires victims. So when the bees finally show up, there are still what seem to be hundreds of potential victims left on the streets. The bees also attack the school, and in a charming sequence, kill about a dozen ten year old kids. Ah, That’s Entertainment! Crane and Helena hide in the diner, but end up besieged in the storeroom when the bees get in. Crane posits that the bees will break in at any moment, and as if that’s not enough, Helena’s been stung, hallucinating (of course) that giant bee. Boy, it’s always something.
Cutting from the base back to the town, we view the aftermath of the attack. “Wailing” crowd noises are helpfully dubbed in to provide ambiance. Hundreds of black body bags decorate the town square. For some reason, Crane and Helena are now at the hospital, in spite of the fact they were dramatically “trapped” by bees in the diner a minute or two ago. Helena is being treated, but a phone call from Krim informs Crane (and us) that apparently healed sting victims are suffering sudden, fatal relapses. Crane walks outside to engage Slater in another pointless argument over how to deal with the bees. “We’ll do it my way!,” Crane screams, “Now give it a chance!” Actually, they have been doing it his way, with a death count approaching three hundred to show for it. Still, they agree to evacuate Marysville. Duh. Hey, guys, ever hear the one about the horse and the barn door.
The townspeople are eventually herded onto a train, supervised by Baker and Slater (why would a two star general beâ€¦oh, never mind!). Unfortunately, the film takes the “opportunity” to catch up with our senior citizen love triangle. C’mon, where are those bees?! Next, we see Crane and Helena tour the deserted town, their romance deepening (into a big, boring pain in the ass). This takes place at dusk, but when we cut back to the now in-transit train, it’s daylight. We again visit with Clarence, Felix and Maureen, who has yet to inform her suitors who she’s going to pick. Finally (thank goodness), the bees show up and attack the engineers, who in not too bright of a fashion elected to leave the windows open. The dying brakeman knocks the throttle open, and the train crashes off the tracks, down a hill. Clarence and Felix are tossed out some windows, and as they fail to return later, one must conclude that they were supposed to have been killed. Maureen expires when the train’s passenger cars violently explode (?!). Gee, we never found out who Maureen was going to choose. I mean, we’re glad that we won’t be visited with our over the hill lovebirds anymore. Still, you can’t help being annoyed at having been subjected, at such painful length, to this wholly obnoxious and torturous subplot, one so unimportant that they don’t even bother resolving it.
Anyway, Crane and the science boys are finally ready to go on the offensive. They’re come up with some kind of environmentally safe poison pellet. Soon, we watch as guys in helicopters sprinkle the pellets out of big bags, onto the resting bees (wow, what a high tech delivery system). However, gasp, the bees prove too smart to eat the pellets (or whatever they were supposed to do). Back at the hospital, young Paul bites the dust. Apparently, Movie Morality dictated his demise because he set the bees on Marysville. This provides Ross with an “Oscarâ„¢ Clip” moment, as Helena wails her big “What Good Are We If We Can’t Save the Children?!?” speech. Next, we see Crane badgering Krim for a bee toxin antidote, necessary now that the poison pellet idea has bombed. Crane says they can’t wait for volunteers, so they’ll test it on him the next morning. Of course, the self-sacrificing Krim can’t allow that, and as soon as Crane splits he starts jabbing himself with needles. This scene is milked for some time, but Krim ultimately buys it, heroically recording his symptoms as he goes. By the way, this is the second scene in the film totally ripped off from the obscure sci-fi cheapie The Killer Shrews. Really!! See the “Afterthoughts” section of my extremely long text only review of The Swarm for elaboration.
Hubbard kicks off next, dying when the bees attack a Nuclear power plant (brought to “life” with some extraordinarily poor special effects), causing it to blow up (??!). An oddly exact “estimate” puts the power plant death toll at 36,422, and Slater is finally given permission to kick the noticeably ineffective Crane out of the command chair. Crane still has some ideas, though, and drives out to the abandoned city of Houston with Helena. There Slater is planning to drop pesticides on the bees. Crane, of course, protests this seemingly logical plan (which maybe should have been tried before the death count hit 40,000). Still, the Hollywood Ethos dictates that purely military solutions, especially Environmentally Incorrect ones, can never work (because, you know, the military is bad). So it turns out that the bees have developed an immunity to “all pesticides.” Slater now falls back on the “last ditch” plan developed by, we are told, both “top scientists” and the Armed Forces. This brilliant but desperate strategy involves â€¦ setting fire to the city!! Apparently, we’re not supposed to question whether the bees wouldn’t just, you know, fly away!!! And get this: to set the city aflame, they don’t drop incendiary bombs from planes. No, instead they elect to send individual soldiers out onto the street with flame throwers! Apparently, somebody thought this would look “cool.”
