“Canadian disaster epic has an entire city going aflame.”
I love disaster movies. As a kid I remember TNT one glorious night screening the AIRPORT cycle. From there, I was hooked, and it seemed like TNT and TBS that year ran just about every important disaster epic they could find.
Weirdly, though, I own far too few of these wonders. I have a laserdisc of AIRPORT ’77, I taped the original from TCM one year, and I taped WHEN TIME RAN OUT from, I believe, the Action Channel. (I jumped a copy of VIRUS many years ago, but I really see that more as an end-of-the-world epic, rather than a disaster film; saw it again the other night, really a pretty good film!)
Seeing CITY ON FIRE made me become aware of the shocking fact that I don’t even own copies of the three most famous disaster movies, THE TOWERING INFERNO, EARTHQUAKE, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE! How did that happen? I’ll have to rectify that!
Given the shallow number of disaster epics in my library, CITY ON FIRE was a fun return to my younger days when I sat glued to the tube to see which stars were going to survive that week’s big danger. And this one featured one of my favorites in this field, Mr. Leslie Nielsen!
I was always a fan of Nielsen’s, even more of his dramatic performances than his admittedly hilarious comedy roles. You often forget, through his later years and all the trademark bumbling, that the man was a terrific actor.
As I noted in my Baker’s Log piece on PROM NIGHT, his opening scenes carried such power and emotional weight that I was taken aback. He was really way to good for such material. This being his 70′s period of sharp character pieces in ensemble pictures, I knew I was in for a treat. In retrospect, I’d say Nielsen was the true highlight of the picture.
Also on hand are a couple more of my favorites, Henry Fonda and James Franciscus! The later, sadly, has only a small part compared to the others. Ava Gardner drops by to play the aging-star-who-spouts-a-lot-of-rough-language part. Also on hand is Shelley Winters in one of her patented tough-broad-who-cares roles.
The main leads are Barry Newman and Susan Clark. Weirdly, though, this is a 70′s disaster movie that fails to feature Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, OR Slim Pickens! Ultimately, CITY ON FIRE fails to rival the majority of its brethren. It hits all the points it needs to, has a pretty good climax, but never feels like anything other than a TV movie with dirty words (the credits imply production was done by a Canadian TV studio, so there you go).
In short, the film details the reaction to a chemical plant explosion that sets much of a large city on fire. The main centerpiece is a newly constructed hospital which must be evacuated amid the inferno.
The usual soap opera stories intersect here: there’s a doctor who’s bitter about his ex-wife marrying a bigwig and funding the very hospital where he now works, the ex-wife is trying to prove that she’s more than just a bankbook, she’s seeing the sleazy mayor and he’s trying to propel her ex with a little positive publicity about the new hospital, but the doctor is aware that the hospital is mostly an empty shell and is being opened before it’s ready because it makes the mayor look good, etc….
Not the best stuff the genre has to offer, but it shifts into focus when the fires start and it becomes a story of survival, which is ultimately the lure of these films. (One thing I really admired about the picture was that the Mayor -Leslie Nielsen- was a more dimensional character than we get the impression he’s going to be.
He starts as a typically sleazy movie politician, but actually becomes a true hero by the time things are over. That’s a refreshingly non-cynical take, as most movies these days create such a character just so the audience will be pleased when he meets a horrible death -something I’ve always felt is a bit crass, not to mention annoying.)
We get a couple of false starts, as we open establishing the lives of the city’s firemen. First is an accidental fire that quickly spreads out of control when some kids are experimenting with cigarettes. Ever notice how in movies made after, oh, 1975 or so, whenever someone tries a cigarette for the first time, they wheeze and cough?
Well, that happens here, so dynamic realism wouldn’t seem to be on the menu. Although, in fairness, things pick up in this regard afterward. Anyway, this kid lights a ciggy while sitting in his tree-house with some friends, and the smoke kicks him like a mule. In his convulsions, he tosses the lit cig onto a pile of trash and in short order the fire department is dealing with a huge blaze engulfing a suburban street. They manage to get this under control, but at the cost of one of their men.
Elsewhere, there’s a huge chemical plant, one of the Mayor’s projects which got him elected. Working there is a seemingly dedicated engineer hoping to move up to foreman. When he finds out he isn’t getting the job, he throws a tantrum and is promptly fired.
Being a bit more unhinged than we originally thought, he sabotages the plant on his way out. Merrily loosening valves and screwing with control boards, one imagines he’s seeing himself as Derek Flint sending Galaxy “into orbit” and getting back at a faceless giant that has robbed him of some good years of his life -although he doesn’t look that old or anything. In reality, of course, he’s just placing any number of innocent people in jeopardy. Fortunately, the crew of the plant manages to stabilize everything before the tanks can blow. They do miss, however, an open valve on a fuel truck….
In short, the stream of runoff is ignited and the plant blows apart. The exact nature of the disaster remains a mystery to me. The plant catches fire, and suddenly half the city is ablaze….
This sequence is also confusingly edited, although that may have been defensive, as there are elements here that don’t seem to line up to present the events we find ourselves watching.
At any rate, the hospital finds itself surrounded by flames and the staff and patients must be evacuated through the deadly wall of heat and poison gas between the fire-fighting crew and the building itself. This sequence, the major set-piece of the film, is pretty good. So the film pays off, despite a shaky start.
Not the best disaster epic I’ve ever seen, but ultimately not a bad evening’s entertainment. The real fun of these pictures if two fold: seeing a collection of stars, and seeing a story of survival play out. True, it isn’t AIRPORT, but that vehicle casts a pretty big shadow.
As noted, it feels like a TV movie more than anything else. One of the advantages of the Disaster Movie, though, is that they’re all about the spectacle and larger-than-life melodrama. You more or less kick your brain into neutral and enjoy the ride. High drama is the order of the day, and we ultimately get what we’re after.
CITY ON FIRE came fairly late in the disaster cycle, although the genre would survive until the early 80′s before skyrocketing production costs made such films unmakable. In the mid/late 90′s, the genre showed signs of coming back, but minus the opulent casts that signify the Disaster Epic. The last film to really try the all-star formula was the disappointing “comedy” MARS ATTACKS!, a missed opportunity if there ever was one.
Rock Baker is a comic book artist and International Man of Mystery.