Films have formulas and rules, but how well do Disaster films follow those formulas?
The following will include spoilers for
The Towering Inferno (1974)
RULE #1 - Characters
"Building code? Jesus. Building code. Come on, Dunc, I mean that's a standard cop-out when you're in trouble. I was crawling around up there. I mean, duct holes weren't fire-stopped! Corridors without fire doors in it, sprinklers won't work, and an electrical system that's good for what? I mean, it's good for starting fires! Hoo boy, where was I when all this was going on? Because I'm just as guilty as you and that god-damned son-in-law of yours! What do they call it when you kill people?" ~ Roberts.
- Male lead - Doug Roberts, Architect. Asked for "installations way, way above standard" because "the code's not enough for that building." He's not a crazy outsider, but everyone thinks the fact he keeps disappearing to Montana is weird and he believes in going way beyond the safety codes. Chief O'Hallorhan, Fire Chief. Officially the co-lead and does have share the action heroy role. He does express an opinion about all scrapers being unsafe due to the inability to fight fires in them but doesn't really do this as a prior warning (not appearing until halfway through the film).
- An important person - Jim Duncan, the builder. He cut $6 million out of the initial budget, including $2 million from the electrical budget which caused the fire and the suggestion he bribes politicians. Although he listens to Roberts' initial concerns about the wiring he refuses to stop the party when a small fire breaks out on a lower floor. Actually spends a lot of the film making OK decisions and following instructions. He survives had has, it seems learnt his lesson. Roger Simmons, electrical contractor. He partially takes on the role of the important person as he's responsible for the wiring.
- Female lead - Susan Franklin. Fiancee of the male lead. They are together, and seem happy, however he wants to move away and she's just got a promotion. Before she escapes the building she agrees to go anywhere the hero wants.
- The usurped official - Chief O'Hallorhan, Fire Chief. As he points out, he's in charge if there's a fire and he's generally listened to, but grudgingly. Only rarely is he flat-out ignored when people have the chance.
- A nerdy/geeky expert - Will Giddings, electrical engineer. Acts as sidekick to Roberts, tries to tell Duncan there's a problem but is talked over. He is killed early (trying to stop someone opening a door with fire behind it).
- The experienced tradesman - Harry Jernigan, security head. Not a tradesman, but a solid professional throughout. Was put in his place after questioning the Fire Chief. Roger Simmons, electrical contractor. Really vaguely. He dismisses the hero's extra safety and sticks to the code to save money. He partially takes on the role of the important person as he's responsible for the wiring.
- The wash-out - Harlee Claiborne. Admits to not being a very good con-man. He's given Lisolette's cat at the end implying that he'll look after it and become a better person.
- The joker - Harlee Claiborne. A little.
- The criminal - Harlee Claiborne. A con-man. Given the chance he confesses to his mark he does so.
- Minor celebrity - Singer at party. A poor example, she sings at the party and we never see her again. It has to be assumed she made it down in a lift or via the breaches buoy (or died in the lift). Senator Parker is treated as a bit of a celebrity at the ceremony but even he does seem to
- Relatives of the important guy - Patty Simmons, Duncan's daughter. He never really seems too concerned. The only scene they have together is him refusing to let her stay when her chance to get out comes up.
- A typical family - The Allbrights: Angela, Phillip and their widowed mother.
- The older woman - Lisolette Mueller. Friend of the Allbrights and goes back to their apartment to warning them.
- The child - Two children, Angela & Phillip. They don't really get themselves into trouble (except by not hearing the phone.)
- Loving couple - Paula & Mayor Ramsey. Actually an older couple. They profess their love. She is sent, with the other women, to safety but he is killed in the resolution flooding. Bigelow & Lorrie are more a sexually active couple then loving and they both die.
- Bickering couple - Roger & Patty Simmons. Patty does seem to want to reconcile with Roger, but he's not interested. She sees his body at the end.
- Animals - Lisolette's cat. Seemed to have protected Jernigan.
- Others - Various firemen.
- Characters not appearing - The new man (There's no new man in Susan's life, although she's hit on a couple of times.); Someone religious; The officious but incompetent person and Tired couple.
RULE #2 - Sex & Nudity
"I got about $140 worth of vulgar underwear for ya." ~ Roberts.
- Nudity - Implied post-coital nudity by the leading man. Some underwear by Lorrie.
