An American Air Force base in Texas containing a nuclear missile silo is mysteriously attacked, leaving almost all of the staff dead. On investigation, the eerily quiet control room reveals the cause of this is not, as the military supposes, chemical warfare, but a huge swarm of African killer bees, which is sweeping across the state having arrived recently from South America, leaving devastation in its wake. Can entomologist Crane (Michael Caine) work out how to destroy this terror before it reaches Houston?
By the seventies, producer Irwin Allen thought he had the winning formula for hit movies - assemble a star cast and stick them in a disaster area, then watch the cash pour in. While this approach served him well for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, by the end of the decade Allen's luck had run out, as this momentously bad turkey, written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by his own good self, shows all too clearly, looking like a widescreen made for television Saturday night would-be spectacular, those cut rate effects included.
Now, unless you have an allergy a single bee isn't inherently threatening on its own. The sub genre of killer bee movies has yet to throw up any classics, though it does at least have the edge on killer wasp movies. Sure, a wide bee would be pretty scary, and nobody wants to get stung to death by loads of insects, but the havoc caused by the bees here is just ridiculous. They manage to destroy helicopters, derail a train, blow up a nuclear power plant (how?!) and set Houston aflame. To say it strained credibility would be an understatement, they behave more like fire-raising terrorists than oblivious insects.
Michael Caine was well into his period of apparently doing any film he was offered if the money was right: here he puts on a brave face yet can't help but look embarrassed - he's at least as good as Sean Connery in Meteor. The rest of the cast are hopeless in dreadful roles: only Richard Widmark's General Slater shows any enthusiasm, posing as the hotheaded contrast to Caine's supposedly level-headed scientific processes in a stupid military man role, though the lead breaks out quite frequently into a curiously stony-faced round of shouting at occasional moments.
The ludicrous dialogue is something to hear: "I never thought it would turn out to be the bees - they've always been our friends" laments Caine. "Smells like bananas" observes immunologist Henry Fonda of the bee venom, this after claiming he doesn't oil the wheels of his chair because he is studying Tibetan levitation and therefore won't need it for much longer, well of course. "I always treat my enemy, no matter what he may be, with equal intelligence," barks the general - what are you saying? That you have the intelligence of a bee? Eh? And for real hilarity, check out Caine's way of blustering his way through his jargon-filled lines by saying them at the top of his voice.
The script endeavours to have us care about these cardboard characters by setting them up with sentimental relationships, for example the love triangle involving Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Olivia De Havilland ("How lucky I am!"), but considering what happens to them its hardly worth investing any emotion. Their small town becomes a target not simply because they are there and they are film stars, but also thanks to the convenient for the plot flower festival they are holding - what do bees like? Good grief! Because the death of most of the cast is set up solely for our thrills, the whole thing feels cheap and hollow.
In Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine, he notes how the U.S. media unwittingly used African killer bees versus industrious, helpful American bees as a metaphor for the white people's fear of the black people, and sure enough, in The Swarm there's not one black character! Which shows the conspiracy started earlier than we thought. Yet another reason to lampoon this film. Also, there was an infamous disclaimer at the end which told the audience not to mistake the Africans for the hardworking American honey bee, presumably necessary to prevent the critters being stamped on or thwacked in an unintended repeat of those impressionable viewers who went out to slaughter sharks after watching Jaws three years earlier. Incidentally, there are two versions, the long one and the extremely long one. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
American producer and occasional director who became known for his starry, trashy epics. Coming to the movies from a career in publishing and radio, he won an Oscar for the documentary The Sea Around Us, and The Big Circus, the campy Story of Mankind and The Lost World followed.