We were staying at Waikoloa Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii when we were awakened by our iPhones getting text messages. Numerous text messages. They were from our family and friends, and everyone asked the same thing: “Are you alright?”
Apparently, Mt. Kilauea erupted early that same morning, and the news quickly spread to the mainland. We texted back that we were over fifty miles from the volcano and were fine.
Which got me thinking about the plethora of movies starring volcanoes. Here’s a list (in historical order) of the ones I recall with fondness (or disbelief):
Disney’s avant-guard animated masterpiece Fantasia (1940) utilizes Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” as evocative music for a prehistoric sequence ending with volcanic eruptions causing the extinction of dinosaurs.
Spaghetti Western innovator Sergio Leone directed the “sword and sandals” epic The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) starring Steve (Hercules) Reeves, 14-year-old Christine (Baghdad Cafe) Kaufmann, and Fernando (The French Connection) Rey. The story involves a Roman Centurion falling in love with the Pompeiian Consul’s daughter at the same time that Christians are being arrested and condemned to death for crimes they did not commit. The executions are halted when Vesuvius blows its top.
SUNDA STRAIGHT, 1883:
The most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history created an explosion heard over 3,000 miles away. The on-screen eruption (which earned an Oscar nomination for Special Effects) is the only reason to watch 1969’s geographically-challenged Krakatoa: East of Java (the volcanic island was actually West of Java). Starring Maximillian Schell, Diana Baker, Brian Keith, Rossano Brazzi, and Sal Mineo, the plot involves a mission school in peril, a pearl-diving expedition in peril, a drug abuser in peril, a variety of sexual partners in peril, and most important, audiences in such peril that this film is one of only a handful to earn 0% from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
500 MILES FROM TAHITI, 1960:
In the disaster-flick, The Devil at 4:00 (1961), three convicts (including Frank Sinatra), are sent to a work in the leper colony on a Pacific island. When the volcano shows signs of erupting, a defrocked alcoholic priest (Spencer Tracy), convinces the trio they should save the children before the big BOOOM! NOTE: The fake volcano built on farmland outside San Diego and blown up using almost a ton of explosives was so convincing the footage has been used in several other movies.
ISLAND OF GUADELUPE, 1977
When eccentric filmmaker Werner Herzog learned that a Guadelupe peasant refused to leave his home on the side of a volcano set to erupt, he traveled with a film crew to record the cataclysm in a 30-minute documentary entitled La Soufrire (1977). They discover three men who refuse to evacuate—one showing them the posture he will take before dying, another asking “who will take care of the animals, and the third arguing that “death cannot be avoided.” By the end of the film, the volcano has not erupted, everyone we meet remains alive, and the movie leaves us with many unanswered questions.
WAIPON WOO ISLAND, 1990:
Diagnosed by his doctor (Robert Stack) with a fast-moving terminal illness, Joe (Tom Hanks) is recruited by a billionaire industrialist (Lloyd Bridges) to sail to a remote island, appease the local gods,and prevent an eruption, by throwing himself into a volcano. On the journey, he falls in love with the billionaire’s daughter (Meg Ryan). This storyline provides the backdrop for the guilty rom-com pleasure entitled Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
WASHINGTON STATE, 1997:
A government seismologist (Pierce Brosnan) is sent to monitor volcanic activity at Dante’s Peak (1997) in the movie of the same name. Once there, he bonds with the town’s mayor (Linda Hamilton) and her two children. At a town meeting, earthquakes send everyone into panic mode, as local lakes turn acidic, the sudden snow melt causes a lahar (caustic mudflow), abandoned mine shafts collapse and finally a violent explosion occurs. The helicopter footage used in the closing shots is actually of the 1981 Mt. Saint Helen’s eruption.
NOTE: Yes, this is the movie that starts out with a skinny-dipping couple entering a secluded hot springs and later discovered boiled to death.
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