Michael Caine is a legendary actor. He has delivered majestic performances in all-time great movies like The Man Who Would Be King and Zulu, and a comedy masterclass in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Italian Job. He embodied iconic characters such as Alfie and Harry Palmer, made Alfred Pennyworth warm, relatable and more integral to Batman than ever before on film. He is also legendary for another reason. Growing up dirt poor in a massively disadvantaged area of London, he was never under any illusions as to why he worked. As a result, he would star in any old shit as long as the pay was good. Like The Swarm.
Irwin Allen would provide Michael Caine with more than one pile of any old shit. In 1979 he would direct Caine in Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, a notorious flop. Directly before this, in 1978, Caine and Allen would work together to bring Arthur Herzog’s 1974 killer bee novel The Swarm to the big screen.
Arthur Herzog may be familiar to some Outposters. Remember him? He had another novel of his adapted into a movie that we covered here before. That was also an unregarded, nature gone mad movie starring a big-name cast – Orca The Killer Whale. I never thought I would end up Retro Reviewing two Herzog adaptions in my lifetime, but here I am!
Allen, the acknowledged “Master Of Disaster” long before Roland Emmerich was even out of nappies, was riding high with movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno getting rave reviews, making bank, and winning awards. He doubled down and went for more and more disaster based movies, in the process helping kill the genre he remains famous for. The Swarm is one of those movies. It appears on many worst movie lists. Is it really that bad?
“Oh My God! Bees, Bees, Millions Of Bees!”
We begin our adventure into… well, bees, at an apparently deserted nuclear ICBM base in South Texas with troops arriving to see why it is apparently deserted. They find that it isn’t deserted. Everyone inside is dead. Well… almost everyone.
Immediately we are hit with some problems. Whatever they think might have caused the base to become deserted or, as they now know, full of the dead, the arriving troops clearly aren’t taking things very seriously. For a start, the protective gear is useless, not covering them completely. Things get even worse when one of the troops, revealed to be the usually wonderful Bradford Dillman, takes his mask off still with no clue about what caused the issue. Even eight year old me, when I first saw this movie, realised this was probably not correct protocol. Maybe I was just a weird little fucker of a kid who understood stuff like this?
In a huge leap of logic and wonderful happenstance they find the civilian scientist Dr. Bradford Crane just wandering around the restricted bunker. He can tell us what happened. So he does, and how! The base was attacked by a swarm of Africanised “killer” bees.
Now I cannot claim to be a screenwriter, but I thought writers were supposed to do at least a teeny, tiny bit of research first, right? Bees die after stinging people. So if these bees had swarmed in and killed everyone in a secure bunker, there would be dead bees everywhere, wouldn’t there? The bodies would be covered in lumps and bumps? You could see the stingers poking out of some stings?
Nope, nothing. None of that. Just as Dillman and his boss General Slater (Richard Widmark) dive gleefully, and face first, into the wise scientist vs. gung ho military tropes straight from the 1970s cliche-o-tron, comes a radio call. Two rescue choppers have encountered a swarm of bees in the air. After having what looks like yellow and black pellets thrown at them for ten seconds this does not end well for the helicopters.
Hang on. Barely five minutes in and we have Caine, Dillman and Widmark already? What the hell kind of cast has this thing got? Don’t worry. There is still Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray all to come.
Where were we? Bees. Right.
So the choppers are brought down by the swarm and this gives Caine a chance to deliver, with a straight face, the most gloriously hammy line in the history of cinema:
“We’ve been fighting a losing battle against the insects for 15 years, but I never thought I’d see the final face-off in my lifetime. And I never dreamed, that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friend.”
We can’t hang around letting the awfulness of the script wash over us, as Crane is then miraculously given a field promotion via telephone by none other than the President to go and stop this menace and we are off and running. You can barely catch your breath here, Outposters.
We meet base physician Dr. Helena Anderson (Katherine Ross) who is there purely, for the rest of the movie, to ask Michael Caine sciencey questions to allow for exposition, and to look scared of things to tell the audience they should be scared too.