After long, “spectacular” scenes of this plan being put into effect, we see Slater looking out of a window from his penthouse command center. He looks depressed, probably because it’s kind of noticeable that, in spite of the fact that Houston is burning nicely, there are still a lot of, you know, bees around. Luckily, Crane now has his last minute breakthrough. He’s finally figured out the it was the alarm siren test on the missile base that attracted the bees, resulting in the initial attack. He’s convinced the siren can be used to lure the bees out onto the Gulf of Mexico, where they can be destroyed. However, it’s time for Slater and Baker to kick the bucket, so just then the bees break into headquarters. Hilariously, the staff fights back, in an enclosed building, with flame throwers. This results in lots of “flaming stuntmen” shots, as Allen obviously tries to recapture the magic of his successful The Towering Inferno. Not even close, dude. Slater and company die heroically (well, not Baker. He was the film’s designated “Military Doofus,” so he dies rather ignominiously). A few feet away, Crane and Helena, entirely without protection, somehow manage to avoid getting stung by any of the millions of bees flying around the corridor they’re in. Magically, in the next shot they’re completely out of the bee infested city, at an air field. Stereo speakers are loaded onto rafts, and flown out onto the surface of the Gulf. The bees, irresistibly attracted by the projected signal, land on the water. Missiles from shore ignite the prearranged oil slick, and the bees are fried. Mankind is safe. This time (bum bum bum!).
Soldiers find an unauthorized civilian, Brad Crane, wandering around a high security federal facility whose entire staff is dead. After giving an evasive answer to an obvious question, Crane makes an odd suggestion. Even more oddly, his questioners follow it:
Major Baker: “How’d you get into the complex?!”
Crane: “That’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.”
A helicopter crew solves the “mystery” of the deaths at the base when it radios in this concise report:
Pilot: “Oh, my God! Bees! Bees! Millions of Bees!”
Crane helpfully engages in a shouting match with his captor, General Slater. Slater raises a reasonable point, only to have Crane give a “cool” retort. I mean, the fact that it doesn’t, uh, strictly make sense is besides the point. Right?
Slater: “The African killer bees? Not likely, Crane. I’ve read reports on their progress. If they ever do manage to come this far north, it’s ten years away at the earliest!”
Crane: “Oh, yes?! On whose timetable, General? Yours or theirs?” (Wow!).
Felix subtly pitches woo (and we pitch lunch) to Maureen, with a sly reference to Marysville’s Flower Festival:
Felix: “Well, I’ll tell you one thing I do approve of. This year’s theme: Love!”
Ominously, Crane finds a little piece of plastic on a picnic ground, leading to this, er, unique conversation (commas indicate when Crane pauses for no reason):
Crane: “Plastic. It’s a piece of a plastic cup. There are pieces all around here. Look. Look, there. There. There.”
Slater: “What’s so significant about that?”
Crane: “I’m afraid to speculate. But, I think, the bees, did this.”
Baker: “Are you saying these bees eat plastic?”
Crane: “No, no. But I’m wondering. Your American Honeybee has a weak mouth, that couldn’t even break the skin, of a grape. But it looks like this species, is tearing up, plastic cups, possibly to line their hives. Now, if this is true, they didn’t, just get here. I mean, the invasion, didn’t, just now begin. They have been here some time. Breeding. Increasing.”
Crane: “Well, suppose these bees, are using plastic, to insulate their hives.”
Slater: “No bee is that smart.”
Crane: “Suppose these African bees are.”
In the morgue, macho doofus Baker smirks about Crane to Walter Krim. Krim makes a “witty” rejoinder, which, believe it or not, is apparently supposed to be a major “burn”, causing Baker to scowl and stalk off:
Baker: “I noticed Dr. Crane seemed uneasy in here.”
Krim: “I can’t imagine why anyone would be uneasy around all these dead men. Can you, Major?”
Crane muses philosophic:
Crane: “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.”
Slater tries to stop the tearful (to say the least!) Judd Hawkins from taking his son’s body, leading to a declaration that audience members (those wise enough to stop watching this tripe, anyway) might well second:
Hawkins: “The only way you can stop me, General, is to shoot me! And I’d thank you if you would!”
