Now on Blu-ray from Warner Archives is an emphatically unboring parade of absurdities known as The Swarm (1978). This spectacle, which one watches with eyes perpetually rolled, is the kind of thing people mean by the patronizing compliment “so bad it’s good”. While one can simply enjoy the star-studded foolishness, the film also taps into cultural undertones of a literally darker nature.
First, the historical background. Producer-director Irwin Allen became a household name, as they say, by producing several juvenile-oriented sci-fi adventures in ’60s-era television. The most popular were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, and they weren’t marked by any notable attention to science or logic. They were, however, very colorful.
In the ’70s, Allen reinvented himself as the king of disaster movies, notably The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). He’d later dish up a sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), and the volcanic When Time Ran Out (1980), a disaster in more ways than one, but first his attention was caught by a bit of “fake news” capturing America’s attention.
In 1956 Brazil, various species of honeybee were cross-bred with African bees to yield a hardier crop for tropical climates. Some swarms escaped and began slowly traveling north, interbreeding with local bees as they went. This was a matter of concern mainly in that the “Africanized bees” were more aggressive when threatened and could attack in swarms. According to Wikipedia, they’ve killed about a thousand people over the decades. This prospect got turned into an overblown and sensationalized threat swatted about in the media, for example in the novel The Swarm (1974) by Arthur Herzog, whose novel Orca, also got filmed at this time.
Why did the bees generate so much alarmist buzz? And why does this film indulge in misnomers about “African killer bees” in relation to Brazilian cross-breeds? Richard Chamberlain’s character states that “we properly call them Brazilian bees”, and after his pedantic point is duly acknowledged, the dialogue goes straight back to Africa for the rest of the movie. African or Brazilian, apparently what matters to these Yanks is that a bunch of vicious foreigners want to “invade” our land and claim our women. Nobody in the film is so prescient as to call for building a wall.
If you think I’m over-reaching the xenophobic case, get a load of this prominent disclaimer in the closing credits: “The African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relation to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation.” Wikipedia indicates that this message pacified the American Honeybee Association from considering a lawsuit for bee-slander, but the phrasing sure makes it sound like those lazy worthless African bees go directly on welfare.
“A black mass, sir, a moving black mass” is how the initial sighting is described, and this may explain why the African moniker sticks. An even more troubling fact is that, while you’d think it would be natural to refer to the enemy as “the bees” or perhaps “the killer bees”, the characters and news headlines rapidly drop into the shorthand of “the Africans”, so we’re frequently hearing phrases like “stopping the spread of the Africans” and “killing the Africans” and “Africans invading Houston”.
Not since King Kong (1933), which at least had the grace to begin in Africa, has that continent figured so prominently in a film designed to frighten Americans. Indeed, the 1976 remake (directed by John Guillermin, who helmed The Towering Inferno), with the ape atop the World Trade Center, had shown the timeliness of fearing some kind of metaphorical African rampage.
Allen’s film was slightly behind the bandwagon, as Mission Impossible creator Bruce Geller had already exploited the notion of dangerous Brazilian bees infecting America in the 1976 TV movie The Savage Bees, which might well have taken uncredited cues from Herzog’s novel. Allen hired illustrious writer Stirling Silliphant, who’d worked on Allen’s previous disaster epics, won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967), and created two of the classic TV dramas of the ’60s, Naked City and Route 66. This effort isn’t his high point.
The film opens in a top-secret underground military installation in the desert, the type audiences had seen in such films as Ivan Tors and Herbert L. Strock’s Gog (1954), John Sturges’ The Satan Bug (1965), Byron Haskins’ The Power (1968) and Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971). Nothing good ever happens in such places. A bunch of guys in hazmat suits and guns show up at the apparently deserted installation and, amid much caution, take the elevator down to the communications room, where the personnel lie dead.
In a strangely missed opportunity for the make-up department, nobody looks like they’ve been stung by a million bees. That would have offered some gruesome opportunities. Perhaps it was the PG rating. By the way, this isn’t the 116-minute theatrical release, which took a bath at the box office as well as a critical scrubbing, but the two-and-a-half-hour unrated extended edition that’s pretty much replaced it. We don’t know how they compare, but we can repeat that it never becomes dull, unlike many of today’s bloated summer spectacles.
