The 1970s films of Michael Caine: The Swarm

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We continue our look back at the 1970s filmography of Sir Michael Caine – this time it’s 1978’s The Swarm…

The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.

Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…

Spoilers for The Swarm lay ahead…

Directed by: Irwin Allen (The Lost World, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure. And he was the producer of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno)

Tagline: It is more than speculation…it is a prediction!

Other Featured Geezers: Katharine Ross as Helena Anderson, Richard Widmark as General Thaddeus Slater, Richard Chamberlain as Dr Hubbard, Olivia de Havilland as Maureen Schuester, Ben Johnson as Felix Austin, Lee Grant as Anne MacGregor, José Ferrer as Dr Andrews, Patty Duke as Rita Bard, Slim Pickens as Jud Hawkins, Fred MacMurray as Clarence Tuttle, Henry Fonda as Dr Walter Krim.

Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Peeper
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Harry And Walter Go To New York
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Eagle Has Landed
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Silver Bears
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in A Bridge Too Far

What’s it all about, Alfie?: Putting it as simply as possible, it’s about bees. A big bunch of bees.

To expand on that a little more, The Swarm is an all-star disaster movie that tracks the chaos caused by the titular swarm of killer bees as they fly around the United States ruining family picnics with their pesky murdering ways and exploding nuclear power plants (amongst many other naughty things).

However, bee bothering entomologist Dr Bradford Crane (Michael Caine) could be just the man to stop the swarm’s reign of terror, but to do so he must team up with a sceptical military man, General Thaddeus Slater (Richard Widmark), and call in support from his old pal Dr Walter Krim (Henry Fonda).

Will the local town’s annual flower festival be ruined? Which hot pensioner will Olivia de Havilland shack up with in the unnecessary romantic subplot? How many times can you hear Michael Caine shout the word “bee” before it loses any meaning? Find out in The Swarm!

Caine-ness: Caine plays Dr Bradford Crane, a bee obsessed, sunflower seed munching (he carries them around at all times in a little leather pouch, apart from at one point during the film when they get confiscated by the military) shouty scientist who ends up in a top-secret air force bunker after following some bees there in his van. He gets to say such poignant lines as; “I never thought it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always been our friends.”


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Apparently, Caine was so impressed by the stars who had already been cast that he signed on to the film before reading the script. A mistake that he doesn’t appear to learn from judging by his latter career choices. He gets first billing though and, even though it’s an ensemble film, he definitely gets the most screen time and has the most pivotal role.

Bradford Crane casually strolls onscreen about eight minutes in, emerging through an automatic door with a look on his face that’s a little bemused and a little annoyed, so I imagine this wasn’t in character – it was just the first time that Caine was on-set and he’s now finally read the script.

Caine is playing an Englishman, and so gets to use his real accent, but he does mention that he has been “American, for the last eight years” in case the Americans in the audience are unhappy that a Limey is disparaging their bees.

I’m going to be upfront; I don’t think I can argue this a goodperformance from Caine but it is certainly an entertaining one. He seems to be totally dead behind the eyes throughout but otherwise commits to shouting many, many, many times about deadly bees. He runs through a town square shouting “the bees are coming, get inside. He runs into a sheriff’s office and shouts “the bees that killed Paul’s family are back, lock everyone up,” and then runs out again without elaborating further. He even shouts about bees in the middle of a conversation that otherwise was very calm and wasn’t about bees.

When he’s not shouting about bees Crane manages to find the time to have a romance with Katherine Ross’ character Helena Anderson. His first words to her, “I have cardiopep compound in my bag,” are delivered incredibly smoothly, like he’s used that line many times before to pick up women (who have been stung by bees).

So, although he’s entertaining, it’s not Caine’s finest hour. He has since said he used his fee from the film to buy his Mum a house. So, it was worth it in the end, for his Mum at least.

That awkward moment when you’re caught watching something embarassing:

Caine-nections*: There’s only one major connection that I can find this time, which was that Henry Fonda had a small role in Too Late The Hero (1970) but he didn’t share screentime with Caine in that one.

One other connection, that’s a bit more of a stretch, is that when Dr Krim asks Crane if he is still writing dirty books, he could be getting Crane confused for the character Caine played in Pulp (1972) who was indeed a writer of dirty books.

*I’m only counting from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu onwards.

That awkward moment when someone finally tells you that you’ve been walking around all day with bird poo on the brim of your general’s hat:

Best Non-Caine Actor: Richard Widmark is good fun as General Thaddeus Slater. He’s a tough, no-nonsense military man who starts out suspicious of Crane but grows to grudgingly respect him throughout the film (even sharing some of his sunflower seeds by the time we get to the last act). They have some enjoyable scenes together including one where they keep talking about their choppers and it feels like it’s on the verge of becoming a Carry On film (“Just like they knocked down your two choppers.” “I don’t know what happened to my two choppers”). The General also gets an intense and heroic death flamethrower-ing bees in an office block.

Henry Fonda, who apparently was an avid beekeeper in real life, plays the amusingly named Dr. Krim. He may have the name of an unsuccessful 90’s hip-hop artist but he’s actually a scientist friend of Bradford Crane with a squeaky wheelchair.

