Home > Free Essays > Art > Films Comparison > History of Disaster Films

History of Disaster Films Research Paper

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: Apr 30th, 2019

Disaster films are films that tell a fictional story or a true story based on a disastrous event. Disaster films, which are mostly feature films, have dominated the commercial cinema since the coming of classical Hollywood. The major feature of these films is their element of spectacular disaster (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

This element allows the characters and the events to be unpredictable, and thus the audiences are able to lose themselves as the story unfolds (Law, 2010). This paper seeks to use Cameron’s “Titanic” and Baker’s “A Night to Remember” to develop a better understanding of the genre of disaster films. This paper will also examine how the cultural context has affected depictions of the event from the 1950’s to the present.

Scenes of mass destruction have proven a longstanding and pervasive feature of the film spectacle since 1950s science fiction to more recent hybrids of disaster, action, romance and science fiction. Disaster films are not just formulaic and spectral; there is something more to disaster movies than spectacular scenes of destruction and death.

Disaster films were reformulated into action films that were produced between 1980 and 1990. In 1990s, disaster films were produced in pure and hybrid forms and recycled disaster films of 1950s and 1970s with added special effects (Rose & Kay, 2006). A good example which will be covered in this paper is 2007 “Titanic.”

Disaster films of 1990s reached saturation point with use of similar scenes as witnessed in Independence Day, Titanic, Armageddon and Godzilla which were produced between 1996 and 1998. While Cameron and Baker tell the same story of the ocean liner, Cameron’s story surpass Baker’s story through the building of plot, characters, special effects and realistic aesthetics. This is the fundamental difference between the disaster films of 1950s and the present day films that are more of hybrid genre (Law, 2010).

Between 1910s and 1930s, the first instances of disaster films were produced like The Fall of Troy in 1910, Quo Vadis in 1912 and Cabiria in 1914.

The movies performed well in America and Europe and some disaster sequences were recycled in the movies that followed. Disaster films of 1930s were different from the earlier movies in that they brought an identifiable new trend and were able to distinguish disaster films from biblical and Roman epics.

Fantasy films, science fiction and musical films with scenes of disaster were also produced in 1930s. These films have been dismissed as trashy entertainment but will be remembered as historical epics with a lot of entertainment (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

Historical epics of 1950s renewed the popularity of the ancient world. Religious epics were very common and some were inspired by the Second World War. Disaster films of this time employed world disasters as plot elements. Baker’s “A night to Remember” falls appropriately in this category. In 1970, the golden era of disaster films began with a lot of financial success. The Airport which was released in 1970 has been described as a tremendous success since it was nominated for ten Academy Awards (Law, 2010).

Disaster films continued to enjoy success in 1970s and were honored for application of special effects. The Earthquake won four Academy Awards for application of special effects. Massive subwoofers were installed in the theatre to simulate the sensation of an earthquake. The film was also honored for its application of special effects in production. In 1979, the genre began to perform poorly after The Swarm and

The Meteor were produced in 1978 and 1979 respectively. The two films performed poorly in box office after consuming a huge budget in their production (Law, 2010). The genre was revived in 1996 to reap enormous success in box office. In 1997, James Cameron directed “The Titanic”, a film that featured disaster and romance and which has been described as the most recent version of epic story. Disaster films are still enjoying success in Hollywood and box office (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

A close look at the early cinema stage, disaster films are historical pieces of art. These pieces of art have become the most precious form of mass entertainment and probably the most significant art form of the 20th century. Disaster films were produced following important factors of the time.

The historical events captured in disaster films showed how a disaster happened and the consequences of the disaster. In addition, the cultural and artistic characteristics of the people at the time of film production are always evident in disaster films. Evidently, cultural and artistic factors like the way of life, dressing habits and dancing styles can be learnt from the films. Disaster films were produced to give an account of an event or to tell an imaginary story (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

Technological factors that contributed in the making of disaster films include the forms of entertainment, clothing and modes of transport. Forms of entertainment, especially music and dancing and film technology depicted how much the represented community had advanced technologically.

