Disaster movies have been with us since the silent film era but common wisdom has the prime era of disaster movies beginning in 1970 with Airport. However, a long-in-development epic released the previous year feels like it was the shot across the bow for this infamous celluloid trend. The movie in question is called Krakatoa: East Of Java and, like Airport, it plays like a kind of cinematic turning point that shows old Hollywood trends giving way to newer ones under the roof of one film.
The premise of Krakatoa: East Of Java throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. The heart of the plot involves ship captain Chris Hanson (Maximillian Schell) taking his vessel The Batavia Queen to the title location. The purpose is twofold. His lover Laura (Diane Baker) is on ship and he wants to help her find her son, who might have perished in a shipwreck near Krakatoa when her angry husband spirited him away. There’s also a fortune in pearls that went down with the ship.
To aid in his search, Chris has assembled a colorful team of experts in different fields: Douglas Rigby (John Leyton) is the owner/operator of a diving bell, Giovanni (Rosanno Brazzi) and Leoncavallo (Sal Mineo) are a father/son balloonist team and Harry (Brian Keith) is a secretly ailing diver who has brought his saloon singer mistress Charley (Barbara Werle) on the voyage. Another complication is added to the trip when the British government demands that Chris take on 30 prisoners in the ship’s hold. What no one knows is the volcano on Krakatoa is primed for a legendary eruption that will endanger the entire chain of islands and anyone nearby.
The result earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects but didn’t curry much favor with critics and is mostly forgotten today. When it is remembered, it is often as a punchline (wags often point out that Krakatoa is actually west of Java on maps). In fairness to critics, it had a convoluted production history that is noticeable in the finished product. The special effects were filmed before the script was completed and when original producer Philip Yordan left the project, the existing script was rewritten to be a little more adult in tone. Thus, you might notice some tonal whiplash between the film’s general family approach and elements like a PG-13 striptease and a drug freakout scene.
However, the stitched-together story line and tonal loop-de-loops are part of the fun here if you’re in the right mood. Krakatoa: East Of Java is fascinating example of big-budget film fare in transition. It’s got one foot in old-fashioned, family-friendly adventure of the Jules Verne ilk, complete with adventures in hot air balloons and diving bells, but its other foot is stepping into the more daring nature of ’70s Hollywood fare with its accent on large-scale destruction and undertones of seamy melodrama. One minute you’re enjoying a sappy song penned by Mack David and the next you’re seeing an exploitation movie-styled hallucination scene with trippy opticals and a sexy Asian woman in peril. You can see the change of the guard happening before your eyes in one film and that gives it a rollercoaster-style appeal.
Krakatoa: East Of Java also has a number of underrated strengths. The first is an intriguingly eclectic cast. Schell is a unique choice for leading man, bringing a professionalism and intensity normally applied in heavyweight drama and using it to center a light adventure story. Baker offsets his work in an interesting way with a showier, “women’s melodrama” style of acting that fits her emotionally overheated plot thread and Keith uses an old-school stoic/hardboiled approach here that has similar appeal. You get further studio system-style melodrama from the pairing of Brazzi and Mineo as the tempestuous father/son duo and the backing cast boasts familiar faces like Marc Lawrence and Geoffrey Holder.
Another key strength of the film is energetic direction from Bernard Kowalski. He was a prolific journeyman who mainly did t.v. in his career but also had training in the world of exploitation films. He puts a focus on brisk editing and flashy visuals here, giving an unexpected level of energy to the film’s more conventional first half. Even better, when the adventure-driven second half kicks in, he piles on cliffhanger after cliffhanger (volcanic eruptions, diving and balloon setpieces, a jailbreak, etc.) right up to the closing credits. He seems to be having a ball with the big budget resources he had here – this is easily the biggest production in his filmography – and he dishes out all the large-scale excitement and visual opulence this deluxe production can offer.
Finally, there are the effects. If CGI leaves you cold and you get nostalgic for the era of practical effects, Krakatoa: East Of Java is the movie for you. All the disaster scenes are achieved via a mixture of practical FX, scale models and old-school opticals. The model work in particular is fantastic and was masterminded by Eugene Lourie, a jack-of-all-trades who worked with everyone from Jean Renoir to Ray Harryhausen. An extended sequence involving the Batavia Queen sailing dangerously close to the erupting volcano is the kind of thing where you might forget to breathe while you’re watching. If you appreciate hand-crafted special effects, this is the kind of thing that makes your heart sing.
In short, Krakatoa: East Of Java might be a messy collision of moods and story concepts but it’s also the kind of jumbo-size, practical FX-packed indulgence that you can’t get anymore. It also predicts the format of the ’70s-era disaster movie in ways that make in necessary viewing for fans of that subgenre.