The Swarm (1978)

screenshot from The Swarm

Directed by: Irwin Allen
Screenwriter(s): Stirling Silliphant
Starring: Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda, Olivia De Havilland, Slim Pickens, Lee Grant
Genre: Disaster
Country: USA
Running time: 1h 56m (cinema) | 2h 19m (BluRay)
Rating: 6 out of 10

There’s something about distance which allows you to view a film differently. Pilloried in 1978 and all but disowned by both star Caine and director Allen, time has been kind to The Swarm. Now it doesn’t seem so out of place in the pantheon on 1970s blockbuster disaster movies of which producer-director Allen was the undisputed king. It’s almost refreshingly camp and at least it covers all the disaster movie bases: all-star cast; several seemingly unrelated sub-plots; potential human calamity.

Moreover, in the sub-genre of killer bee movies, The Swarm stands head and shoulders above the others like a mighty Colossus. For clarity, this is not the one where Michael Parks drives his car into the football stadium (that’s the 1976 TV movie, The Savage Bees) or the one where David Carradine has a bad German accent (1978’s The Bees) or the one where Gloria Swanson gets bees to kill her neighbours (1974’s Killer Bees). No, this is the one where people hallucinate giant bees above their hospital beds and the mating call of bees is used to lure them into the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite being utterly ludicrous at times (and it very much is), there’s also a lot to commend The Swarm, not least of which is its atmospheric opening. Some soldiers in full protective gear approach a seemingly deserted military base and start exploring. Eventually, they find the control room and everyone inside dead. It is a chilling cold open. Equally, many of the scenes feature real stunt people being attacked by real bees, and those bits are genuinely stomach-churning. The all-star cast were insured for $70m against death by bee sting. In the end, there was no need to worry, as the bees were reasonably docile because they were kept frozen between scenes (freezing bees is also used as a plot point in the film). But, the point is that tens of thousands of real bees were used on the making of this film.

Every time when it feels like the film might actually turn out to be good, screenwriter Silliphant (who also wrote The Towering Inferno and the terrible When Time Ran Out... for Allen) is on hand to give the cast unintentionally melodramatic and/or laughable dialogue:

That’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.

Not to mention the more well-known:

I never dreamed that it would turn turn out to be the bees; they’ve always been our friend.

There's a running piece where a TV reporter (Lee Grant) makes utterly ludicrous claims to camera which quite obviously have never been fact-checked. There's a wonderful scene where a room full of scientists, including Dr Brad Crane (Caine), are ignoring all the data being compiled by a huge bank of computers while staring at a single red screen which flashes the word ‘ALERT’ repeatedly. It is unclear what that screen adds to anything, but it is mesmerising all the same.

But, at the end of the day, this film actually does make you care about the characters. You want Caine (who does excellent shouting work throughout) and Ross (who really does have all the worst lines) to make it through okay. You want Richard Chamberlain to bite it, just as you did in The Towering Inferno. You want elderly sweethearts MacMurray and De Havilland to get together. And that’s about all you can ask of a schlocky film where killer African bees bring a state of almost nuclear winter to Texas.

The version currently available on BluRay and digital download is the longer director’s cut.

In his own words

When it was released in 1978, The Swarm quickly gained a reputation as the worst movie ever made. Irwin Allen was a brilliant producer but brilliant producers do not always translate into brilliant directors. The script, which I had hardly bothered to read in my excitement, was dreadful. And if I’d taken even a little time to think it over I would have seen that a burning skyscraper is high-stakes visual drama, whereas a swarm of bees is – well, it turns out it’s just ridiculous. And messy. Shooting our first scenes with the bees, we noticed little black dots appearing on our clothes. The bees were shitting on us. Sadly, they weren’t the only ones. When the film was released the audiences and critics did the same.

From Sir Michael Caine’s 2018 book, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off

For your listening pleasure

SMERSHPod: The Swarm

The pod will BEE hiding the honey, hallucinating like crazy, and running for its life in delightful pantsuits. Yes, it’s The Swarm. Joining John Rain to try and form a hive mind is UK comedy legend Rowland Rivron.

This site is not affiliated with SMERSHPod in any way. We just like it.