the Movie Club Annals ...

  
 

 
 

Rating: 9 Poseidons

 

 

Reviewed by Tony W.

 

 

   


Director’s Cut
The Cruelest Cut of All

   
 

“How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.”

                                                               Isaac Watts

 
 
The work of labour that is Irwin Allen’s “The Swarm” bears Satan’s mark throughout. Each punishing second of his156-minute Director’s Cut is a visceral Hell of its own, more excruciating and miserable than anything you are likely to witness in film. Not even the intentional and artistically valid frustration evoked by Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel”or Kurosawa’s “The Lower Depths” can rival the bone-deep despair, the protracted longuers, or the outrage that viewers of “The Swarm” suffer. By comparison, Hamlet’s Delay becomes imperceptible. The “Master of Disaster” has given us a torment which the stings of a thousand killer bees would only alleviate.
 
 Let us say that “The Swarm” addresses, on several levels, individual responses to conflict. To explicate this generous interpretation, we must unfortunately visit the premises and plot of the film. What follows is a rough chronological precis.
 

 “We were attacked by bees.”

 

 

 

 The Swarmopens with the busy arrival of military personnel, in trucks, jeeps, and helicopters, at a remote Air Force ICBM command installation in the Texas desert. Soldiers dressed in every variety and color of biochemical protective gear (“The Swarm” was nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar.) race into the structure and descend to the Communications Center on the 18th subterranean level. There they discover the bodies of several Air Force personnel. After securing the area,  team leader Major Baker (Bradford Dillman) reports to General Thaddeus Slater, who is supervising the operation via helicopter, that there is no evidence of a pre-emptive strike by a foreign power. Only the presence of a civilian vehicle on the grounds suggests a security breach. Slater (Richard Widmark, channeling Curtis LeMay) will join Baker to direct the operation.

  

 

 Baker, Craine, & Slater

 

Into the charged atmosphere of the Communications Center strolls Dr. Brad Craine (Michael Caine) tricked out in what looks like an academic safari outfit, replete with elbow patches and turtleneck. Deliberately evasive and offering no explanation for his presence, he spars verbally with Baker until Slater arrives. We soon learn that he is a world-renowned entomologist and general know-it-all specializing in ...guess what?…bees.  “The war I’ve always talked about has started” he  utters unemotionally, employing one of only two styles he uses throughout the film. The command center, he explains, was attacked by …surprise!…bees. African Killer Bees or, more simply, “Africans”, a term used with frequency and illuminated somewhat by a disclaimer at the film’s end. When Slater sends his helicopters off to track down the retreating swarm, the Africans, in lockstep with Bee Movie cliché, bring down  the aircraft.
  
 Captain Helena Anderson (Katherine Ross), an Air Force doctor who rescued several airmen stung during the attack, appears out of nowhere to inform the assembly of the critical condition of the victims. When Craine suggests use of a certain drug to treat them, she recognizes him as The Internationally Renowned Bee Scientist and The Obvious Love Interest, if the antiseptic relationships in Allen’s films deserve such description.
  

 Apparently, one bee swarm attack is sufficient for the U.S. to redeploy all of its military might on the Bee Front. To General Slater’s chagrin, the White House appoints Craine as the Commander-in-Chief of Bee Warfare. When Craine asks “What are the limits to my authority?”, the answer, which forever cements the Craine/Slater antagonism, is “None!”. Now, apparently, the entire U.S. military, Slater included, reports to the monotone, sunflower seed-eating Craine who informs us that we have been attacked by an enemy far more lethal than any human force. And, bristling with his new authority, he dispatches an officer to retrieve from Craine’s van his previously concocted Bee Battle Plan and to begin executing its initial steps. 

  
But the big, ongoing question - on which much of the film’s tedium hinges - is “What made the bees attack the ICBM command center?”
    

