St. Helens (1981)

sthelens2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Codger refuses to evacuate.

Art Carney plays Harry Truman, an 83-year-old man who refused to evacuate from his lodge at the base of Mount St. Helens even as experts warned that the volcano, which had been inactive for 123 years, was ready to explode. Tim Thomerson is the local sheriff who tries to convince him to change his mind and David Huffman is a volcano scientist who travels to the area to study the potential eruption. Initially he tries to get Harry to leave too, but eventually decides to stay, so he can record the eruption from what he believes will be from a safe distance.

The film is based on the actual event which began on March 20, 1980 when local wildlife was observed behaving erratically, and ends with the climactic eruption, which happened on May 18th. I was alive when it occurred and the film manages to correctly reflect the energy of the period where people where both fearful, but also excited. Not everyone though was happy with the movie, David Johnston’s parents were not pleased by the portrayal of their son, played by Huffman who goes by the fictional name of David Jackson, nor 36 other scientists who knew Johnston in real-life and signed a letter of protest.

Since I didn’t know Johnston myself I’ll reserve judgement, but I was not happy about a dumb secondary storyline dealing with a helicopter pilot, played by Ron O’Neal, flying into a flock of quail, which forces him to drop a log that his helicopter was carrying onto a group of men below and almost killing them. Bill McKinney, better known for playing the mountain man in Deliverance, thinks the pilot was intentionally trying to injure them and has his buddies harass and eventually attack the pilot, but this didn’t seem necessary. The men on the ground should’ve easily seen the birds fly into the copter, as it wasn’t that high up, and when it lands there’s clearly blood and feathers on the windshield, which is spotted immediately by the sheriff therefore making the fight scene, which is what it leads to, completely pointless and just put-in as mindless action.

Carney, who was ironically Harry Truman’s favorite actor in real-life, plays the part in a highly entertaining way and helps give the film humor and human interest. Truman really did drive a pink Cadillac and swore a lot, which he does here, but he also owned 16 cats, but the film changes this to him having a dog even though the 16 cats would’ve been far more fun. I couldn’t help but wonder though with the scene where Harry talks to a group of reporters about the greatness of the US constitution and how USA was the ‘greatest country in the world’, which got the reporters to cheer, but today those same statements might give him the derogatory label of ‘nationalist’ and push-back from the reporters instead of applause.

The film is also notable for having two of its stars, who are adversaries here, meet tragic ends in real-life. For Huffman he was stabbed to death in February, 1985 when he tried to chase down a mugger and for Albert Salmi, who portrays a bar owner who plays down the fears of the volcano, ended up, in 1990, killing his wife of 26 years when she filed for divorce, before then turning the gun on himself. I’ve seen Huffman in other films and came away feeling he was a rather bland actor though here he displays a little more spunk. Salmi’s acting is okay, but I didn’t understand why he’s shown working two jobs as he’s a manager of a bar at one point and then supervisor of a saw mill at another. Since the bar he runs is apparently ‘the only one in town’ and seemed packed with people I didn’t get the need for an extra income.

We know how it’s going to end right from the start, so it’s important that the climactic eruption come-off impressively. They do cheat by showing the same footage of the side of the mountain exploding over and over as well as cropping in animated volcanic ash creeping in, which looks tacky. Off-screen wind fans were clearly used to blow dust over the actors and create a white-out effect, but overall it wasn’t too bad and I liked the final shot of a small tree sprouting up amidst the ash. For those who were living during the event, or just curious about the history of it, this is an adequate recreation.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 18, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ernest Pintoff

Studio: Parnell Films

Available: DVD

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