While the military are looking around under the command of Gen. Thaddeus Slater (Richard Widmark), in strolls Dr. Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), who’s been tracking killer bees like a monomaniac. He falls into the tradition of arrogant, hot-headed scientific geniuses, like Brian Donlevy’s gruff boffin in Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). He can vault without modulation from mild-mannered to Nicolas Cage frenzy, as when he responds to Slater’s suggestion of “taking out” the swarm by screaming that it would also kill innocent American bees, destroy crops and cause environmental disaster. His own bright idea will be to create a massive oil spill in the Gulf and set it on fire!
If we were to catalogue all absurdities, distractions and mind-bogglers, we’d be here all day, but a few should be noted. The nearby podunk Texas town of Marysville, as played by a familiar Hollywood “town square” backlot, is about to hold its annual flower festival, and for much of the film’s running time, the bees’ greatest threat is to disrupt this vital festivity. Although it proves tragically unnecessary, the military evacuates this little hamlet — not by having everyone get in their cars and drive down the highway but by busing everyone to a train.
This happens in broad daylight, and then we have a night scene of Dr. Crane and his new instant squeeze, Dr. Anderson (Katharine Ross), walking through the empty set, or rather town, and talking about how sad it is. Then we cut back to the train in full throttle amid hilly desert country, as played by a toy miniature set. It’s daylight again, so the train has been “evacuating” for at least eight to 12 hours and it’s still in the middle of nowhere.
Unfortunately, the bees have also evacuated, although they supposedly travel very slowly, and we later learn the train was 70 miles from Houston. We Texans know how ridiculous that is, but surely everyone can grasp the incredulity that Houston then gets efficiently evacuated in 13 hours. Oh well, at least this allows for one of the most frivolously overstated pyrotechnical displays in cinema history — but as I say, never dull. Clearly, memories of The Towering Inferno were being evoked.
One thing the script has going for it is recklessness. It doesn’t care who gets killed, and this film probably has Allen’s lowest survival rate amid the all-star shenanigans. All aboard for the ride are Henry Fonda as a wheelchair-bound scientist; Bradford Dillman and Cameron Mitchell as military officers; Lee Grant as a TV reporter who kind of disappears; Olivia De Havilland, who can’t decide whether to marry Ben Johnson (star of The Savage Bees!) or Fred MacMurray; Slim Pickens, who makes the most of his cameo as a grieving father; and Jose Ferrer, whose smug boss of a nuclear plant ties in with public fears one year in advance of James Bridges’ The China Syndrome (1979) and the Three-Mile Island incident.
Oh yes, around the edges is Patty Duke Astin, just now widowed by bees and ten minutes from giving birth, yet already the object of puppy-dog eyes from a doctor (Alejandro Rey) with a heavy Spanish accent. He’s putting the moves on her while she’s being wheeled out of the delivery room. I think we’re meant to approve of that last, because she’d been feeling suicidal and now has someone who cares, although it does fit the xenophobic pattern rather too well. She certainly raised his antennae. Maybe he’s supposed to be Brazilian.
The coming of the bees, or “the Africans”, is repeatedly described as a “war” and “invasion” that may mean literally the end of humanity. For whatever reason, the little stingers sure wreak a lot of havoc that no bees have ever been known to produce, whether from Africa, Australia or Antarctica. Their attacks seem to be presented either by layering the image of bees or by shooting through a plane of bees while distant actors spin in circles and fall in slow motion as Jerry Goldsmith’s music emulates a kind of siren. Not a single bee or sting can be seen on the flailing townsfolk, but after the actors are safely down and motionless, hundreds of crawling bees are put on them. It’s a strangely blood-free affair for a movie that kills so many people in horribly spectacular ways.
The script’s most potentially inspired element, that survivors may have a sort of psychic link with the bees, remains unfortunately unexploited. The film is content to indulge a few surreal moments when characters hallucinate enormous bees who “bee” at them traumatically. A cannier and more daring plot might have milked that idea, especially as regards Ross’ mildly stung character, to forge some useful connection with the swarm–shades of Gloria Swanson in Curtis Harrington’s TV movie Killer Bees (1974) or Jennifer Connelly in Dario Argento‘s Phenomena (1985).
Warner Archives’ Blu-ray preserves the contents of an older DVD, including the trailer and a half-hour TV promo from the time.