Maryville


Several subplots emerge. They involve Maryville , the town closest to the ICBM command center and one whose architecture and residents were designed by Norman Rockwell. Its mayor, Clarence Tuttle (Fred MacMurray) seems to be at odds with Felix (Ben Johnson), a retired master mechanic, about how best to advertise Maryville’s upcoming (countdown to cliché…ten, nine..) Flower Festival. Maureen Schuster (Olivia de Havilland), Maryville ’s elementary school principal and the object of both Clarence’s and Felix’s affection, is moderating the disagreement with her charming Georgia accent. (Never mind that she has lived in Maryville , Texas since her youth.). The purpose of this tiresome and awkward scene illustrates another Allen convention: developing the charm of characters (in this case some flirting oldies) destined for slaughter.

 

 In the same vein, Allen acquaints the viewer with the true horror of an African Killer Bee attack, by showing a Maryville family picnicking near a hollow tree to which the African swarm has returned. Guess what happens? While the mother and father (dressed like sodbusters or hippies with bad taste) lay out the spread and contaminate it with insect spray, the son, Paul, returns to the car for some errand. The Africans, no doubt incensed by the contrast between their own neat little outfits and the parent’s tacky garb, attack. And here, we first (but unfortunately not last) see Allen’s homage to Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”. Shot in ultra slow motion (as if this film needs further delay) the protracted death dance of mother, father, and the bees unfolds so tiresomely that the viewer feels a tingling sensation in the exact finger he or she uses for fast forward. O! The Terrible Poetry! O, Boy!
   
 In spite of being stung himself, Paul witnesses all of this from within the family car (a Ford Must Sting) but writes off his parents and speeds into Maryville , where he crashes and is rushed to the hospital. We will revisit him soon.

   

 

 “Reach out and it will go away.”

 
 For some reason, Doctor Captain Helena and Doctor Craine must visit Maryville and check on Paul. Traumatized by the bee attack, Paul hallucinates an Enormous Bee about to sting him. In an act intended to reveal his compassion and illustrate his First Style of Acting (slow monotone), Craine tells Paul to “Reach out and it will go away.” It does. So what?
 

Time is of the Essence!

Dr. Krim & Dr. Craine

Dr. Hubbard

 

 

Craine’s Bee Battle Plan involves recruitment of scientists versed in things Bee. One is Doctor Walter Krim (Henry Fonda), Craine’s wheelchair-bound mentor and immunologist who is now charged with developing a mass antitoxin against African Killer Bee venom. Another, Doctor Hubbard (emphasis on “Doctor!”) is to develop an African Killer Bee poison. That Craine and Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain) are testy rivals is evidenced in a team meeting when Hubbard insists the bees are actually Brazilian, not African. No matter. In time of crisis, all unite against the uncommon enemy.
 
As Killer Bee attacks are occurring all across the United States , Craine emphasizes the need for quick response. Such utterances as “Time is the one thing we’re short of”, “Thirty minutes, no more, to shower and unpack”, and “We’ve got to move fast!” convey his sense of urgency. Why the development of a mass antitoxin and a Killer Bee poison, the pillars of Craine’s strategy, could not have taken place over the prior decade is a mystery.
 

Here Comes the Conflict!

  
To General Slater’s (and any reasonable person’s) dismay, Craine’s action plan calls not for the easily accomplished eradication of bee swarms but for selective elimination of only the Africans. Using his Second Acting Style (louder voice, faster pace), Craine rebuffs the incredulous Slater’s objections with the “argument” that we must not touch a hair follicle on the body of a single American Honey Bee. Why? Because then we would have no pollination vectors and many crops would fail. The ever-sensible Slater counters with the unassailable observation “Better a few American bees than the American People!”.
 
Craine then asks Slater how he would approach the bee problem. Slater’s response (vintage Widmark) is the essence of Take-Charge Mentality Impeded by The Idiocy of Others: “ Spray the hell out of every tree and bush from here to the coast!” (Read “Bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age!”) When Craine then asks Hubbard (sorry, DOCTOR Hubbard) if the poison pellets are ready, Slater erupts with “Those damn poison pellets of yours won’t get us anywhere!”. And, later, after an unnecessary mass spraying of the pellets, he proves to be 100% correct. Craine, observing the fiasco through binoculars says, “They’re not touching the pellets!”
  