Slater plans to air drop chemicals on the bees. He considers this a military, not a scientific matter, so he maintains he doesn’t need Crane’s permission. This sets up, of course, yet another shouting match (even louder this time). Crane ends by demanding three pieces of information that seem to be, well, self-evident:
Crane: “THESE BEES, GENERAL, ARE OF JOINT CONCERN, AND THEY ARE KILLING AMERICANS, WITHOUT REFERENCE AS TO WHETHER OR NOT THEY HAVE A SERIAL NUMBER AND ARE EXPECTED TO SALUTE YOU!!! SO THERE WILL BE NO AIR DROPS OF ANY KIND UNTIL I GIVE THE OK!!!”
Slater: “YOUR OK, HUH?! THEN JUST POSSIBLY I CAN PERSUADE YOU TO ATTACK THIS PARTICULAR SWARM, NOW THAT WE KNOW WHERE IT IS!!! ATTACK AND ELIMINATE IT!!!!!
Crane: “POSSIBLY, IF YOU 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????!!!!!”
Slater: “RIGHT!!!! AND BETTER A FEW AMERICAN BEES THAN A LOT OF AMERICAN PEOPLE!!!!!”
Crane: “THAT IS THE POINT, GENERAL!!!! THE HONEY BEE IS VITAL TO THE ENVIRONMENT!!!!! EVERY YEAR IN AMERICA, THEY POLLUNATE 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!!!!! EXCUSE ME!!!!”
Slater answers a query of Crane’s, and, frankly, I don’t think he’s making much of a leap:
Crane: “Are you endowing these bees with human motives? Like saving their fellow bees from captivity, or seeking revenge on Mankind?”
Slater: “I always credit my enemy, no matter what he may be, with equal intelligence.”
Or, are you prepared in case your staff eats strange mushrooms, ultimately transforming into Mushroom People, orâ€¦:
Dr. Andrews, the Nuclear Plant Supervisor, resists Dr. Hubbard’s request to shut down the facility: “Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe. Fail-safe! The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, Doctor!”
The cagey Hubbard responds: “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?!”
Slater and Howard see Crane in prayer, prompting Baker to ask the kind of question they only ask in movies, allowing Slater an oh-so-sage reply:
Baker: “Can we really count on a scientist who prays?”
Slater: “I wouldn’t count on one who doesn’t.”
The plan to use pesticides on the bees having failed, General Slater muses philosophic:
Slater: “So, the occupation of Houston has begun. And General Thalious Slater is your first officer in history to get his butt kicked by a mess of bugs!”
The plan to burn the bees out having failed, General Slater muses philosophic:
Slater: “You wonder, don’t you? Houston on fire. Will history blame me, or the bees?”
Yes, in a movie this rich, even the end credits provide fabulous treasure, as evidenced by this title card:
THE AFRICAN KILLER BEE PORTRAYED IN THIS FILM
BEARS ABSOLUTELY NO RELATIONSHIP TO
THE INDUSTRIOUS, HARD-WORKING AMERICAN
HONEY BEE TO WHICH WE ARE INDEBTED
FOR POLLUNATING VITAL CROPS
THAT FEED OUR NATION.
“Oh my God! Bees! Bees! Millions of Bees!” “There’s no bee here!” “Houston on fire. Will History blame me, or the bees?”
And in honor of a great film, here’s a little ditty I composed (sung to the tune of “Unpack Your Adjectives” from School House Rock:
I saw The Swarm on TV.
Saw lots of actors and bees.
It had a famous cast,
who’d prob’ly put it last,
on a list of films they’d want you to see.
The Swarm is a calamity.
Let’s start with Michael Caine first.
I’m sure he calls this the worst
movie he’s ever made,
I’m sure that he’s afraid,
that his performance, has earned him a curse.
‘Cause The Swarm‘s a calamity.
That’s Henry Fonda right there.
The one who’s in a wheelchair.
I’m sure he’s not as fond,
of this as Golden Pond.
There’s just no way he could not be aware,
that The Swarm‘s a calamity.
The Swarm is a movie, that tries to convince you,
that we’re in danger from killer bees.
But the film is so stilted,
that your interest gets wilted.
It’s so appallin’
that soon you are fallin’
The screenplay mixes in bits,
stolen from old sci-fi pics.
You can’t ignore the clues.
It ripped off Killer Shrews,
to name just one of the plagiarized flicks.
Yes, The Swarm‘s a calamity.
If you like films about bees.
If you like scripts that have fleas,
because they’re such a dog.
Let’s start a dialog.
I know a movie that I’m certain will please.
Oh, The Swarm‘s a calamity.