the swarm

THE SWARM (1978)

IMDb rating 4.3/10
Tagline: “This is more than a movie. It’s a prediction!”

In 1977, Star Wars changed everything.

Groundbreaking effects and breathless storytelling raised the bar for all big budget movie makers.

Unless you were veteran producer and director of ‘The Swarm’, Irwin Allen.

Famous for his bloated disaster genre classics ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ and ‘The Towering Inferno’, the 62 year-old Allen was reportedly baffled by the phenomenal success of Star Wars. Where were the A-Listers? Where was the romance? WHERE WERE THE GODDAMNED BEES?

Allen’s ‘The Swarm’ feels like the infirm pensioner who has unwittingly offered to host his granddaughter’s 18th birthday party. He’s too old to comprehend the sudden changes that have occurred. Everything is suddenly noisy and fast and brash and chaotic. He doesn’t understand what’s happening, and just wants to sit down. But there’s a naked couple going at it in his favourite armchair.

He is determined to go to bed at his usual time, despite the drum circle, the heavy petting, and the bongs being handed around in his bedroom. Perhaps if he puts his nightcap on, they’ll take the hint and leave, maybe even tidy up on the way out. But all they do is grow their hair long and open another bottle of Babycham.

The swarm

“Hands up who thinks this was a terrible idea?”

Yes, as the world went sci-fi crazy, queueing around the block for repeated viewings of a rip-roaring space opera, Irwin Allen resolved to make a film about vicious insects. Perhaps Allen was hoping to appeal to older audiences. Perhaps it was sheer stubbornness. Perhaps he had simply produced one of the great brain farts in studio history.

Whereas George Lucas may have boasted spaceships and lasers, and Mos Eisley, with its scum and villainy, The Swarm featured Maryville- a quaint, middle class town of annual flower shows and septuagenarian love triangles. A town that would soon see a reckoning…that might have been avoided if they had only shut some windows.

Star Wars had jaw-dropping, paradigm-shifting visual effects, Allen responded with an indiscriminate, wibbly dark buzzing cloud…just sort of hanging in the air…like an enormous grey fart.

The swarm

Behold, as the astonishing FX transport you to another world!

Inexplicably, Allen seemed determined to ensure his film looked like it had been made in 1953, despite his $21m budget. It looked horribly dated, even for 1978.

When The Swarm opened in cinemas, both Star Wars (with its meagre $11m budget) and Close Encounters were probably still playing on neighbouring screens. In comparison, The Swarm’s tired sets and laughable effects seemed like a scratchy gramophone in a quadrophonic world.

Also, perhaps suspicious of Star Wars’ crisp, modern aesthetic, Allen opted to shoot the whole of The Swarm in glorious Beige-O-Rama.

The film’s colour palette runs the entire spectrum from camel to fawn. Not a single shade of dreary is ignored. It looks as drab as the wallpaper in a Soviet orphanage, as visually appealing as something you might scrape off your shoe in a festival portaloo.

The Swarm features a train vs The Bees, school children vs The Bees, and gloriously, Richard Chamberlain’s nuclear power plant vs The Bees. It’s an away win for the African killer bees every time. Bloody Africans. Coming over here. Stealing our pollen. It’s un-American.

So is there a subtle, anti-immigration subtext to The Swarm? Er…no. Not in a film in which Michael Caine is saddled with a character who, initially, refuses to condone the use of chemical bombs against the winged invaders, for fear of the potential ecological damage. Though later, concocts a final solution in which millions of gallons of crude oil are deliberately leaked into the ocean before being set ablaze. Where did you get your PhD again Doctor?

Allen also stuck with his tried and tested all-star casting. ‘Who the hell is Harrison Ford? I’ve got Henry Fonda, Fred “The Absent Minded Professor” MacMurray and a 62 year old Olivia de Havilland’.

That buzzing you can hear could be The Bees. But it’s more likely a chorus of the cast member’s pacemakers. Careful you’re not crushed in the rampage of eager teenagers fighting for seats in the cinema.

The swarm

Still stings less than a viewing of The Swarm

And it’s not just the concept and the cast that seem old and tired and prone to dribble into their bowl of mashed banana during their afternoon nap. In all honesty, the script would’ve have been better used to swat away a plague of killer bees than provide any sense of tone, character or plot.

Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, the Oscar winning scribe of ‘In The Heat Of The Night’, obviously treated the whole project as a dare. Or thought it might work better as a comedy. Either way, he must have cornered the market in copper and zinc to fashion the enormous brass balls required to deliver his script for The Swarm. Containing some of the most risible dialogue ever heard in a studio feature, perhaps he was hoping to get fired. No such luck.

Tell us Dr. Crane, why are the bees attacking?

“That’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.”

Richard Widmark’s General is not taking the apian threat lightly:

“I always credit my enemy…with equal intelligence.”

Perhaps you do Widmark, but no bee would have signed any contract that involved delivering that line.

“Will history blame me… or the bees?”

Don’t worry Richard, we will mostly blame Irwin Allen.

It’s often in Michael Caine’s lesser films that you get the true measure of the man’s talent. He may have deserved Oscars for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules, but only a true giant of cinema could deliver the greatest line in The Swarm without giggling or weeping. As the deliciously coiffured entomologist Dr. Bradford Crane, he wields a safari suit and this mournful lament:

“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.”

Astonishing. Glorious. What a line. What a film.

Somewhere, propped up against a wall in a dark corner of the Warner Brothers studio backlot, there’s a rusty handcart that still reeks of Stirling Silliphant’s stale ball sweat.

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