Editor’s Note: We hope you’re enjoying our tribute to the films of director Bernard L. Kowalski. Today, we’re reviewing his first major studio feature film. And in a twist that only a B&S About Movies reader can appreciate: the leads of Maximilian Schell and Brian Keith would later star in their own, respective Star Wars-boondoggles that were The Black Hole and Meteor. Now, if that doesn’t make you want to watch this proto-disaster drama, then we don’t know what will.
Lost somewhere between Arthur Hailey and Irwin Allen igniting the ’70s disaster genre with their respective Airport franchise and the one-two-punch that is The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (and not forgetting Mark Robson’s Earthquake for Universal), there was ’50s blacklisted and ex-Poverty Row Monogram Pictures and King Brothers low-budget drive-in scribe Philip Yordan’s return to the majors with his proposal of making a film about the 1883 eruption of the island of Krakatoa.
For dramatic effect — as if people running for their lives from an erupting volcano wasn’t enough drama — he concocted a subplot about a band of unsavory characters aboard the decrepit steamer Batavia Queen attempting to salvage a sunken cargo of pearls deep in the island’s watery outskirts, with the bragging rights of a $3 million production budget. Initially, the film started out at Columbia Pictures with Rock Hudson (who eventually ended up in a disaster flick of his own with 1978’s Avalanche; look for our review) as Captain Chris Hanson, the commander of the Batavia Queen. As with most “big” movie plans, the project fell into “development hell,” and came out on the other side under the Cinerama Releasing Corporation shingle, a studio-distributor that did pretty with the John Boorman-directed (Zardoz, The Exorcist II: The Heretic) World War II drama Hell in the Pacific (1968) starring Lee Marvin.
Then, the real disaster erupted.
The then in-camera effects and process shots required to make the volcanic disaster appear convincing on film proved to be difficult; Philip Yordan gave up on his dream project; a new producer, Clifford Newton Gould, commissioned a new script; the film’s runtime ballooned to 130 minutes (two hours and ten minutes); once conceived as a family-friendly adventure, it now had racier, adult-dramatic elements added; the weather, the seas, and animals on the location weren’t cooperating within the budget.
At the time, Bernard L. Kowalski was a young TV director who cut his teeth with Roger Corman on Hot Car Girl, Night of the Blood Beast, and Attack of the Giant Leeches, but he more than proved himself in the more commercial realms of network television directing episodes of westerns (Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Gunsmoke) and law procedurals (Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible). There’s no doubt Kowalski was more-than-ready for a major studio, million dollar-plus project. But the “what ifs” abound: If only Columbia had backed the project (with more money). And, no disrespect to our leads of Maximilian Schell and Brian Keith, both are fine actors — if only Rock Hudson had carried the picture. And you didn’t have bickering I-know-better-than-you-do producers revamping a locked script and adding superfluous, saucy adult drama that left us with a confusing plot rife with a constantly changing adventure-to drama-to romance-to-adventure tone augmented with beyond-the-budget, haphazard special effects.
And, of course . . . there’s that pesky Cinerama Releasing Corporation boondoggle with the title: not only did the producers misspell (insist) the island, known as Krakatau; the island is — while technical part of the Indonesian “Far East” — is actually west of the isle and sea of Java. But how many of us dumb ticket buyers back in 1968 knew that fact? Well, the film critics made sure we knew in their reviews. And besides, “East” is sexier, you know, with Japan and all. In the end, the cataclysmic event that killed 36,000 people referenced in the film isn’t a docudrama: it is merely a (wildly, historically in accurate) backdrop for its family adventure-cum-adult dramatic relationships storyline.
So . . . do we need to tell you the movie was a critical and box office bomb? Not every movie with an overture and intermission (as did Fiddler on the Roof and 2001: A Space Odyssey) can be a success. The 130-minute print that ran in theaters in 1969 was later edited-for-television — with scenes shorted or wholly deleted — into a 106-minute print. Vying for the epic sweep of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which ran near four hours long and cleared $70 million against its $15 million budget to sweep The Golden Globes and Oscars, Philip Yordan’s dream project turned into a box office bomb.
Sadly, as with most directors-for-hire who have no control over the script they’re hired to shoot, nor a voice against those I-know-better-than-you-do producers, Bernard L. Kowalski shouldered the blame. After making two more major studio films for AVCO Embassy Pictures, Stiletto (1969), based on a Harold Robbins paperback best seller (starring Alex Cord and Britt Ekland), and the Civil War western Macho Callahan (1970; stars Gene Shane of The Velvet Vampire and Werewolves on Wheels alongside David Janssen), neither which set the box office on fire, Kowalski made his TV movie debut — and forged a successful TV movie career — with the airline disaster flick, Terror in the Sky (1971).
While Tubi carries the 106-minute TV print, we found the 130-minute theatrical cut on You Tube to enjoy. Moi? Even with its flaws, I stick to the epic — in more ways than one — theatrical print. You can enjoy the trailer on You Tube.