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MASTERS OF DISASTER – HURRICANE (1979)

Masters of Disaster returns, with Jonathon Dabell analysing the much-ridiculed 1979 entry Hurricane, starring Mia Farrow, Dayton Ka’ne, Jason Robards and Timothy Bottoms.

In 1979, the 70s disaster cycle had almost run its course. The box office behemoths like Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) had been and gone, and the genre was in terminal decline. By the end of the decade, genuinely good disaster movies were a thing of the past. ’79 entries included the unnecessary Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, the risible Meteor, the dreary City On Fire and the staggeringly dull Hurricane.

Angered that his daughter's purity has been violated, Jason Robards strikes out against Dayton Ka'ne.

Angered that his daughter’s purity has been violated, Jason Robards strikes out against Dayton Ka’ne. But what he should be doing is running for his life before the hurricane strikes!!!

Most disaster movies follow what is essentially the same plot framework – an opening stretch which introduces varied characters with personal back stories; a middle stretch in which some kind of catastrophe takes place; and a climax in which the characters have to cope/survive/escape after the occurrence of the said catastrophe. In Hurricane, this standard disaster template is somewhat ignored… which should be a good thing (it is usually a breath of fresh air to find unoriginality and cliches being flipped on their head). Alas, that’s not the case here. The tired old disaster tropes may be absent, but all the film has to offer in their place are boring characters, a long-winded and soapy love story, pointless supporting figures and a wholly unconvincing father-daughter feud.

As the hurricane reaches it peak, Dayton Ka'ne and Mia Farrow seek refuge in a gnarled tree.

As the hurricane reaches it peak, Dayton Ka’ne and Mia Farrow seek refuge in a gnarled tree.

In fact, Hurricane is barely a disaster movie at all: it’s more a story of forbidden love and racial tension which climaxes with a disaster-inspired sequence. The problem is that the first 90 minutes are incredibly dull. We don’t meet disparate characters; we don’t suspensefully await the arrival of the hurricane; we don’t even get an involving interplay among the people filling the screen. Rather, we are forced to endure a painfully uninteresting romance which blossoms between an uninteresting couple under the ruthless, disapproving gaze of an uninteresting tyrant. Then, almost out of the blue, the hurricane strikes and wreaks incredible destruction, bringing the whole sorry saga to an abrupt end.

In the 1920s, a strong-willed and independent young woman named Charlotte Bruckner (Mia Farrow) arrives in Pago Pago, a Pacific island under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy and lorded over by her uncompromisingly cruel father Captain Charles Bruckner (Jason Robards). The Captain hopes Charlotte will court Jack Sanford (Timothy Bottoms), a reliable young sailor who works for him, but Charlotte instead takes a fancy to native Mattangi (Dayton Ka’ne). Mattangi is supposed to marry a native girl chosen for him by his father, a tribal king, but once he claps eyes on Charlotte there’s just no going back.
There follows an almighty to-do, during which the enraged Captain tries to imprison Mattangi on some trumped-up trivial charge. This inevitably brings about considerable racial tensions between the natives and the colonialists… all of which is resolved by the arrival of a devastating hurricane.

Original lobby card for Hurricane (1979) showing Dayton Ka'ne and Mia Farrow struggling against the fury of Mother Nature as it unleashes itself upon the island.

Original lobby card for Hurricane (1979) showing Dayton Ka’ne and Mia Farrow struggling against the fury of Mother Nature as it unleashes itself upon the island.

A very similar story formed the basis for the 1937 John Ford movie The Hurricane, starring Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall, based on a novel co-written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. That film is something of a minor classic; this semi-remake sadly can’t make any such boasts. It is a disastrous movie all right, but not much of a disaster movie.

The script is by Lorenzo Semple Jr, with some input from Roman Polanski (who was originally lined up to direct). In the wake of his infamous statutory rape scandal, Polanski fled America leaving the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis in need of a hasty replacement. He turned to another European director, Jan Troell (of The Emigrants, The New Land and Zandy’s Bride fame), to pick up the pieces. On paper, Troell looks a sound choice – his films are always character-driven and revolve around challenging relationship dynamics, but even he cannot do anything with a script as one-dimensional as this. Not even animated performers like Robards and Max Von Sydow – or reliable character actors like Farrow, Bottoms, Trevor Howard and James Keach – can bring anything to this farrago.

Jason Robards and Mia Farrow have some making up to do before the hurricane rips their lives apart.

Jason Robards and Mia Farrow have some making up to do before the hurricane rips their lives apart.

There are very few redeeming qualities. Nino Rota’s score is far better than the film deserves (it was also his last movie music; he died two days before the film’s premiere); Sven Nykvist photographs the lush locations beautifully, as always; and the climactic hurricane is impressively mounted on a technical level. The raging winds, powerful floodwaters, hurling rain and cataclysmic destruction of buildings and vehicles all look believable enough. It’s just a shame we feel no emotional connection with any of the people caught up in the mayhem.

Original theatrical poster for Hurricane (1979)

Original theatrical poster for Hurricane (1979)

Take away the music, the photography and the technical proficiency of the final sequence and there’s nothing left. On every other level, Hurricane is a huge dud… and, at $22 million, an expensive financial folly which drove yet one more nail into the coffin of the original disaster cycle.
MoM Rating: 1.5/10 

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