Slim Pickens turns up doing his good ol’ boy routine to maximum effect as his son was on the base and in a lapse of logic, and mournful music, he is allowed to retrieve his sons body. Then we relocate to the nearby town of Marysville that is preparing for the Fourth Of July, did I say 4th Of July? (those beaches will be open!) I meant the Annual Marysville Flower Festival.
“You Yell Bee…”
Nearby, the Durant family is having a picnic and have not spotted a swarm of bees… nesting, hiving… what is it that bees do when they are not swarming? Or are they always swarming? Whatever. They are all over a nearby dead tree with holes in it.
Mommy Durant swats a bee on their picnic and that pheromone thing they do on death triggers the swarm into action and a scene unfolds that was basically nightmare fuel for kids of my age watching this years ago. Parents are turned into pin cushions but son Paul escapes in the family car and so the town and authorities are warned.
This is one of the frustrations of this movie. Truly terrible lines, hammy acting, useless VFX and completely irrational plotting, wrapped in an incomprehensible 150 minute run time, is punctuated by some genuinely disturbing bee attack scenes. These are the ones when they use real bees. For others they simply fire those yellow and black pellets at the cast and get them to thrash around.
For these scenes they must have had a bee wrangler of some kind on set and clearly had some specially trained extras as we see them covered in bees.
These well staged scenes don’t save the movie though, because here comes a disaster movie staple to ruin everything – the subplot! This time it’s a pensioner love triangle between Clarence, Felix and Maureen (Fred MacMurray and Oscar winners Ben Johnson and Olivia de Havilland… seriously) that is thankfully interrupted by more bee mayhem.
Paul Durant wants revenge. He sets off with two buddies and the throw molotov cocktails at the swarm nesting, sleeping, I dunno… homemaking…. in the dead tree where his parents were killed and this sets the swarm off for Marysville.
Here another decently staged, if mean-spirited set-piece bee attack occurs including a local primary school being attacked while the kids are on recess, resulting in infanticide on a playground-wide scale.
Something must be done! Arguments rage between scientists and soldiers, with the latter wanting to bomb the swarm or spray the entire area with chemical pesticide. This argument will rage again and again as the swarm heads for Houston, managing to take down an entire train and a nuclear power station station on the way.
Henry Fonda, Richard Chamberlain and the rest of an A-List cast turn up, say important lines, do something stupid and then die in pretty much that order as scientists and soldiers try endless schemes to stop the swarm, all of which fail.
Swarm On This
Eventually Houston is attacked. The US military once again shows it’s legendary reputation for subtlety and finesse is well deserved by burning the city to the ground, before eventually the swarm is dispatched through the combined power of sound, an oil slick and some napalm.
The whole movie is, on every conceivable level, completely awful. Yet at the same time, it’s magnificent.
You can’t look away, in the same way you can’t not look at a car wreck when you pass one on the highway. To see Michael Caine steadfastly refusing to acknowledge he’s in a pile of shit, a talent he would call on several times in his career, and give it his all is always a joy to watch. The big cast simply collecting a pay check should have watched an learned.
The size, the scale, the totally unfulfilled ambition all combine into something that becomes a text book example of a genre desperately shitting out it’s last few logs of effort before expiring for a while but, in the process, it crosses that Rubicon into “so bad, it’s good” territory.
This, of course, is when Africanised “killer” bees were going to invade the US from the South where they had infiltrated Brazilian hives, thus proving people were trying to scare anyone with anything even before Al Gore invented global warming. This meant we were treated to a raft of these movies, from The Savage Bees to Terror Out Of The Skies. Even in a saturated market, The Swarm remains the Daddy of them all.
I cannot score this as lowly as it technically deserves for its awfulness, as somebody signed off this script including a scene where the bees take down a nuclear power station. I just can’t stay mad at this movie for that.
Instead, I will just leave you with the same notice the movie leaves for the viewer:
“THE AFRICAN KILLER BEE PORTRAYED IN THIS FILM
BEARS ABSOLUTELY NO RELATIONSHIP TO
THE INDUSTRIOUS, HARD-WORKING AMERICAN
HONEY BEE TO WHICH WE ARE INDEBTED
FOR POLLUNATING VITAL CROPS
THAT FEED OUR NATION.”
Consider yourself told!