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The Swarm

The Swarm (1978)

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teaser The Swarm (1978)

Producer-director Irwin Allen was riding high in 1977 when he began production on The Swarm (1978), an all-star installment in his ongoing streak of disaster films highlighted by the box office behemoths The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. had split the production costs and worldwide distribution of the latter film, but Fox intended to stay in the Allen business by snagging the rights to his killer bee property-- complete with a script by Stirling Silliphant, who had penned both Allen disaster epics and was about to veer into gritty crime territory with the likes of The Killer Elite (1975) and The Enforcer (1976).

Based on a novel by Arthur Herzog, The Swarm seemed to be a highly topical project in the mid-'70s with hysteria over the supposed armies of killer Africanized bees mounting among both the press and public. Furthermore, killer bee movies had been a proven draw on the drive-in circuit with The Killer Bees (1966) and TV screens were inundated by small-screen features like Killer Bees (1974) and The Savage Bees (1976). However, the sensationalism soon waned and Fox and Allen parted ways, leaving The Swarm a free agent along with four other projects: The Day the World Ended (which would later turn into 1980's When Time Ran Out...), the never-produced Circus and The Water Syndrome, and the long-delayed Poseidon Adventure II, which would become Allen's final directorial effort as 1979's Beyond the Poseidon Adventure.

Warner Bros. quickly stepped in to finance The Swarm, which came stacked with a roster of talent including a laundry list of Oscar winners like Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jos Ferrer, and Patty Duke. However, one of the first people to be signed was leading man Michael Caine, who had recently anchored such films as The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and The Eagle Has Landed (1976). Cast opposite him as the primary crusader against the encroaching, buzzing menace was Katharine Ross, who was experiencing a far more erratic career in the '70s after her two seismic hits near the end of the prior decade, The Graduate (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). However, she had just proven her ability to stand out in a stellar ensemble cast in the grim drama Voyage of the Damned (1976), and her strong turn in The Stepford Wives (1975) proved she could handle horrific material with aplomb. However, it was de Havilland who proved to be the most fascinating casting as she returned to the Warner Bros. lot for the first time in 34 years after her much-publicized lawsuit against the studio that remains one of the most famous in Hollywood history.

It's the de Havilland subplot in this film that confused many audience members as the film devoted a significant amount of time to her romantic triangle with Johnson and Fred MacMurray (in his final role). In fact, the film is stuffed with characters and subplots throughout to represent the various military and civilian regions of Texas affected by the attacking bees, whose survivors have surreal hallucinations unlike anything else in cinema.

Confident in the commercial prospects of its cast and central gimmick, Warner Bros. rolled out The Swarm on 1100 screens across America the middle of July, 1978, sandwiched between the releases of Grease and National Lampoon's Animal House. Unfortunately the film was immediately besieged by negative audience reactions and extremely harsh critical reviews, vanishing from theaters within two weeks.

One aspect of the film unscathed by the response was the music score by Jerry Goldsmith, who had just won an Oscar for scoring The Omen (1976) and was in the midst of an incredibly productive year that also saw his name on Magic, The Boys from Brazil, Coma, The Great Train Robbery, Damien: Omen II, and Capricorn One. His work here is laced with his trademark experimentation and sly in-jokes, such as utilizing French horns to create a buzzing sensation on the soundtrack. However, it was the film's costume designs by Allen regular Paul Zastupnevich that earned the film its sole (and quite unexpected) Academy Award nomination.

The theatrical version of The Swarm ran a reasonable 116 minutes, but that version has now become nearly impossible to see. The film's 1980 broadcast TV debut from NBC featured numerous scenes and extended bits of footage added to the running time (a very common practice at the time with big-budget titles like King Kong, Superman, and Bloodline, to name a few); when the film was released on laserdisc and then DVD, it was the longest possible version with a mammoth length of 155 minutes. Fans of this wildly ambitious and bafflingly executed film have since embraced this edition, relishing every minute of its ripe melodrama and bee-battling action to the fullest.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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