“Damned unsettling development here!”

 

 
 
With the failure of Hubbard’s selective African Bee poison, the Craine team’s last hope is Dr. Krim’s ability to synthesize a mass antitoxin. (The logistics for manufacturing and distributing 250 million doses nationally in a short period of time seem to be negligible.) Because his prototype has had mixed experimental results on rabbits, the real test will require a human subject. Craine volunteers, but the sly Krim puts him off with “First thing in the morning, I’ll try it on a human being.” What follows, more than any other aspect of “The Swarm”, is Irwin Allen’s signature scene. Parallels abound in Allen’s other work, most notably the Bridge Scene in “When Time Ran Out”. These scenes involve a group or an individual striving to negotiate some daunting obstacle in order to survive. If you have reached this point in viewing the film, you need to prepare for the fact that the next scene will take, psychologically, about seventeen hours. Here’s what happens.
 
 The clever Krim, as you may have guessed, will not plague himself with the moral conflict of experimenting on another human. He will be the subject himself. Tediously, he sets his tape recorder in motion, wires himself to monitor several body functions (most prominently his heartbeat), and injects himself with the equivalent of six African Killer Bee stings, two beyond what is considered fatal. The following stunningly dull molasses roller coaster of events is better seen than described. But you can guess what happens. After the initial injection, we watch the slow but alarming progression of Krim’s heartbeat and other indicators from normal to near fatal. Krim is sweating, barely able to speak. Then, the antitoxin kicks in. Krim’s heartbeat drops into the normal range. Other signs improve. O! Joy! It works! Hooray! Hooray! Hoo….wait a minute. What’s this? Heart rate increasing! Vital signs failing! And on. And on. And on until Krim croaks. Helena and Craine enter, find Walter dead. Touched, Caine reverts to Acting Style One, speaking in a slow monotone.
 

“Those Killer Bees are Comin’”

 

 

 

All the while, the African Killers have been lounging in their tree trunk, the one from  which they emerged to off Paul’s family. (Hard to imagine how a tree trunk full of bees can ravage an entire state.) But Paul seeks revenge. With the aid of two buddies, he escapes from the hospital and bikes over to the bee site to assess the best means of destroying the swarm. Moments later the trio returns to attack the hive with Molotov cocktails. The effect is only to anger the swarm and cause it to take to the air in search of opportunities for venting its hostile emotions. And the closest opportunity is…you guessed it!… Maryville , also a destination of Craine and Helena who are joy-riding under the pretense of looking for the swarm. When they actually spot it, they speed to town and sound the alarm. Next we see kids (i.e. victims) milling about in front of the elementary school, then several more Sam Peckinpah death sequences. The Maryville death toll? Two hundred and thirty two, all thanks to Paul’s ill-conceived revenge plot. And, during the attack, Helena is stung and, later, hospitalized. Will she survive? What do you think?

But we still do not know what made The Swarm attack the ICBM command center.

 

Get Out of Town!

 

 

 

 Given that all of North America is under a Killer Bee attack, it is decided that Maryville (recall the Flower Festival) must be evacuated. All the residents – Maureen, Felix, and Clarence included – are herded aboard a train for a speedy evacuation. The train proceeds along the side of a valley. A bee lands on the hand of the railroad engineer. The train crashes and burns,  killing everyone. One bee. One train.

Back in Maryville , Paul has suffered a relapse from his initial bee stings and, in retribution for loosing the swarm on Maryville, he dies. Allen spares no one. Craine and Helena (now in African Killer Bee Sting remission) witness Paul’s death and bond ever more closely.

 

“Attack and Eliminate It!”

