The first thing you notice about the 1970s disaster cycle is the quality of the cast – Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin in Airport (1970), Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in Towering Inferno (1973) – and Krakatoa, East of Java, which could fairly claim to have set up the disaster movie template, might be the reason. The stars aren’t big enough here to command attention for the duration and the thrills can’t compensate.
The narrative hook is decent enough. A disparate bunch of salvagers searching for a sunken ship containing a fortune in pearls sail too close to the titular volcano. Finding deep-sea divers among the manifest seems appropriate but the Oriental scantily-clad female pearl divers look like titillation and balloonists, ostensibly airborne wreck-spotters, serve the secondary purpose of providing close-ups of the fiery volcano.
But emotional involvement is sadly lacking, Laura (Diane Baker), mistress of Captain Hanson (Maximilian Schell), seeking a son she abandoned, saloon girl Charley (Barbara Werle) sticking by drug-addict diver Connerly (Brian Keith) on his last legs. There’s a claustrophobic bathyscope operator Rigby (John Leyton) and a human powderkeg in the shape of a cargo of prisoners led by the cunning Danzig (J.D. Cannon).
Like any horror picture, you have to line up your ducks and drip-feed the potential terror. Strange incident piled on strange incident raises tension on board. Luckily, Rigby is on hand to explain the increased heat, the fog, the dead fish in the water, and the high-pitched hissing. I’m not sure the science is so accurate, apparently the way to escape a tsunami is to find deep water.
Oddly enough, the movie opens with a striking throwback to the original three-screen Cinerama and a nod to the current split-screen techniques used by the likes of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and the travelog scenario. Where roadshow pictures began with a musical overture running over the credits here is a visual equivalent, snippets from future scenes. Unfortunately, the split-screen is limited to the opening.
But this being Cinerama, director Bernard L.Kowalski has to find room for that format’s tropes, something runaway, in this case the balloon driven through narrow mountain chasms, and something swirling round out of control, no rapids to hand so a man in a wooden crate high above the rigging has to make do.
And there’s a nod to contemporary drug-abuse, Connerly, high on laudanum, has a bad trip and attacks one of the pearl divers. But who knows what precipitated a song-and-dance striptease by Charley. Since the audience already knows the outcome, it’s a question of how many will survive and you suspect the only reason some passengers quit the ship for the shore is for an excuse to show the devastation wreaked by the volcano on islanders.
With no CGI to help and a limited budget, the special effects appear rudimentary, the volcano generally seen in the distance. The ship negotiating around the island is clearly a model but scenes on board are better done, water, fire and rocks raining down on passengers.
Maximilian Schell (Topkapi, 1964) doesn’t invest his character with much beyond staunchness, Brian Keith (Nevada Smith, 1966) seems uncomfortable with having to over-act and Rosanno Brazzi (The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, 1965) has a thankless role and you get the nagging suspicion they were chosen to appeal to different geographic demographics. Diane Baker (Marnie, 1964) can’t convey the guilt of a mother who has chosen her lover over her son nor her fear that her boy’s skeleton might lie in the wreck. Barbara Werle doesn’t quite know how to deliver a beauty of a line, in reference to boyfriend Connerly, “I wouldn’t care if he kicked old ladies in the teeth.” John Leyton isn’t a patch in the claustrophobia stakes to Charles Bronson in The Great Escape (1963).
Bernard L. Kowalski (Stiletto, 1969) keeps the incident coming, and the timing is spot-on, the ship reaching Krakatoa just before the halfway mark. There are occasional directorial touches, cutting from the smoke of the volcano to smoke belching from the funnel of the ship, and a few notes of historical authenticity. There’s a sense that the hi-tech of the time – bathyscape, balloon, powerful ship – cannot compete with nature at its most basic. But basically, he’s pinning his hopes on the fact that come the end of the movie the audience will be so overwhelmed by the eruption and the tsunami that it will have forgiven everything else that went before.
You get the impression it was spectacle first, story and character later.