The Swarm (1978) – A Review
America is facing a deadly attack.
Killer bees from South America have made their way to our southern skies and are now threatening the lives of our citizens. How can we possibly fight this buzzing plague who want to pollinate our butts with their lethal stingers?
Brilliant entomologist Michael Caine is our only hope. He knows this enemy and the best way to fight them. However, military general Richard Widmark prefers to take a less scientific approach to this problems and just kill the bees any means he can think up.
This brain and brawn conflict goes back and forth while the bees swarm on a small southern town where both mayor Fred MacMurray and local handyman Ben Johnson have been trying to win the heart of school teacher Olivia de Havilland. Reporter Lee Grant arrives trying to cover this buzzing attack.
Military doctor Katherine Ross becomes Caine’s ally and provides a bit of romantic interest for him and Caine’s mentor Henry Fonda is working frantically to find a vaccine for the bees deadly venom that is piling up victims and soon is threatening the missile silos and nuclear power stations, not to mention interrupting a small towns planned flower festival!
Toss in Slim Pickens, Richard Chamberlain, José Ferrer and Patty Duke for some good measure, because you can’t have a 1970’s disaster movie without a lot of star power! Can this swarm of bees be stopped without them stinging anymore of our beloved young and old actors?
Irwin Allen brought in the 1970’s disaster craze with a loud crowd pleasing bang with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. The genre enjoyed popularity and profitability with imitators having various scenarios and their own star-studded casts trying to survive their own selected onscreen disasters.
As the 1970s were nearing an end, it seemed appropriate Allen would also be one of the filmmakers to help ‘destroy’ the genre by running the fun into the ground with weak and desperate films that were clinging to the glory days of disaster yarns. The countless mediocre cinematic contributions put the genre on life support until audiences had enough with witnessing low rent, ridiculous films that would ultimately kill the disaster craze for good.
In my opinion, there were worst disaster movies than Swarm. I could easily just point folks to 1979’s Meteor and ask them to debate which between the two is more entertaining to watch. The Swarm however was a bit different and had the fading allure of disaster greatness to it. It was one of two disaster film actually directed by ‘The Master of Disaster’ Allen himself, it had a topical fear at its center to exploit and it had quite a healthy budget.
Allen was still a hot property at the time. He was able to recruit quite a diverse and recognizable cast to appear in his latest disaster yarn. He also managed to get the U.S. Air Force to help with his latest disaster tale. So Allen made use of an exorbitant access to helicopters during filming. This explains why so many helicopter show up in the movie. They got access to them, so by God they used them every chance they got!
Yet with all those ingredients, The Swarm ends up quite an embarrassing excursion. It lands more in Night of the Lepus territory than The Towering Inferno. Overly dramatic performances, shoddy special effects and downright hysterical ‘disaster’ moments that will have you shaking your head rather than gripping the armrest with tension.
Things begin with a mysterious attack on a missile base. General Widmark can’t figure out why everyone there is dead. That is until Dr. Michael Caine is found at the premises and starts to explain that killer bees are on the loose. Of course Widmark doesn’t believe or trust this civilian doctor – even after some military choppers are taken down by a bunch of bees.
The President puts Caine in charge of this ‘bee situation’ and there we get the clashing between Widmark and Caine. Widmark is willing to do anything to kill the bees, even if it means endangering people, the environment, mother nature, the rest of the universe, while Caine wants to find a more focused and safer way of killing these buzzing pests.
I suppose I would say these are my favorite bits in the movie. Caine goes from acting so blasé and unenergetic in many of his scenes it’s almost like watching a comedy. It’s almost like he’s overemphasizing a straight and dramatic performance in a parody movie for comic effect, like Peter Graves and Robert Stack would do in Airplane!. He recites his dire insect dialogue in his famed flat, emotionless voice in such a way it would look appropriate if he was wearing pajamas and holding a glass of scotch.
When he gets into arguments with Widmark of how to eliminate this threat he suddenly dials things up to screaming melodramatic levels. He pours such loud intensity over some scenes, I suspect Allen’s direction to him was simply “Scream really loud!”. It’s either he’s looking like he’s putting in almost no effort or looks ready to blow a gasket.
Caine is so miscast in this that it starts to becomes a kick to see. He does provide some amusing bits, like his character enjoying eating sunflower seeds for some reason. Maybe that’s to reinforce his love of Mother Earth and seeds equaling ‘life’ kind of metaphor. Hey, I’m trying to help him out here! And some of his dialogue is truly off the charts funny.
“We’ve been fighting a losing battle against insects for fifteen years. But I never thought I’d see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed that it’d turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friends.”