  

 
  

Every component of Craine’s battle plan for eliminating The Swarm has failed. Alerted to Craine’s lack of success, the White House replaces him with Slater whose tactical approach is “Get ‘em all into one area and zap ‘em!”. The General has never been wrong during the bee crisis. He has exactly the qualities that a warrior-leader should possess. Why wasn’t anyone listening to him?

While every other state is now experiencing the cold weather the Africans can’t tolerate (are there racial implications here?), Texas enjoys no such advantage. Moreover, The Swarm is heading for Houston .

What to do? For some reason, it is deemed imperative that all factories and installations, including the nuclear power plant in Houston , must be closed. Doctor Hubbard agrees to take on the task of persuading Dr. Andrews , the director of the Houston Nuke, to close the facility.

 

Within the Nuke, Hubbard and Andrews  (Jose Ferrar) engage in a brief pissing match before Andrews points out that the government has spent billions of dollars to make such nuclear facilities safe. And guess what happens? A bee somehow penetrates the security defenses and stings a worker who accidentally hits a switch causing acceleration of the chain reaction. More bees arrive and, once again, we watch the inevitable slow-mo, hilarious by now, of the scientists swatting at the bees who are stinging their asses. “Go to Manual!” Anderson bellows before he and Hubbard are felled by little nasties.

The reactor reaches critical mass within seconds of the accidental touching of the switch, explodes, and kills 36,422 Houstonians. (The immediacy and precision of the body count amazes.) Perhaps some of the billions spent on security should have been allocated to design safety. These bees are bad news!

And do we yet know why the Killer Bees attacked the ICBM command center? No, we do not.

 

“Houston, We Have A Problem!”

 

 
 

The government decides to defend Houston by sending a few men with flamethrowers into the streets to burn up the Africans. And, for some reason, the entire Slater operation must move to Houston rather than remain in the relatively secure ICBM command center. Naturally, Craine and Helena also relocate to Slater’s new headquarters on the umpteenth floor of a glass and steel tower.

Though displaced from his post as Ultimate Bee War Director, Craine continues to try to determine why the bees attacked the command center. Meanwhile, in the streets below, the seven-man Bee Incineration Team is having a tough time burning up their apian adversaries. (Probably because their flames cannot be thrown higher than 20 feet.) But the battle rages on into the night.

Helena , you will remember, is an African Killer Bee Sting Survivor, which qualifies her for a life-threatening relapse and, on cue, she has one. She is made comfortable and left to her fate as Craine and a scientist buddy compare, electronically, the African Killer Bee mating sound with every other sound they can find. (Try Pink Floyd!) Soon they discover that the alarm siren at the ICBM command center and the mating sound of the African Killer Bee are identical. They revel in now knowing the answer to the question that has bugged them from frame one. And what plan of attack does this suggest? Exactly what General Slater had suggested days earlier. “Get ‘em all into one area and zap ‘em!”.

 

 Craine now suggests broadcasting the sound from a helicopter to lead the bees away from Houston to the Gulf of Mexico . Slater seconds the idea, orders Craine to oversee the operation, and calls Dodge Field with instructions.

All the while, Helena , in Bee Sting Relapse, has had her Large Bee halluncination and then, mysteriously, has begun changing into an off-mauve jump suit. (An impaired fashion sense is one of the lesser-known effects of the Killer Bee sting.) Craine finds Helena and they depart for Dodge Field.

But, suddenly, two members of the Bee Incinerator Team pursued by Africans rush out of the elevator by  Slater’s office. Within seconds, the hallways are awash with bees. The clear-thinking Slater grabs a flamethrower, orders Craine and Helena to head for Dodge Field, and initiates a holding operation to allow them to escape. As we watch, General Thaddeus Slater, a brave and noble man among imbeciles, goes down fighting in order to facilitate the escape of Craine and the useless Helena. Rest in Peace, General Thaddeus. May Swarms of Bees Guide Thee To Thy Rest.

  

“Gulf of Mexico on the Barbie!”

