The Big Bus

Director: James Frawley
Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck

One of my favorite subjects when I was in school was history. Even today, looking back at the past of humanity (or even further back than that) can reveal some very interesting things about this world of ours, and how some things have not changed all that much. Or not at all. Of course, most of the time when you look back at the past, one is struck by how just how most things have greatly changed. Technology and how it is used is one obvious aspect. But one thing that really interests me when I look back at the past is how certain fads have changed. Every decade that you look at, the public's taste concerning what really interests them is extremely different. Take the 1970s, for instance. I was born and spent my early years in that decade, and I remember some of the things that were really popular then that are today mostly or completely ignored for other interests. There was, for example, the CB radio craze. It seemed for a time that everybody was picking one up and talking nonsense slang. We don't have any more of that nonsense in our modern communications, LOL! Seriously, I think all that jargon you had to learn played a part in the mass public eventually abandoning CB radios. Another fad in the 1970s that's of some interest is disco music. It seems for a time in the 1970s disco ruled and you couldn't escape it. But by the turn of the decade, disco was dead. Why? Well, I think the answer to that question is pretty simple, one that was summed up by the slowly rising up anti-disco movement. They simply stated, "Disco sucks." You can't get much more succinct than that.

When it comes to motion pictures, the 1970s had some fads that were equally as interesting to study as CB radios and disco. One in fact was related to disco - roller disco movies. Another movie fad, and one that I really want to discuss in length, was the disaster movie. Though there had been disaster movies in previous decades, the 1970s was when the genre really took off, and we were bombarded with movies like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Swarm, Flood!, Avalanche, Fire!, Hurricane, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, City On Fire, and Tidal Wave, among many others. But eventually, like just about every 1970s fad (film-related or otherwise), the disaster movie was all but dead by the end of the decade. Why did the disaster movie essentially die out? Well, I think there are several reasons for that. One obvious reason is that there were so many of these movies in just a few years, the marketplace became saturated with them and audiences lost interest as a result. Another reason was that most of these movies were pretty expensive, and movie costs really started to rise in the 1970s. But one reason I have personally come up with is that disaster movies are pretty humorless. For ninety or more minutes, the audience is bombarded with innocent people getting caught in a situation that they can barely control - if at all. And many of those innocent people in these movies end up dying from no fault of their own. Quite frankly, when you look at these movies with that angle, they end up looking and feeling kind of depressing and downbeat, even if they do have happy endings. Audiences can only take so much of movies that are for the most part downers.

When you think about it some more, your typical disaster movie doesn't have any room for humor. It would clash badly with the serious sides of these movies. So as you can imagine, finding a disaster movie that has a healthy amount of humor is a rare thing indeed. All the same, you probably The Big Busknow very well a couple of such humorous disaster movies - Airplane! and its sequel, both made when the 1970s disaster movie genre was passť and could more easily be made fun of. What you might not know is that in the mid 1970s, when the disaster movie genre still had some strength, the same studio that later made Airplane! made a comic disaster movie. That movie was The Big Bus, and unlike Airplane! was a big financial flop and quickly drifted into obscurity. Of course, its obscurity was what made me very interested in checking it out when I came across a DVD copy. As you probably guessed by the title, the action takes place around a bus. But not just any ordinary bus - it is an articulated 32 wheel monster bus that's not only nuclear powered, but has in its interior a fully equipped bathroom (including a bathtub), as well as a bowling alley and a swimming pool. "The Cyclops" (as the bus is known) is all set to make its maiden voyage from New York to Denver with great publicity. However, a few days before the bus starts its journey, its two drivers are badly injured by a bomb. Kitty (Channing, Grease), the key woman behind the Cyclops project, contacts out of desperation her former bus driver boyfriend Dan (Bologna, Cops & Robbers), who has lived the past while in disgrace from a scandalous incident concerning a bus crash he was involved with. Dan agrees to pilot the bus, and soon the bus starts on its journey. What Kitty, Dan, and the bus passengers don't know is that a bigwig in the oil industry known just as "Iron Man" (Jose Ferrer, The Swarm) plots to sabotage the bus on its maiden voyage, since he sees the nuclear powered bus as a threat to the oil industry. Iron Man sends his loyal follower Alex (Stuart Margolin, The Rockford Files) to plant another bomb - this time under the bus.