Even Caine can’t make lines like that sound even the least bit serious and not result in audiences slapping their knees. Apparently, he was well paid to appear in this, so that explains his participation in this fiasco. Caine has said the film is one of the worst films he has appeared in and admitted the paycheck was the only reason he signed up for it. “I made The Swarm because my mother needed a house to live in.”
Anyway, somehow, a kid who survived a bee attack, but whose parents were killed, goes on a personal mission to kill the bees on his own. This angers the entire swarm which then descends on a small country town that just happens to be preparing their annual flower festival. What timing!
It’s there where school principal Olivia de Havilland is balancing being swooned by Mayor Fred MacMurray and handyman Ben Johnson. The attack on the town is meant to be a horrifying set piece, but once again ends up unintentionally funny, with a famous moment of de Havilland reacting to her stung and dead students in a very theatrical way.
Now, we know that de Havilland can act. She had been nominated for Oscars, won one, had an extremely long and successful career and is one of the few living links to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
But that moment of her looking out a bee covered window and in slow motion yelling “Noooo!”, is surely something she would never want on her career highlight reel.
This is the same for the great Henry Fonda who plays Caine’s wheelchair bound mentor. His tour-de-force moment comes when he injects an experimental anti-venom on himself, attempts to keep track of his vitals and to see if the serum is working before his heroic efforts results in his demise.
I mean, I can’t really blame any of these older actors who would sign up for these disaster films during this time. They probably weren’t getting many quality film offers, it was a job, it was a popular genre and helped to get them some attention. But really, they were no way peaks in their careers.
Perhaps it was more Allen’s inability to direct actors where the shortcomings were. When you say the names – Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, you wouldn’t immediately associate them with terrible performances, but they give them! Something must of been going on. Or perhaps it was just impossible to make some of these scenes and dialogue they cooked up any better than how they came out.
De Havilland’s love triangle comes to a tragic end when her MacMurray and Johnson are onboard a train that’s evacuating the town. The bees attack resulting in what’s meant to be a spectacular train crash killing all on board. But when you see it, it just looks like a model train rolling down a hill with inserts of our stars screaming as the camera rolls around.
One other memorable bit is Caine and Ross getting attacked in the town, she gets stung and when she’s laying in her hospital bed has bizarre hallucinations of giant bees. I’m not sure how they came up with this wacky idea. My guess is they ran out of ideas of how to stage bee attacks and decided this might be a neat variation to it. It’s really nutty.
We do see people run from real bees in slow-motion glory and some folks get covered by them. I suspect they were bee keepers hired for the film and probably got paid hazard pay to allow themselves to have buckets of bees sitting on them. For most of the wide shots of this huge ominous swarm heading towards our heroes they’re black clouds hovering in the sky. Luckily the bees decided to attack on days with very blue skies so we could see them clearer.
Usually there’s one or two fun scenes you could find in any disaster movie, but I’m finding it hard to think of any in The Swarm. Slim Pickens shows up for basically no reason. It’s almost like a cameo appearance. José Ferrer ignores warnings of the bees, so that does him and Chamberlain in and blows up his power plant – which is about as exciting looking as that train crash. And Ross and Caine’s romance…I guess they fall for each other over their shared love of science?
The climax of the bees attacking Houston Texas and the final Hail Mary pass Caine comes up with to kill the bees is no more a standout scene than anything else that comes before. It’s very forgettable and blends in with the rest of the nonsensical silly bee action from the rest of the movie. It’s certainly not a thrilling conclusion to any of it.
On the upside for The Swarm, there’s the unintended comedy gold to be found here. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is too good for the film. And it might be worth checking out just to see what Caine himself considers a true low point in his career and what he had to do to buy his Mom a house. I think that’s all I got for positives.
Yeah, there’s really not much to buzz about in The Swarm. It’s really a ‘go through the motions’ disaster movie that doesn’t get creative with the premise, doesn’t come up with interesting ways to see its stars try to survive the scenario in an exasperating overlong runtime and the execution of it all is cheap paint-by-numbers.
Watching The Swarm you can understand how the disaster genre had clearly run its course at this point and was ready to be put down. The ‘Golden Age of the Disaster Movie’ that had ruled the 1970s was on the decline. The film bombed, got ravaged by critics and supposedly Allen refused to talk about it.
Yet, Allen wouldn’t give up on his beloved disaster genre and returned to make two more disaster films in the next two years with Beyond The Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran Out.
Both would be received both critically and commercially about as well as The Swarm.
The trailer for The Swarm. It didn’t entice audiences to go see it.