On “The Towering Inferno”

Literal Melodrama: Look at this poster! “The Wife”. “The Con Man”.

I just heard from the grapevine who shares my apartment that John Guillermin has passed away. Even if you don’t know the name, you know his work. He directed several films in the 1960s’ Tarzan franchise reboot (more about that here), and he directed Death on the Nile (1978) and Dino de Laurentis’s 1976 King Kong remake. And I just have to think he got the latter gig on the strength of his previous film, the subject of this blogpost. de Laurentis must have been like “Dis new Kong film is all about a skyscraper!  And dis guy Guillermin, he knows how to shoot a disaster on a skyscraper!)  And much like Ronald Neame, the director of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Guillermin was a very solid British director, which is undoubtedly why Irwin Allen chose him for 1974’s The Towering Inferno. 

Now, I often think of The Towering Inferno as “the only other time Irwin Allen got a disaster movie right (contrary to his reputation)”. The Poseidon Adventure happens to be one of my favorite films, but most of Allen’s other films are, well, disasters. But having first experienced this film at a young age, I can’t tell how much of my fondness for it is a case of my nostalgia and love of camp (definite factors here) overwhelming ALL of my better judgment. But I don’t think so. For I freely acknowledge the film has many serious, obvious flaws and am happy to talk about them, even though this is a film I have enjoyed watching repeatedly throughout the years.

If you’re too young to have seen the film or know the premise….a bunch of people are trapped at the top of a burning building (in contrast with Poseidon, in which a bunch of people are trapped at the bottom of a sinking boat). In recent years we have watched several real-life disasters of both types unfold before our eyes in real time and it’s horrible. I don’t know if young people find movies like this too disturbing now — certainly part of the population won’t be able to watch this sort of thing as entertainment any more. Actually for me, part of what makes this pair of movies WATCHABLE is that we care about these people, root for them, and hope they’ll make it out of their predicament. We are engaged with them emotionally, which is the opposite of becoming desensitized and callous. (Whereas I find Rolland Emmerich’s sensibility quite objectionable on these grounds). At any rate, I assure you that this film was regarded as implausible science fiction at the time. Reality has surpassed it in awful strangeness many times over.

Still The Towering Inferno has its implausibilities.  The (then) science fiction concept of a 130 story office tower is fine, but one hardly thinks they’d have built it in the San Francisco earthquake zone! (Then having done so, it’s a head-scratcher that they made the film about a fire rather than an earthquake — except for the fact that another disaster movie — called Earthquake — was being made at the very same time). I used to say that the screenplay’s reliance on an unlikely combination of faulty wiring, an absence of a sprinkler systems and other convenient snafus was a flaw in this film….but 9-11 was a kind of symphony of such Achilles’ Heels, and so was the sinking of the Titanic. It happens.

You know it's too many stars when they have to take the publicity still in Widescreen
You know it’s too many stars when they have to take the publicity still in Widescreen

As a show, The Towering Inferno is an Embarrassment of Riches. It is top loaded with much bigger stars (notably Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Fay Dunaway) and flush with a much larger number of stars at the Poseidon level (former top stars and current cheesy ones) such as William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and yes O.J. Simpson). It was made by the combined resources of two different studios (Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox – -the first time in history that had ever happened), and was adapted from two separate novels (The Tower, and The Glass Inferno), thus the rather silly, bombastic movie title. The film is twice too long, has too many gratuitous star turns, and contains too much romantic melodrama. It’s as though Irwin Allen, in attempting to replicate the success of The Poseidon Adventure, decided he’d have a bigger hit just by adding more of everything.

But he concentrated on the wrong elements. He’d have had a better picture (if a redundant one) if he’d used Poseidon’s formal template, i.e., concentrated on the journey of a few survivors as they tried to get back to the ground floor. (In fact, that would have been a kind of premonition of some of the folks’ actual experiences on 9-11). Unfortunately Allen noticed only the superficial ingredients of his hit: an all-star cast, special effects and a hit song, and he let his story sprawl all over the place. The film’s climax is ridiculous, a choice made for its value as spectacle but completely implausible — evacuation of everyone, one by one, in apparent real time, by helicopter. With 20/20 hindsight I can see that seen as a dry-run for the egregious The Night the Bridge Fell Down, and various other mis-steps in the film can retroactively be seen as the harbingers of big bungles he would make in his films of the late ’70s. But at the time…the audience ate it up, the spectacle is phenomenal and I always love this movie, warts and all). It’s a classic of its kind, and without a doubt the high point of both Mr. Guillermin’s career and Mr. Allen’s as a popular success.


  1. I saw the SCTV version of Towering Inferno long before I saw the actual movie. So I had that weird experience of knowing all the story beats from their parody as I was watching the actual thing. Despite that I liked the actual movie.

    The ridiculous pile of contrivances needed to make the disaster is, really, kind of necessary. You just don’t get a major disaster unless a big pile of things, all innocent themselves, happen together to let chaos through. Reading about major technological accidents is fascinating and horrifying for that reason.


    • so true (regarding the snafues! and similarly (I forgot to mention), I early on knew the movie best from the MAD magazine version, “The Towering Sterno”! Thanks for writing in, Joseph!


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