 

Craine & Helena

 

Apparently, the trip to bee-free Dodge Field from Houston takes but a few seconds. And, thanks to General Slater, all the necessary equipment and manpower have been assembled there, awaiting Craine’s directive. “Spread Big Oil Slick Over The Gulf!” he barks into a microphone to an officer who relays to his helicopter pilots the command “Spread Your Oil Over Gulf Of Mexico !” This task takes roughly 30 seconds. Then several helicopters drop life rafts equipped with speakers that broadcast the African Killer Bee Mating Sound. Instantly, all the Killer Bees in Texas swarm over  the Gulf.

“Four Minutes To Burning!” roars a speaker on the beach where Craine, Helena, and the troops have congregated to witness the impending conflagration. A rocket launcher ignites the flames. The entire Gulf of Mexico erupts in a massive fireball, and the African Killer Bees are toast.

“Is this just a temporary victory?”simpers Helena against a backdrop of flame. Dr. Brad Craine (reverting to Acting Style Number One) opines that  “the world might just survive”.

Finis

  

What Have We Learned?

 

As a moral or cautionary tale, “The Swarm” has little to offer except for the instances of stupidity with which it is laced. To wit:

·        Shouldn’t it have been obvious to the world’s leading bee experts that imitating the Killer Bee’s mating call would offer a plausible means of rounding them up for dispatch? Why the time-consuming, circuitous route to that conclusion via the ICBM command center alarm siren?

·        How is it that the Killer Bees cannot enter an automobile but have no trouble breaking into a trains and buildings en masse?

·        Why is civilization doomed by the Killer Bee threat? Relocating to colder climes would certainly keep a large portion of the population alive and well.

·        Why try Hubbard’s poison pellets on acres of land when application to a captive sample would more simply and quickly reveal the efficacy of the poison?

·        How could an ICBM command center be subject to blackmail via water cutoff from a yokel farmer?

·        Is there any Disaster Film cliché absent from this film?

·        Is it by accident that the stereotypical sounds made both by angry bees and humans sleeping is “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”?

  

 Ad infinitum.

 

What Have You Missed?

 

Should you be foolish enough to actually watch this film, you’ll observe that much more takes place than has been recounted here. For example:

·        The touching scene in which Jud Hawkins (Slim Pickens) reclaims his dead son from the ICBM command center.

·        The boring story of a pregnant Rita (Patty Duke Astin) and her doctor (Alejandro Rey.)

·        Felix’s and Clarence’s puerile wooing of Maureen.

·        Dr. Walter Krim’s thoughtful gnawing of the temples of his glasses.

·        The inane exchange of “Doctor! Captain! Major!” when Craine, Baker, and Helena meet.

Ad nauseum.

 

Epilog

 

 The following, revealing disclaimer appears at the end of “The Swarm”.

  “ The African bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no resemblance to the industrious, hard working American Honey Bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation.” (Emphasis mine.)

Literally this tells us that the African Killer Bee is not a bee, nor an insect, nor is it alive. It cannot fly; it does not sting. Why then does it pose a threat to humanity? The statement also echoes the xenophobic and jingoistic themes that permeate the film.

Allen may have been  prescient in regard to bees. We have recently learned that the American Honey Bee population is truly in decline and that we may yet suffer the consequences of a lack of apian pollination vectors, the very danger of which Dr. Brad Craine warned us.

  

Coda

 
If this isn’t the most boring review you’ve ever read, you deserve pity. Yet, for all its tedium, it cannot compete with “The Swarm”’s maddeningly deadly formica-dull two hours and thirty six minutes.While the producers of  “The Swarm” might claim that no bees were injured in the production of the film, the same protection is not offered its viewers.
 

Post Script

 
Perhaps the greatest danger to Mankind posed by bees of any kind is that they inspire films such as “The Swarm”.
 

Post Post Script

 

I almost forgot! There’s a novel by Arthur Herzog called “The Swarm”. It’s the 
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TW