Smash-Up on Interstate Five: A 4th of July Disaster Movie


I saved this post about the cheesy made-for-tv movie Smash-Up on Interstate 5 for today because it is set on July 4. I first saw the film when it premiered in December, 1976 as part of the original spate of 70s disaster movies, which was probably my favorite film genre in my youth. (It has a whole section of its own now on Travalanche: here). This movie always stuck out in my memory, and I noticed it was available on Youtube a few months ago and got reacquainted.

Based on a novel called Expressway, it’s basically the anatomy of a 39 car freeway pile-up. The film begins and ends with the horrifying mass vehicular accident. In between, we become acquainted with several of the people who will be effected by the disaster, including several of the fatalities. If you think that’s not much of an excuse for a movie, you’re pretty much right. It gives us morbid thrills in the first and last few minutes, and then tension in the middle as we watch and wait for the fatal confluence. The problem is (as one easily can see in retrospect, though I certainly didn’t at the time) is that by definition, an accident, is, well…accidental. Hence, nothing these people do in the 48 hours leading up to the catastrophe has anything to do with the car crash. How could it? We’re just kind of ticking down the hours they have left. ‘


However, one of the principle joys of classic 70s disaster films is their all star casts, and this one is no exception. This one gives us Robert Conrad and an early-career Tommy Lee Jones as a couple of traffic cops, along with Buddy Ebsen and a post-Ozzie Harriet Nelson as an elderly couple (the wife is dying); Vera Miles as a middle aged lady looking for love and not finding it with swinging Herb Edelman but possibly finding it with David Groh (Rhoda); Sue Lyon (Lolita) is a biker chick; Donna Mills (Knotts Landing) is a nurse and Conrad’s love interest; Bonnie Ebsen (Buddy’s daughter) and George O’Hanlon, Jr, play a hippie robber couple on the run.

I remember being particularly disturbed by the pre-Barnaby Jones Jed Klampett wearing print shirts and being lovingly solicitous to his wife. How dare he behave like a real person? I’ve since seen the excellent Ebsen in many contexts and find his performance here moving. At any rate, what more appropriate to watch this particular Independence Day than a two hour car wreck? Nothing! As of this writing it’s available on Youtube.