Note: this piece is edited from a piece originally posted at www.jabootu.net. It has been re-posted here with the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.
CITY ON FIRE (1978 - color)
"Canadian disaster film tells of an entire city going aflame."
This review being re-posted here is in part a celebration, as last night I was able to watch for the first time about 20 years THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE when a local video store started selling off it's stock. Sure, it's cropped, but it was great to see the film again!
I love disaster movies. As a kid I remember TNT one glorious night screening the AIRPORT
cycle. From there, I was hooked, and it seemed like TNT and TBS that
year ran just about every important disaster epic they could find. Weirdly, though, I have far too few of these wonders in my library.
Seeing CITY ON FIRE made me become aware of the shocking fact that I don’t even own copies of the three most famous disaster movies, THE TOWERING INFERNO, EARTHQUAKE, and (until last night) THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE! How did that happen? I’ll have to rectify that! (One at a time, but I'm getting there!)
Given the shallow number of disaster epics in my library, CITY ON FIRE
was a fun return to my younger days when I sat glued to the tube to see
which stars were going to survive that week’s big danger. And this one
featured one of my favorites in this field, Mr. Leslie Nielsen!
I was always a fan of Nielsen’s, even more of his dramatic
performances than his admittedly hilarious comedy roles. You often
forget, through his later years and all the trademark bumbling, that the
man was a terrific actor. As noted in my Oddball Film Report on PROM NIGHT,
his opening scenes carried such power and emotional weight that I was
taken aback. He was really way to good for such material. This being his
70′s period of sharp character pieces in ensemble pictures, I knew I
was in for a treat. In retrospect, I’d say Nielsen was the true
highlight of the picture.
Also on hand are a couple more of my favorites, Henry Fonda and James
Franciscus! The later, sadly, has only a small part compared to the
others. Ava Gardner drops by to play the
aging-star-who-spouts-a-lot-of-rough-language part. Also on hand is
Shelley Winters in one of her patented tough-broad-who-cares roles. The main leads are Barry Newman and Susan Clark. Weirdly, though,
this is a 70′s disaster movie that fails to feature Ernest Borgnine,
George Kennedy, OR Slim Pickens!
Ultimately, CITY ON FIRE
fails to rival the majority of its brethren. It hits all the points it
needs to, has a pretty good climax, but never feels like anything other
than a TV movie with dirty words (the credits imply production was done
by a Canadian TV studio, so there you go). In short, the film details the reaction to a chemical plant explosion
that sets much of a large city on fire. The main centerpiece is a newly
constructed hospital which must be evacuated amid the inferno. The plot would be right at home in a TV movie of the same period. (That said, there were a lot of really spiffy made-for-TV disaster epics from this time, so that isn't really a criticism.)
The usual soap opera stories intersect here: there’s a doctor who’s
bitter about his ex-wife marrying a bigwig and funding the very hospital
where he now works, the ex-wife is trying to prove that she’s more than
just a bankbook, she’s seeing the sleazy mayor and he’s trying to
propel her ex with a little positive publicity about the new hospital,
but the doctor is aware that the hospital is mostly an empty shell and
is being opened before it’s ready because it makes the mayor look good,
etc…. Not the best stuff the genre has to offer, but it shifts into focus
when the fires start and it becomes a story of survival, which is
ultimately the lure of these films.
(One thing I really admired about
the picture was that the Mayor -Leslie Nielsen- was a more dimensional
character than we get the impression he’s going to be.
He starts as a typically sleazy movie politician, but actually
becomes a true hero by the time things are over. That’s a refreshingly
non-cynical take, as most movies these days create such a character just
so the audience will be pleased when he meets a horrible death
-something I’ve always felt is a bit crass, not to mention annoying.)
We get a couple of false starts, as we open establishing the lives of
the city’s firemen. First is an accidental fire that quickly spreads
out of control when some kids are experimenting with cigarettes. Ever
notice how in movies made after, oh, 1975 or so, whenever someone tries a
cigarette for the first time, they wheeze and cough? Well, that happens here, so dynamic realism wouldn’t seem to be on
the menu. (Although, in fairness, things pick up in this regard
Anyway, this kid lights a ciggy while sitting in his
tree-house with some friends, and the smoke kicks him like a mule. In
his convulsions, he tosses the lit cig onto a pile of trash and in short
order the fire department is dealing with a huge blaze engulfing a
suburban street. They manage to get this under control, but at the cost
of one of their men.
Elsewhere, there’s a huge chemical plant, one of the Mayor’s projects
which got him elected. Working there is a seemingly dedicated engineer
hoping to move up to foreman. When he finds out he isn’t getting the
job, he throws a tantrum and is promptly fired.
Being a bit more unhinged than we originally thought, he sabotages
the plant on his way out. Merrily loosening valves and screwing with
control boards, one imagines he’s seeing himself as Derek Flint sending
Galaxy “into orbit” and getting back at a faceless giant that has robbed
him of some good years of his life -although he doesn’t look that old
or anything. In reality, of course, he’s just placing any number of
innocent people in jeopardy. Fortunately, the crew of the plant manages
to stabilize everything before the tanks can blow. They do miss,
however, an open valve on a fuel truck….
In short, the stream of runoff is ignited and the plant blows apart.
The exact nature of the disaster remains a mystery to me. The plant
catches fire, and suddenly half the city is ablaze…. This sequence is also confusingly edited, although that may have been
defensive, as there are elements here that don’t seem to line up to
present the events we find ourselves watching.
At any rate, the hospital finds itself surrounded by flames and the
staff and patients must be evacuated through the deadly wall of heat and
poison gas between the fire-fighting crew and the building itself. This
sequence, the major set-piece of the film, is pretty good. So the film
pays off, despite a shaky start.
Not the best disaster epic I’ve ever seen, but ultimately not a bad
evening’s entertainment. The real fun of these pictures if two fold:
seeing a collection of stars, and seeing a story of survival play out.
True, it isn’t AIRPORT, but that vehicle casts a pretty big shadow.
As noted, it feels like a TV movie more than anything else. One of
the advantages of the Disaster Movie, though, is that they’re all about
the spectacle and larger-than-life melodrama. You more or less kick your
brain into neutral and enjoy the ride. High drama is the order of the
day, and we ultimately get what we’re after.
CITY ON FIRE came fairly late in the disaster cycle,
although the genre would survive until the early 80′s before
skyrocketing production costs made such films un-makable. In the mid/late
90′s, the genre showed signs of coming back, but minus the opulent
casts that signify the Disaster Epic. The last film to really try the
all-star formula was the disappointing “comedy” MARS ATTACKS!, a missed opportunity if there ever was one...