Fonda and Caine have good chemistry, also sharing sunflower seeds, and Fonda gets to perform a lengthy monologue where he injects himself with venom, so that he can test the antidote that he’s created on himself, whilst recording the results and getting all sweaty. Fonda brings an element of old Hollywood class to the proceedings and certainly doesn’t embarrass himself in a somewhat cliched role.

I think Richard Chamberlain (above) is wearing a false beard. It certainly looks odd even if it is real, like he’s an extra in Planet Of The Apes halfway through makeup. Other than being graced with weird face fuzz, Chamberlain doesn’t get much to do but is treated to an impressive death scene swatting away bees before exploding in a nuclear power plant.

One aspect of the film that I found myself surprisingly invested in was the geriatric love triangle subplot where the sweet-hearted mayor Fred MacMurray (in his final film role) and creaky cowboy Ben Johnson are trying to woo the school headmistress, Olivia de Havilland, who’s promised to settle down with one of them at the end of the school term. I was genuinely sad that this story was never resolved as the bees attack the train that they’re travelling in, derailing it, and then it explodes – presumably killing them all (we see the two blokes smash through the windows). However, there’s then a message on a computer that says there were seven survivors of this crash, so in my head the threesome survives and tries to make a go of ethical non-monogamy.

Most Interesting International Poster: This poster from Slovakia is incredibly creepy, although my one note would be that I’m not entirely sure why the bees are attacking Michelangelo’s David as the film is not set in Italy (and as far as I know bees have no particular interest, positive or negative, in classical sculpture). Also, on a separate note, if I ever decide to do a highbrow performance art show about the life of Roger Moore, I will definitely call it Roj and will use the poster below but with tiny Roger Moores instead of the bees.

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: It probably reflects very poorly on me, not only as a film fan but also as a human being, that I actually had a pretty good time with The Swarm. It’s certainly not the worst film Caine has made (it’s not even the worst one he made in the 1970s).

Caine’s previous film, A Bridge Too Far, was only slightly longer than the two and a half hour extended version of The Swarm that I watched (I’m a sucker for punishment) but I found The Swarm, bizarrely, much better paced and engaging. There was no elderly romance in A Bridge Too Far, either, and it was all the poorer for it.

There’s good pedigree behind the film. Irwin Allen had great success producing disaster films with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (a poster of which is visible in the background of The Swarm). It was scripted by Academy Award winning Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat Of The Night) and has a score by Jerry Goldsmith (The Star Trek movies, The Omen, The Rambo trilogy). So, I’d argue it’s actually fairly competently made, but just let down by an inherently silly premise that’s not handled with quite the right tone. It’s mostly played completely straight and humourless, which has the effect of highlighting the silliness of the situation and making it unintentionally amusing.

However, there are some moments that do manage to be sinister and chilling. Real bees were used in the film and seeing a mass of actual bees covering people’s bodies is unpleasant. Not even the children are safe, as there’s a scene where the school is attacked and a boy, who we saw earlier being annoying in the headmistress’ office with a giant lollipop, ends up dead, face down and covered in bees, and the camera zooms in on his lolly to highlight the fragility of life. One moment you’re enjoying your giant lolly, the next you’re dead and the bees are having it.

When people hallucinate massive bees (such as when Katherine Ross opens a door and there’s just a bloody great bee there looking back at her) it’s less successful and does just end up simply looking stupid.

The filmmakers have a go at being creative throughout. There’s a scene where the camera does a near 360-degree rotation behind the back of Caine and Widmark for no real reason other than I think they were worried that the audience might be getting bored by all this bee talk and so thought they had to liven it up a bit. There’s even a point of view shot from one of the bees scoping out a picnicking family! So, it’s not like everyone involved wasn’t trying. They were perhaps simply just a bit misguided.

Trivia (Courtesy of IMDb): Caine apparently admitted in an interview that he thought the little yellow spots he kept finding on his clothing throughout filming were honey left by the bees, so he tucked in, unaware until later that this was actually bee poo.

The American Bee Association released a cease-and-desist order against the film for defaming the character of the American honey bee, and so the film had to include a disclaimer at the end saying that the killer bees that are featured bear no resemblance to the real American honey bees.

Jokester Jerry Goldsmith worked a bee-based bit of fun into his score, because the three-note motif which makes up the main theme is comprised of the notes B-E-E.

That awkward moment when you’re in hospital and instead of grapes, or a crossword book, your visitors bring you a giant bee but you have to pretend it’s what you wanted, to be polite:

Overall Thoughts: Putting the bee into B-movie, The Swarm isn’t objectively “good” in any way, but I had a fun time with it and would recommend it to those who like campy classic movies and also those who like to hear the word bee shouted a lot.

Rating: 3/5 Bradford Crane Brand Leather Sunflower Seed Storage Pouches

Three pictures of Michael Caine holding a bag of sunflower seeds in The Swarm.

Where You Can Watch This: This is currently available to rent or stream through most platforms as well as being on Blu-ray and DVD.

Up Next: It’s another all-star cast, this time in a Neil Simon scripted comedy, as Caine checks into the California Suite.

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