Earthquakes can be some of the most frightening events that anyone ever goes through. The ground shifts and rolls as the very walls around you shake and rattle and you just hope that this isn’t the” Big One” that destroys your property or takes your life. Hollywood has oft used these disasters as catalysts for drama and television movies are no exception. In this week’s article we will examine two such films, 1972s A Short Walk to Daylight and 1974s The Day the Earth Moved.
A Short Walk to Daylight (1972): Eight people riding the on a subway get trapped underground when an unprecedented earthquake hits New York City. The tracks and many of the tunnels have been destroyed and there is little hope of help coming to find the passengers. Amongst those trapped are Jax (Lazaro Perez) and Joanne (Brooke Bundy), a couple of panhandler junkies; Alvin (Don Mitchell), a man with an attitude and a bias against police; Sylvia (Suzanne Charny) and Sandy (Laurette Spang), friends who were seeing a Broadway Show; and Dorella (Abbey Lincoln), a working mother on her way home to her kids. Wrestling for leadership of the survivors are police officer Tom Phelan (James Brolin) and the subway controlman, Ed (James McEachin). There is tension between the passengers from the start as each has their biases towards the others, but the group must learn to work together in order to survive the short walk to daylight.
This was a well written and entertaining movie. The practical effects and camera work are of particular note. For a low budget television film, this production did a lot with the little it had, making the initial earthquake and subway car crash exciting. Where the plot is your standard disaster movie fare, the script and performances are not. The story hits at both social class warfare and racial biases and the distrust between people of color and the police. There are some wonderful subtle moments that exemplify the racial tension of the 1970s in New York City and the built in animosity between Alvin and Phelan is palpable making their journey as characters that much more interesting. Abbey Lincoln’s performance as Dorella was one of my favorites, being both strong, afraid and accommodating. She knew when to comfort and when to stand up for herself and had just the right amount of sass! James Brolin also does an outstanding job as officer Phelan, who is just a beat cop and does his best to get all the passengers back to safety while fighting the general distrust the majority of the passengers have towards him. As he puts it “I know my job. But this [earthquake] this I don’t know.” Don Mitchell’s Alvin is also well portrayed. He showed a realistic intensity that added to the overall drama and tension of the production. Will all the survivors make it to the surface? Watch and find out!
The Day the Earth Moved (1974): Steve Barker (Jackie Cooper) runs an aerial photography business. On a short break to Las Vegas, Steve is arrested for speeding and without the money to pay the fines, must work off his debt in the small town of Bates. Bates used to be a bustling place, but after the highway was diverted the town began to wither and die, leaving only a handful of inhabitants. Steve comes to like the inhabitants in the short time he is there, specifically a young girl named Angela. Back at his business, photographer Harley Copeland (Cleavon Little) and film developer Kate (Stella Stevens) discover red streaks across some of the photos. When Steve returns, they do a reshoot, discovering that the red streaks have moved and where they were in the first set of photos has had some geographical changes. On the third set, they realize that the film is somehow predicting the position of earthquakes 24 hours in advance and the next spot is…you guessed it…the town of Bates. Steve, Kate and Harley steal their plane and fly to the town to try to convince the inhabitants to leave right away. Can Steve save everyone in the town? Watch and find out!
This movie was not as intense as the previously discussed film but was just as interesting due to the portrayal of the characters, specifically the townspeople of Bates. There was a kindness to them that endeared them to the audience and made them fallible, but likeable characters. Jackie Cooper does a good job as Steve Barker, the loveable but flawed hero of the story, and Stella Stevens as his estranged wife who must still work with him is also very good. There is both love and tension between them and this is portrayed well. There is little action in the movie, except at the end when the earthquake finally does hit Bates, but this didn’t seem to hinder the pace or rhythm of the film. The script is well written with some witty repartee between Cleavon Little’s character, Harley and Jackie Cooper, and the eccentricity of the townspeople gives it just enough zaniness as to not be comical but does add a type of levity.
Overall, I enjoyed watching both films very much. There is a blockbuster film titled Daylight starring Sylvester Stallone, with a very similar plot which references A Short Walk to Daylight and there is an alternative version that adds a radical group planting bombs to explain the disaster. I prefer the original. Both films are products of the early 1970s and focus on character interaction as the primary source of entertainment. The special effects were all practical and there is no gore or gruesome carnage to view, so I am not sure todays general audience would enjoy them as much as I did.
A Short Walk To Daylight & The Day The Earth Moved can be found on You Tube.
Movie of the Week: Earthquakes!!!
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