Saturday 20 June 2020

When Time Ran Out

Or, as it should be known, When Time Ran Out... on the disaster film.

That's right. When Airport (1969) became a box office smash, it kicked off a decade-long boom in films where ageing Hollywood stars met their melodramatic deaths in elaborately staged set-pieces.

For a time, these films were a sure-fire recipe for blockbuster success. But as the Seventies wore on, audiences began to weary of their predictable formula and increasingly daft scenarios. And when this notoriously naff, volcano-themed piece of whimsy showed up, the whole genre finally blew-up like… well, a volcano.

Both a critical and commercial catastrophe, the movie stank at the box office and lost millions. It also ended careers. (Notably, one of its stars was so mentally scarred they never referred to it by name again.)

Surveying the devastation, Tinseltown bosses collectively pronounced the whole genre dead, and swore never again to make a film like When Time Ran Out (1980)

The plot

When a volcano erupts on a pacific island, it looks very much like the glamourous guests at a nearby luxury hotel will be engulfed by molten magma. Yikes!

But fear not! For screen icon Paul Newman is on hand to save the day. With molten lava flowing down from all directions, Old Blue Eyes rallies a small group of survivors and leads them on a perilous journey to safety.

Naturally, this being a disaster movie, the escape is complicated by a pressing need from many characters to resolve a giddy mix of personal dramas. (Quite why no one can put off dealing with mom-didn’t-appreciate-me-enough until the crisis is over, is a mystery the genre has never resolved.)

With the island swiftly turning to liquid magma, the questions come thick and fast. Who will live? Who will die? And will the two old codgers harbouring a decades-old grudge tearfully reconcile in this moment of peril? At this point, you’d got to think there’s an outside chance they probably will.

When Time Ran Out…. On The Disaster Film

This movie’s reputation as a cinematic stinker is well deserved, and its problems - woeful special effects, lamentable soap opera sub-plots, listless action scenes – have been well documented.

So, rather than look at why this film is so bad, let’s to delve into how it came to be quite so awful.

When Contracts Ran Out

With Paul Newman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons and William Holden, When Time Ran Out boasts no fewer than four Oscar-winning actors.

So whatever its flaws, you wouldn’t think the acting would be an issue. And yet there’s a strange, dead-behind-the-eyes quality to each of their performances – almost as if they didn’t want to be there. Which, in fact, they didn’t.

You see, none of the garlanded Oscar worthies wanted to be anywhere near this merde-fest; they were all forced into it because of old contracts they’d signed. Newman later admitted it was the only film he ever regretted and refused to even mention its name, referring to it only as ‘that volcano movie’.

When Confidence Ran Out

You’d assume that such a major movie with an all-star cast and humungous budget would have top-notch director – so why was TV journeyman James Goldstone at the helm? The short answer: the studio was desperate to avoid giving the reins to the movie’s creator, Irwin Allen.

You might know Allen as the creative force behind such mega-hits as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. But by this time, his career had taken a double nose-dive – with the bad-cinema classic ,The Swarm, and soggy seafaring sequel Beyond The Poseidon Adventure – so Warner Bros insisted he not direct.

Allen’s answer? Hire a pliable stooge like Goldstone, who agreeably sat like a lump in the director’s chair while Allen sneakily pulled all the strings – and produced his third cinematic turkey in a row.

When Money Ran Out

Already buckling under the above challenges, the movie finally keeled over and died under the strain of constant studio budget cuts, which forced emergency (and often comedic) cost-saving measures.

So, if that tropical island looks a bit like California, that’s because…well, it’s clearly California. And the infamous special effects in the movie were straight out of Blue Peter. As a viewer, it’s hard to cower in the face of a terrifying volcano when it’s fashioned from an old washing-up liquid bottle and some cardboard tubes. You can almost see the sticky-back plastic.

Unsurprisingly, the end result was a truly terrible film. And while the pitiful box office takings were bad enough, the death knell of the entire disaster genre sounded just months later when Airplane! (1980), a scalpel-sharp dissection of disaster conventions and clich├ęs, was a massive hit.

Exploding helicopter action

Given that destruction is at the heart of all disaster movies, it’s no surprise to learn that a helicopter ends up being an early casualty.

As magma rolls towards the luxury hotel, the panicked guests look a nearby helicopter for a quick escape. There’s a stampede, and people either cram themselves inside or cling desperately to the landing skids as it takes off.

Overloaded, the chopper struggles to remain airborne. Weaving around in the sky for a few moments, it suddenly plunges straight into a cliff and explodes. A case of When Copters Run Out.

Artistic merit

It’s a short and sweet scene: one moment the whirlybird is spinning around in the sky, the next it’s charging straight into a cliff.

The resulting fireball is rendered in far from convincing model-work. But rather than lingering, the camera sensibly cuts quickly to the horrified reactions of those that witnessed the crash.

On the plus side, the bunfight to get on the chopper is hugely enjoyable as those lucky enough to be inside kick and punch others trying to join them. Chivalry, it seems, is well and truly dead.

Exploding helicopter innovation

When Time Ran Out is not the only volcano-themed film to feature an exploding helicopter. Nearly twenty years later, a chopper in Dante’s Peak crashes after its engine becomes choked with volcanic ash.

Interesting fact

While the film lost money at the box office (it made just $4m against a $20m budget), it has gone on to make over $500m in the years since. Well, sort of.

That’s because Paul Newman used his fee from this financial disaster to launch Newman’s Own, his famous philanthropic range of salad dressings and sauces.

Review by: Jafo


  1. There might another film that Paul Newman regretted doing : the Silver Chalice.

    Ernest Borgnine, which I crimminally adore, is also crimminally misused : as soon as he gets injured (blinded, if I remmeber correctly), it is as if he did not existed anymore while still there. Where's the Rogo from Poseidon Adventure and his delectable grumpiness ?

    A real stinker. Even I like James Franciscus' defiant attitude before his demise.

  2. The helicopter crash scene could've been more horrible if they'd shown the reaction of the passengers a split second before the crash.