The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

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A cargo-passenger aeroplane crashes in the Libyan Sahara:  the Sixties iteration of a disaster movie, in all but name. The pilot is James Stewart, the navigator an alcoholic Richard Attenborough and there is among the cast list a man so ill he will die if they’re not rescued soon … Robert Aldrich’s tough movie is really a brilliant set of character studies that never bows to cliche.  Adapted from Elleston Trevor’s novel by Aldrich regular Lukas Heller, it’s a marvellous portrait of people reacting to both pressure and the emergence of a Superman in their midst – a Hitlerian model aeroplane designer (Hardy Kruger) whose plan to resurrect their wreck might just get them out of there as they battle fraying nerves, water depletion and sand storms. In the midst of this we have a military type who goes on a suicidal desert walk (Peter Finch) with Spaniard Carlos (Alex Montoya) who leaves his pet monkey behind, an oil company accountant (Dan Duryea), a quasi-hysterical oil foreman (Ernest Borgnine), a doctor (Christian Marquand), a mean Scot (Ian Bannen), and a nervous soldier (Ronald Fraser). There’s more! But that’s for you to find out in this race against time. That bird ain’t called Phoenix for nothing. How the men deal with each other and their increasing frustration is brilliantly managed by producer-director Aldrich and the performances are knockout. This wasn’t a hit at the time but has since become a major cult film.

1941 (1979)

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Many critics thought this was a total disaster – and not just because it’s about a near-disaster. Steven Spielberg collaborated with the writing Bobs, Gale and Zemeckis (with an assist from John Milius) in a brash, bawdy, out-and-out madcap comic actioner about what nearly went down in 1942 and other more or less contemporaneous incidents – a Japanese invasion of California  including the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, a bombardment of Ellwood oil refinery in Santa Barbara, the Zoot Suit Riots and the US Army putting an anti-aircraft carrier in someone’s back yard (though that went down in Maine.) For those looking for auteurist elements, well that Jap submarine comes across a lone woman swimmer along the Californian coastline … Spielberg sending up (literally, as it happens) the opening scene of Jaws with Susan Backlinie gamely returning to the affray (and Lorraine Gary showing up in the ensemble). We meet a tank crew led by Dan Aykroyd (including Treat Williams, John Candy and Mickey Rourke), a crazy Air Forces pilot ‘Wild Bill’ Kelso (who else but John Belushi), Toshiro Mifune in charge of the submarine hoping to land in Hollywood, Slim Pickens in a neat reference to his role in Dr Strangelove, Bobby DiCicco entering a dance contest in a zoot suit, secretary Nancy Allen is aroused by airplanes and attracts Captain Tim Matheson, while Major General Robert Stack tries to calm the public about imminent attack and is consoled by a screening of Dumbo. There’s more. A lot more! A mixed bag of take it or leave it humour is balanced by incredibly staged setpieces – watch that ferris wheel roll off the pier! See Ned Beatty’s house collapse! – straight from silent movies. Spielberg is better with more tonally consistent humour intrinsic to character and story as we see in the Indiana Jones films or Catch Me If You Can but you can’t deny the spectacular fun here which probably led to the expanded (146m) version becoming a cult item. William Fraker’s cinematography is a thing of wonder while fans of the era’s movies will enjoy the likes of Warren Oates, Perry Lang and Bobs regular Eddie Deezen.

Everest (2015)

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Two things, as Denis Leary used to say, before he became a serious Actor. One:  Titanic had a very good structure (I’m referring to the film, obviously). We all know what happened. We pretty much know how it happened, but in the film’s first half hour we are brought bang up to date with the best technology telling us exactly how everything went down. Literally. So when everyone was faced with the cataclysm, we had already stored all that in our brains and were able to focus on the plight of the victims and not where the hull was, and why, and why the nearest ship didn’t respond to an SOS (bastards.) Two: scholar Hannah Hamad wrote a brilliant book a couple of years ago on postfeminism and paternity in American films in which she basically argues that male protagonists get away with EVERYTHING if they’ve spawned a child.  In other words, fatherhood is a shortcut to signify ACHIEVEMENT. (Motherhood – not so much. This we know.) This is all by way of saying that this problematic supposedly true account of a disaster in which 8 men (bearded fathers all, practically) died, commences with a medical description of what happens to people dying on mountains – cerebral and pulmonary oedema. And freezing to death. So we know what to expect. Until someone just – falls off. This looks probably like it should in reality – unclear, but it’s a movie, and the lack of visual clarity is a hindrance. Characterisation is bulked up with desperate phonecalls home to little wifey, manned by Emily Watson with an Aussie accent, tearful. As you would be, if your entire tour bus died at your hands. And Jason Clarke is the main guy. Problematic again if you don’t like him – did anyone really think he was adequate as the lead in the Planet of the Apes sequel – after James Franco?! As a wise unbearded man says at the beginning of the great adventure, Mountains always have the last word.

Damnation Alley (1977)

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For those in the know there isn’t much left of the source novel concerning the post-apocalyptic travails of a bunch of people who are thrown together trying to survive the impact of nuclear bombs which have tilted the earth’s axis and altered the climate (plus ca change…) Led by General George Peppard, teamed once again with Jack Smight for whom he starred in the director’s debut film (and who directed him in a couple of episodes of Banacek), this is a handsome, savvy production, undoubtedly due to the safe pair of hands it was in and the screenwriting chops of both Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller. This surely paved the way for Peppard’s A-Team role. It also stars Jan-Michael Vincent who had a few years of real stardom in the mid-70s and his charisma is tangible. Rounding out the cast are the unfortunate Paul Winfield, the beautiful Dominique Sanda who believed a promoter in Vegas that he could introduce her to Sinatra (and found herself in a shelter when the bombs fell) and the fascinating teenager Jackie Earle Haley who would be in a very interesting bicycling movie soon thereafter. It behoves us to state that should you find yourself in a nuclear explosion it helps to have a huge tank or all terrain vehicle. And beware the killer cockroaches.