Theme Song: Literally hours of Jerry Goldsmith orchestral sweeps.
Interesting Dated References: Being able to hear the sounds of a vehicle crash over a CB radio, complete with tire screeches, explosion, and resulting fire, as if the person involved in the collision and subsequent fire remained holding the transponder on the CB handset even after death.
Best Line: In reference to millions of bees — “Oh my god, bees! Bees! Millions of bees!” In reference to being able to get six men inside — “I managed to get six men inside.”
Social Context: 1978 was peak Killer Bee™ fever in Hollywood. This is one of three productions that came out that year. Adapted from a novel of the same name, The Swarm has a little more script to work with than a quick cash-in like Terror Out of The Sky, but that didn’t stop if from being a failure at the box office. Anchored by overblown acting from Michael Caine (Get Carter ‘71, Get Carter ‘00), Richards Widmark and Chamberlin, Henry Fonda, Cameron Mitchell, Patty Duke, Lee Grant, and dozens of others, The Swarm fumbles through scenario after scenario of how to deal with a swarm of Killer Bees™. An overlong 156 minutes in theatres, the home video version is trimmed to a modest 116 minutes of shouting, sweating, and endless character introductions.
Summary: An Army General and his team arrive at a secret government missile silo and find everyone dead. Michael Caine shows up to announce they were all killed by bees and he has just the thing to stop them. After literal hours of shouting, Caine is put in charge of stopping the giant swarm of Killer Bees™ that are intent on destroying America.
His plan involves scene after scene of research and scientific conversations about anti-venom with Henry Ford and Katherine Ross. After realizing the bees are immune to the “poison pellets” they spent weeks engineering, Caine is removed from leadership and General Slater (Widmark) takes over. His solution is to use flamethrowers to burn down Houston.
This plan goes awry and suddenly Caine realizes this entire thing started because the Killer Bees™ think the air raid siren at the secret army base is their queen inviting them to come make love. So everyone realizes the best solution is to fill the Gulf of Mexico with air raid sirens so as to attract the bees. They fill the Gulf with oil and light it on fucking fire, killing all the bees, and we can assume, all the wildlife and sealife. The end.
Perplexing story threads and go-nowhere subplots aside, The Swarm delivers on the disaster film high body count and destruction. There’s an entire 10-minute scene at a school where children are stung to death while having recess! Many children! It’s bonkers!
As the final act approaches, the body count really gets out of control when the bees fly into a nuclear reactor, causing it to explode, killing 36,422 people! Then the bees derail a train killing all but 16 people on board! Each of these scenes last for 1 minute because director Irwin Allen apparently decided it’s better to focus on endless scientific dialogue.
– Katherine Ross (The Graduate) plays an army doctor. In one of the more useless subplots, she and Michael Caine fall in love in the span of a 3-minute conversation about where they’re from originally.
– Ben Johnson (The Savage Bees, The Wild Bunch) shows up to play an elderly man competing with another elderly man (Fred MacMurray) for the affections of the school marm, played by Olivia de Havilland. By far this subplot gets the most amount of screentime and it’s absurd. At least 45 minutes are dedicated to scenes where the men fight for her affection.
– Jose Ferrer (The Being) plays one of the lab doctors for like 10 minutes.
– Directed by Irwin Allen and written by Stirling Silliphant, the tag team disaster film genre auteurs behind The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
– After failing at the box office, Caine and Allen both distanced themselves from the film.
Poster and Box Art: The Swarm had a solid visual identity right out of the gate. This wordmark was used in the film and in all marketing and is really solid.
The accompanying poster was typical for the era, with small photos of the massive cast and general scenes of chaos, but is still pretty great.
Somehow all of that was dropped for the home video release. My Betamax is a Warner bookbox in the standard green layout:
There was a righteous Polish poster:
Availability: A restored 156-minute cut is available streaming and on DVD.