Arguing the debate of which hurts more – a killer bee sting, or your head when you fall asleep and hit the floor watching… The Swarm!
Irwin Allen was the disaster movie king of the 1960’s and 70’s – dominating the television movie market (which was big before cable took the reigns) producing 2 hour tribulations like Lost World and Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea before being called upon to helm Hollywood disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure and the legendary Towering Inferno (a favorite of mine). In 1978, on the heels of terrorizing TV with Flood! and Fire! the hype began, as he entered the studio to work a highly anticipated 20 million dollar film about something widely feared at the time – the progression of African killer bees into the United States…
In The Swarm, a cloud of African killer bees are on the loose in Texas – evident after a nuclear missile site and its staff are wiped out by a sting attack, which lures in the US Army and the highest levels of government. Meanwhile, a young boy and his family enjoy an innocent picnic out in the country when some honey bees begin to fly around the table. Of course, mom begins to swat at them. Angered, the carnage ensues, as bees rabidly attack and kill the two parents before their child’s eyes, as he watches screaming from the car. Driving into the nearest town hysterical, this traumatized kid alerts local authorities who begin to assess the growing danger, as does world renown bee expert Brad Crane (Michael Caine). But not before the annual flower festival can be stopped. Add to that an aging ensemble cast that includes Slim Pickens, Patty Duke, Olivia de Havilland, and Fred MacMurray (in his final film appearance) among others.
The Swarm only managed to last two weeks in theaters and gross circa 10 million dollars – suffering from material best fit for a novel. Abandoned desert locals and Michael Caine sweating in a helicopter did nothing to stimulate viewers between bee attacks – which were good – but few and far between. Watching this film on DVD worsens this experience, as the disc version is over two and a half hours long. Patient watchers will be treated, however, to mass wipe outs of school children and old ladies when the attack scenes go down, which are a lot of fun to watch and are the general payoff from watching a film like The Swarm. Its failure is the dead space between – and this bomb knocked Irwin Allen off his Hollywood pedestal.
These days, The Swarm is best suited for a younger audience – those in touch with imagination, and the outdoor insects they come across during their play. Kids everywhere learn to respect the sting of the bee, and some have seen its coordinated and ruthless attack, even to the point of death. Having been exposed to some scary bee encounters in my youth and having witnessed the escalated natural disasters of The Swarm at the age of 9, this film became one of my favorites growing up. After moving to a new development chock full of large paper wasp nests and underground bee communities border lining the wild fields around its perimeter – I learned the pain of urban footsteps in a natural environment having accidentally activating attacks by digging, running, mowing, and going on stupid bee nest assassination hunts.
The Swarm is long and dry and blase’ for the majority of its duration playing out like a boring Sunday western starring fading cinema icons on the verge of career death, but manages to find a merciful way into your heart with a strong Jerry Goldsmith score and its attempts at mass death and destruction via killer African honey bees. Somewhere circa the 70’s and 80’s – science programs and authorities told the public through informative media that killer bees would be in the United States wrecking havoc by the 90’s, and certainly the 2000’s. It is true that aggressive killer bees are found scattered about the southern United States today, but their threat is diluted and reports of attacks are primarily from people stumbling upon nests. The only time I saw a swarm of bees was during basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. While on a 3-day trek into the wilderness, we were told to hit the dirt, and we did – only to see and hear a swarm pass through the forest treetops above. It was noisy and they shadowed us with their mass. Aside from that – the only fear that The Swarm is going to induce, is by sparking your own imagination the next time you wander through your backyard.