- Sex - Roberts and Susan have sex. They are engaged, so it isn't "transgression," but it is in his office during her lunch hour. They both survive. Bigelow and Lorrie have sex. It is an illicit affair, which leads directly to their deaths.
RULE #3 - The Disaster
"Now, you know there's no sure way for us to fight a fire in anything over the seventh floor, but you guys just keep building 'em as high as you can." ~ Chief O'Hallorhan.
- Manmade Disaster - Obviously, a fire in a skyscraper is a man-made disaster, but it's made worse by short-cuts taken by Simmons to get payoffs and kickback money.
- Size - The building is said to be 138 floors, 550 meters. That height wasn't reached until the Burj Khalifa building in 2010.
- Unreal - The two books were based on the building of the World Trade Center and speculation on how a fire would be fought in it.
- True Story - Based on two novels (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros bought the rights to one each, but decided to make the film a joint venture to stop their being a Competing Film Showdown), both based on construction of the World Trade Center. The Joelma building fire in São Paulo, Brazil did actually occur in 1974. The film starts with a dedication to firefighters.
- The moment - No early moment. A minor moment when Giddings is killed and the fire revealed.
- Ongoing - It's a fire. Ongoing destruction, damage and explosions is what they do.
- Sudden end - The flooding of the building immediately ends most of the fire.
RULE #4 - Endangered
"When there's a fire, I outrank everybody here. Now, one thing we don't want is a panic. Now, I could tell them, but you ought to do it. Just make a nice cool announcement to all your guests and tell them the party's being moved down below the fire floor. Right now." ~ Chief O'Hallorhan.
- Warnings - The fire sensor are ignored.
- Warning issued too late - Duncan refuses to shut down the party when Roberts asked, and required Chief O'Hallorhan to personal command him to do so (even then Duncan tried to pull rank).
- An Event - The dedication ceremony and party.
- Rescuers - Lisolette escapes the party early but goes to save the Allbrights; Roberts and Jernigan go after them all, leading to Roberts and Lisolette being trapped at the party. It, of course, also applies to the firemen.
- Unheard warnings - The Allbrights. The mother is death and the son was always wearing headphones. Bigelow turns off the phones while he has sex with his secretary leading to them both dying.
- Meetings - Prior to tbe disaster, small conversations during. Nothing continuing endgangerment.
- Fear - There are a couple of brief scene of people temporarily being held back by fear: Lisolette not wanting to climb down wrecked railing; a fireman afraid he'll fall if they repel down the elevator shaft; a lady afraid of using the breaches buoy. None last long or are fatal.
- Doesn't happen - Sneaking out; The stubborn; Criminal activity; Arguments.
RULE #5 - Destruction
"Do you have any wool or silk manufacturers? You see, in a fire, wool and silk give off cyanide gas. Do you have any sporting goods manufacturers, like table tennis balls? They give off toxic gases. Now, do you want me to keep going down the line?" ~ Chief O'Hallorhan.
- Panoramic opening - A helicopter flying over ocean coasts and plains, with urgent exciting music playing over the top.
- Warning bouts of destruction - The fire in the utility room on 81 that lead to explosions.
- Landmarks - No real landmarks destroyed, if this was real it would be one, though.
- The tipping point - There are a few minor tipping points but no big one.
- Ongoing destruction - It's a fire, that's how they work. Things burn, other things explode.
- The final event - The fire is heading to the floor the party was on. While this is not an new bout of destruction, it would lead to the bunches of deaths. To stop the fire, they blow up the water tanks on the upper floors causing water to flood down and massive amounts of damage, creating its own final event.
RULE #6 - Death
"Will Giddings is dead. He died twenty minutes ago....
"Oh, boy. Ohh! I wonder how many more will be dead by tomorrow." ~ Roberts.
- Prelude deaths - Giddings.
- Mass casualties - There are deaths throughout the film, some in groups (like trapped firemen) but the main mass-casualty even occurs near the end with the explosion/flooding. Lots of people are running around and getting washed away, but only four people clearly seen to die. There are a lot of bodies in the room, though.
- The black guy - Jernigan, disappears fairly early but reappears at the end safe. The fireman Scott, is one of those trapped in the top of the building and is very briefly (and not well shown) carrying a stretcher at the end, so he survives. Another minority, Carlos the barman dies under wreckage from the explosions and flooding.
- Panic - People rush into an elevator when told not to and end up dead when it opens on the wrong floor. Two women panic and cause an helicopter to crash. Men fight over a place in the Breeches Buoy and die.
