Airport and The Poseidon Adventure are most often credited with kicking off the 1970's disaster genre, but in 1969 there was Krakatoa, East of Java; at the vanguard of the early 1970s movement of disaster films.
Based on the factual explosion of the volcanic island of Krakatoa in the 1800s -after which the shock wave circled the globe seven times, the blast was heard 3,000 miles away, and produced a massive tidal wave that reached over 40 meters high. The amount of ash in the air caused darkened skies and black rain in many areas of the world and the explosion caused a noticeable lowering in the global average temperatures. Over 36,000 people were killed by this natural disaster.
Krakatoa, East of Java was directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, best known for the 1959 film Attack of the Giant Leeches and as the TV genius behind the Mission: Impossible pilot and the cop show Baretta, and it shows. The film unites the spirit of Jules Verne's stories with the Grand Hotel-like melodrama that became a trademark of the 70s disaster cinema but unfortunately the acting, dialogue and direction are serviceable at best. The film is an uneven mix bag of different elements some good and some not so good that mostly benefits from great cinematography and spectacular special effects for its time.
Set in the late 1800s, Maximilian Schell plays Hanson, a captain and treasure hunter rounding up crew for a major expedition. Diane Baker plays his love interest seeking her lost son. Brian Keith plays an aging diver with an opium problem. Barbara Werle plays his girlfriend who performs a musical number titled “An Old Fashioned Girl” while doing a striptease. Rozanno Brazzi and Sal Mineo play a father/son balloonists team who don't always get along. In addition there is John Leyton as a bell diver and a quartet of Japanese female divers, famed for their breath-holding ability.
From the very beggining, nothing seems to go right for these salvage-seekers. A sailor falls to his death loading the diving bell onto the ship. Then there are high pitched noises all around that don't come from the engine room. The bell and the balloon run into trouble, birds mass, fish die, the sky turns orange, smoke descends everywhere and chunks of lava rock are hurled at the boat. Did I mentioned that there are also 30 dangerous convicts placed on board who mutiny and a bunch of singing nuns with innocent children to add more spice?
The writing by screenwriters Bernard Gordon (Day of the Triffids) and Clifford Newton Gould is multi-melodramatic and pointlessly episodic, tossing a bunch of red herrings to make up running time until the climatic volcanic eruption. There's plenty of dramatic plot elements to play with but the characters are never properly fleshed out and lack chemistry with each other.
On the positive side, the film has breathtaking cinematography by Manuel Berenguer. In fact, at times Krakatoa, East of Java is a very beautiful film to look at (shot on location in the Canary Islands, Spain) and you get the sense that on the Cinerama screen with surround sound these effects would come across as truly spectacular. During the eruptions the sky turns red/orange and smoke and flames fly and cinematographer Berenguer has a field day with the exotically colored backgrounds and the silhouettes of the ship.
The Oscar winning special effects by Alex Weldon and the Eugene Lourie are grand. All the pyrotechnics, volcanic eruptions, tidal wave, typhoon, fireballs-are very effective and the climactic tidal wave is spectacular and shows the wonders of well executed miniatures in combination with forced perspective, and rear projection.
The music by Frank de Vol, habitual musician of Robert Aldrich's films is overall good with the exception of the totally inappropriate Beach Boys sounding theme song “Java Girl” and Werle’s strip tease musical number. Whose decision was that to include a full blown Broadway musical number in this film? Perhaps Baretta could answer that question.
Added note: Krakatoa, the island site of the 1883 volcanic eruption, lies in the Sunda Strait, west of Java. The error in the movie's title was discovered only after all the advertising and publicity materials had been prepared. Never mind that the lyrics for “Java Girl” had also been recorded.