The Swarm (1978)

JANUARY 19, 2011


Upon reading that The Swarm was about to expire from Netflix Instant’s lineup (which it hasn’t, as of this writing – bad intel?), I finally decided to spend the two and a half goddamn hours watching it, armed with the knowledge that it’s the only film Michael Caine (Jaws 4, On Deadly Ground, Get Carter remake) is embarrassed to have appeared in, and that director Irwin Allen wouldn’t even talk about it in interviews.

Well, unsurprisingly, it’s bad, but HOW bad seems to be a bit of a gray area. For whatever reason, the film is only available in a 155 minute form, whereas the theatrical version ran just under two hours. Adding nearly 40 minutes to a bad film seems to be some sort of “fuck you” to audiences, as if to say “Look, if you want to watch THE SWARM, you might as well watch every single frame that exists of the damn thing, because you deserve it.” So what might have been a merely silly slice of 70s disaster fare becomes a full blown endurance test; boring me to tears and thus rendering even its highlights incapable of saving the film – that extra 40 minutes kept me from laughing at a ridiculous train crash at the end of the film’s “second act”, goddammit!

As I tweeted while watching, nearly every minute of the film seems like something that could have been cut for pacing. Granted, I’m the last person in the world who should be complaining about things being excessively long and in need of an edit, but come on! There’s a subplot about a “love triangle” between Olivia De Havilland, Ben Johnson, and Fred MacMurray, and it ends when all three of them are killed in a train crash that results from the bees swarming the locomotive, which makes the conductor flail about like a jackass, knocking levers aside and such. Now, all disaster movies have subplots, but they usually have two important criteria that these folks lack. One is a strong connection to the other folks in the movie. Like the two musicians on the boat in 2012 – one of them was the father of someone we were following on the mainland (I forget who), so it fit. But I can’t even recall any of these three MEETING Caine or the other main characters, so who the hell cares? The other criteria would be that one of them survives and joins up with the others. Like in ID4 – we spend the whole movie following Randy Quaid and his kids, and it seems pointless, but then Quaid’s the guy who takes out the alien at the end and saves President Pullman, so it all fit together. Not here. They’re all dead and that’s the end of it. So, hilarious sight of Ben Johnson flying out of a window aside, they could have just deleted every scene with these three and there wouldn’t be any difference to the movie whatsoever. The love triangle isn’t even resolved! Maybe if Johnson sacrificed himself so her and MacMurray could survive it would be worth the effort, but nope.

Especially since their scenes take away from Caine’s screentime. Caine is amazing in the movie, angrily shouting nearly every single line of dialogue he has, yet acting rather calmly whenever shit is going down. Like when him and Katharine Ross arrive at a lab, supposedly while the proverbial clock is ticking. They go inside, and there’s an escalator – and they just ride it up instead of climbing as they go. I also loved the end, when they blow up all the bees via oil slicks in the ocean (very eco-friendly movie, The Swarm) – the explosion is roughly 50 feet away but he just nonchalantly turns to Ross and talks to her. However, he can’t even explain what he plans to do next without shouting. “There will be no air drop until we know exactly what we are dropping, and where, and how! Excuse me!!!” I mean, do you really need to yell about the obvious logistical problems that might arise from having an air drop without knowing what or where to drop it?

I had to laugh when someone claimed he was tired from his “overwhelming” efforts to stop the bee menace, since he doesn’t do a goddamn thing until about 100 minutes into the movie, when he rides along in a helicopter and they dump white pellets over some of the bees. Until that point he’s either yelling at the General, eating sunflower seeds with Henry Fonda, or hitting on Ross (and hard – he even brings her along on a thankless “mission” for no reason other than to spend time with her). Then again maybe there’s a lot of stuff we just didn’t see; at one point someone says that the movie has taken place over a few weeks when I thought it was more like 2-3 days.

It also doesn’t deliver any great death scenes for its big stars. Richard Widmark just sort of chokes and dies while fighting the bees, Cameron Mitchell and Lee Grant simply disappear from the movie, Fonda injects himself with venom (in the name of science!) and basically just has a heart attack, etc. No one sacrifices themselves in a glorious manner, and there’s no human villain to get his just desserts by the bees. It DOES, however have little to no problem with killing children; the first big attack is on a family that’s having a picnic, the parents die instantly but the kid lives for a while, more or less causes the outbreak by firebombing the hive in retaliation, and dies later of the stings. Then there’s an annoying little bastard who fucks with MacMurray as he waits to hit on de Havilland, and later we see him lying dead in the street. All hail the lack of tact in the 70s!

Speaking of which, they are African bees, and usually they are referred to as African bees or just plain bees. However, Widmark abbreviates the other way at one point, happily declaring that “By tomorrow there will be no more Africans!” Yikes.

Oh, and people hallucinate giant bees from time to time. I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell this was about, but it leads to some hilarious moments, such as when the kid is hallucinating one, and we see it too, while Caine sits there and tells him that there’s no giant bee there. And Ross sees one in his eye at one point – whoever made this call was definitely smoking something; I kept expecting the movie to dive headfirst into Manitou territory.

Later, I learned that the film actually got an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design. This was roughly 8 minutes after the film concluded and I couldn’t recall what one single outfit looked like, which leads me to believe that 1978 was sorely lacking in period pieces (it lost to Death On the Nile, for the record). This was also the year that Foul Play got a nomination for Best Original Song, making it the first and last Chevy Chase film that earned an Oscar nomination. Weird year.

If I ever became rich and retired early, and also lost my hands and thus couldn’t play video games, I would entertain the notion of watching the theatrical version of The Swarm, just to see if the re-excised footage helped the pace enough to make it at least a TOLERABLE lame movie. But this cut is exclusively for sadists and/or Caine completists. Also, worth pointing out I guess – the Netflix version is cropped slightly from 2.35 to 1.85:1, so you’re either seeing less Swarm or less Caine, depending on how you look at a glass of water. But it’s strange, because the DVD is 2.35:1, which means Netflix inexplicably cropped it themselves? What gives, big Red?

What say you?

P.S. I was more entertained by the following trivia than anything in the film itself: “Michael Caine stated in an interview that during filming he thought the little yellow spots left by the bees on his clothing was honey so he began to eat it, unaware he was eating bee poop.”


  1. Best Costume Design? Bizarre.

  2. This is my favorite review of yours yet. I think I was almost crying from laughter - and I'm at work, prompting the need to explain to my boss that it was the killer bees making me look like a crazy person. I'm so happy you watched this, so I feel I get the enjoyment it has to offer without actually having to watch The Swarm. XP So, thanks!

  3. Yeah, Michael Caine and Irwin Allen. They wound up being two-for-two with THE SWARM in '78 and BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE in '79. Awful, awful movies. Allen must have had blackmail material on Caine.

    My favorite element of THE SWARM is the bombastic score by Jerry Goldsmith. I'm a hardcore Jerry fan and his score for this is so huge and overwhelming and grandiose, he's trying so damn hard and the music only ends up amplifying the lunacy. (He seems to be taking his cues from Caine's over-the-top performance...)


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