Besides those actors I mentioned in the previous paragraph, The Big Bus also sports in its cast, among others, Ned Beatty (Time Trackers), Ruth Gordon (Maxie), Larry Hagman (Dallas), Sally Kellerman (Slither), Richard Mulligan (Empty Nest), and Lynn Redgrave (Don't Turn The Other Cheek!). So there is a considerable amount of talent in front of the camera, even if it isn't quite as "big name" as the casts of other 1970s disaster movies. Still, it's quite fun seeing all of those actors in the same movie, definitely a once in a lifetime cast. But if only as much effort went into the writing of the characters these actors play as there was in rounding all of them up. To put it bluntly, most of the characters in The Big Bus aren't particularly written very well. To illustrate why, let's take a look at the main characters. Believe it or not, Iron Man, the villain of the movie, hardly appears at all in the entire eighty-eight minutes of the movie. He just makes a few brief appearances that can't be more than two minutes all put together. And the character is stuck in an iron lung, so he has to farm out his evil deeds to his henchman Alex. It's hard to feel one way or another about this guy as a result. Not that much better written is the movie's heroine, Kitty. Although she may be the mastermind of the Cyclops project, and accompanies the bus during its maiden voyage, it didn't take long for me to realize that this character could easily be written out, given how little of substance she is given to do. As for Dan, while his character is given enough material to justify his presence, the script makes the big mistake of not making his character likable enough. He seems to have a big chip on his shoulder, and even when we learn of his weaknesses and tragic past, for some reason it's extremely hard to warm up to this very abrasive character.

Compare that Dan character to the character of Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) four years later in Airplane! - he was a really dumb goofball, yes, but likable. You cared about him, and could laugh at him easily, even when he was struggling greatly to redeem himself - who can't smile and relate to a good person desperate to succeed despite all odds? Actually, thinking about the character of Dan some more, it seems that this character's unlikability comes from a large degree from the performance of actor Joseph Bologna. Instead of showing vulnerability, Bologna's attitude is one of crankiness and impatience. As a result, he doesn't generate any chemistry with his co-star Channing, or anyone else. I don't know why that is so, especially when you consider many of the other members of the cast give gung-ho and amusing performances. John Beck (Chain Of Command) is lively as Bologna's co-driver, Mulligan and Kellerman generate great and often funny chemistry as a hostile divorcing couple, Rene Auberjonois (The Last Unicorn) is hilarious as a priest who has lost his faith (and patience), and there are some real big laughs whenever the movie cuts to the Cyclops' goofy lounge piano player, played by Murphy Dunne (Old Boyfriends). These spirited performances aren't the only funny bits to be found in The Big Bus. The screenplay by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen does bring to the movie some humor. For starters, both writers do seem to have some handle of the conventions of disaster movies. There is a little old lady, and a spoiled rich woman, among other familiar characters. Seeing such familiar touches given the humorous treatment is fun to observe. And here and there, there are some other kinds of gags that tickle or even get you to laugh out loud. These gags that work range greatly, from the hilarious way Dan is greeted when he enters a bus drivers' watering hole, to when Dan midway through the Cyclops' maiden voyage has to process the complex instructions given to him in order to diffuse the bomb that has been planted underneath the bus.

I know I haven't gotten into all that much detail about the humor that works in The Big Bus, but that was intentional in order to not make the mistake of making the movie sound funnier than it actually is. Most of the humor showcased simply isn't all that funny, even by 1970s standards. A good amount the failed humor is simply lazy in concept and execution, like the opening scene where a bus carrying members of the press picks up the reporters from one end of a small parking, drives a few seconds to pick up Kitty, then a few seconds later returns to where it started to drop everyone off. Believe me, that gag is even lamer than it sounds, and there are dozens of equally feeble gags to come. Certainly the weak writing of these gags has to take some of the blame, but also director James Frawley. Frawley was a director who spent most of his career directing television projects, which may explain why he was apparently largely unable to think "bigger" for this particular theatrical movie. The movie not only feels like a feeble 70s TV sitcom episode, but it also looks it as well, with its flat and non-vibrant photography, and interior set design that's obviously shot in a small studio. But to Fawley's defense, it looks like much of the somewhat limited budget was blown on constructing the title object, which I must admit is both impressive and amusing to the eye. Whenever we get an outside shot of the bus in various forms of action, I admit that I was always interested. It got me to wonder just how this monster bus got designed and built. To tell the truth, before The Big Bus got anywhere near it end, I was starting to think that a documentary about how this big bus got from its initial idea to finished constructed product would have been a lot more interesting than the fictional movie itself. Who knows - maybe seeing the struggles to get the bus made would also have made the movie a lot funnier as well.

(Posted May 24, 2022)

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See also: City On Fire, Cops & Robbers, Fire!