- The important guy - Duncan lives. Simmons dies.
- The usurped official - Chief O'Hallorhan lives.
- The bad coward - Simmons, the complete villain of the piece, steals a turn on the Breeches Buoy. Unfortunately for him an explosion causes him to fall to his death. Others try to get on with/instead of him, but he pushes them off, mostly safely. There are a couple who seem to be trying to stop him stealing a turn (including the Senator) who he pushes off causing them to fall to their deaths.
- The older woman - Falls to her death, but someone is able to grab the child she's holding before she goes.
- The experienced tradesman - Survives.
- One half of a couple - The male members of two couples: Simmons and Mayor Ramsey are killed. Both members of the Bigelow/Lorrie couple die. Both Roberts and Susan survive.
- Children - Both Angela and Phillip survive.
- Pets - Lisolette's cat survives. In seems to confer protection on Jernigan.
- The male lead - Roberts and Chief O'Hallorhan survive.
- Deaths not occuring - The good coward, Sacrifice, Slow death, Bad options, Reminders of danger, The noble death.
RULE #7 - Last Ditch Group
"I'll be back, with the whole fire department." ~ Bigelow.
- Heroes - Apart from random firemen, only really the two leading men when they set the explosives and then only briefly.
- Survivors - There's no clear group of survivors beyond the large number of people at the party. Some smaller groups appear throughout, like Roberts, Lisolette and the kids, or Chief O'Hallorhan and his men.
RULE #8 - Ridiculous Solutions
"It's out of control, and it's coming your way. You got about fifteen minutes. Now, they wanna try somethin'. They wanna blow those water tanks two floors above you. They think it might kill the fire." ~ Chief O'Hallorhan.
"How're they gonna get the explosives up here?" ~ Roberts.
"Oh, they'll find some dumb son of a bitch to bring it up." ~
- Outrun - Basically a bit of trying to get away from fire.
- A plan - There's a mostly ridiculous solution (blowing up the water tanks to flood the building) but it doesn't actually come from either of the leading men, but rather other fire officials. The leading men are just the ones who have to execute it.
- Big & simple - The plan is simple. It also includes explosions and flooding.
- Critical fail - Nothing seems to go wrong with the plan, but one of the leading men has difficulty getting back to the ballroom due to fire.
- Time - There's less than 15 minutes before the fire reaches the floor with the party when they come up with the plan and the bombs have timers. During the flooding the ballroom is on fire.
- Instant - Apart from a few spot fires, the danger is almost completely gone, with the water seemingly having traveled to all the floors equally. Every seems to be on the ground floor immediately afterwards as if there's no fire or fire damage slowing their progress (it could have been much later, though.)
- Dangerous - Ragging torrents of water. Both leads crawl out of the wreckage.
- Explosive - No nuke, just C4.
RULE #9 - Happily Ever After
"I don't know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world." ~ Roberts.
- Reunited: Roberts and Susan are sitting together at the end, she'd already promised to go with him before she escaped the building..
- Together: Susan's literally got her arms around Roberts.
- Vindicated: Chief O'Hallorhan has an I-told-you-so line at the end.
- Retribution: That's been Chief O'Hallorhan's thought all along, that skyscrapers are almost against nature.
- Lesson: The builder says all he can do is pray to God to stop it ever happening again. The Mankind will remember this and learn from its mistakes. Roberts things they should leave it as a shrine. Chief O'Hallorhan wants people to ask firemen how to build skyscrapers.
- Or not...: Chief O'Hallorhan points out it will keep happening.
- Sunrise: Actually still nighttime.
- Beautiful: Not too beautiful actually. The building looks OK, but there's lots of damage and mess on the ground.
RULE #10 - Sequels
"We May Never Love Like This Again" ~ Maureen McGovern.
- Sequels - No sequels.
- Remakes - No remakes.
As an early disaster film with no sequels the following don't apply. However, notes are made for future reference.
- More deaths - Chief O'Hallorhan stated that there were only 200 deaths (although these seem like early estimates). There were really only about 6 characters with any lines/story who died. [This video counts 34 onscreen deaths]
- More effect - Lots of model work. Big sets, lots of fire, explosions, water..
- Better effects - Pretty good. Obvious model work and some obvious stuntmen.
- More Formulaic - Pretty formulaic as is, with some gaps as the formula develops.