The modes of transport used at the time of film production clearly show the factor of technology. In addition, the factor of technology that stands out when vehicles are used in film production can give a wise estimation of historical era of the time (Law, 2010).

Technological factors are important in creation of disaster films. This is because some disaster films emerged out of a collection of historical, scientific, aesthetic and industrial initiatives. In 1920s, a complete subgenre of films with camera tricks in conjunction with theatrical settings to enable actors to vanish.

Later newer cameras proved exemplary in giving a series of scenes edited end to end with a combined modified stage. Later, it was possible to show quick movement and modify together a series of chronological events. A lot of early disaster films retold formulaic stories or compressed tales already familiar with the audience. In that case there was no need to give an explanation of character relations or their motivations (Law, 2010).

The classical period of filming history was characterized by rapid change in technology. In Europe, production cost of disaster films increased rapidly challenging a lot of film producers. This was due to the fact that Hollywood studios claimed all the patents for the new sound invention, and licensing was very exorbitant. In mid 1930s, Hollywood witnessed a period of production success with about five major studios and three minor studios.

Cinema in the United States specifically came to be made on corporate models. This increased specialization or division of labor, directors of films, and slate of yearly production quotas. The industry concentrated on efficient stories and exceptional styles. In the late 1930s, special movie studios emerged. These studios were able to allow more evocative lighting designs and enabled more intricate camera movement techniques. Around 1940, a more conventional, commercial disaster film studio was in place (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

The period between 1930 and 1945 is called the classical period of filming history. This period marked the changeover from silent to sound cinema. It is also a period that caused great disturbance in disaster filming. This period is marked by a significant change in economic standing of disaster films.

The period necessitated a costly transformation of production facilities and cinema theaters. There was also an effect in both artistic and technological factors in making new disaster films. During this period, Hollywood took a break to get over the artistic and technological challenges of sound movie production (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

A disaster film represents a particular event in history that has a direct impact on ideological factors. A disaster film representing a passage of a particular era in history shows growth of ideas with the passage of time. The passage of time comes with progressed knowledge and the building of ideas. Ideological factors are closely linked to the social attitudes of the people. The interaction between people in a film, their idea of social life and reasoning is represented by ideological factors in a disaster film (Rose & Kay, 2006).

To understand the ideological factors that contributed in creation of disaster films, we first need to understand film as a social history. Most importantly is their ability to give a figure of the way daily life unfolded for the people involved.

This will give a clear understanding of how the fabric of daily life was made or was changed. It will also give an understanding of the ideas applied by the people in their daily life, and hence the ideological factors. Disaster films allow viewers to watch and compare the ideas of people across the world and all over the 20th century (Rose & Kay, 2006).

Disaster films are forms of historical evidence that combines technological, cultural artistic, ideological and economic factors. Like other forms of representational art, disaster films make events vivid. In this way, they portray the social attitudes of the subjects involved. Disaster films are sometimes based on true happenings. This means that they accurately reflect the social attitudes of people represented. Disaster films, just like any other form of movies, are able to reach the greatest number of people (Law, 2010).

America filming industry has long been enthralled with reforming the history of US on film. Since early 1920s filmmakers have sought to express their understanding of the history on screen. To explain the factors that led to creation of disaster films, we first need to relate them with the history that they represent.

Producers of disaster films considered the political, social and cultural legacies of the historical era focused by the film. Disaster films have produced a considerable number of historical stories that have deliberately engaged in debates about the past. These films have offered an outstanding impact of films on cultural memory of the people (Rose & Kay, 2006).

Disaster films are outstanding in the way they are linked through their attempts to characterize the fifties and sixties. They have a way of relating the present with charged conceptions of that era. They stand out in their self-conscious involvement in the processes relaying and influencing on combined cultural memory.

Many generic cycles and trends have occurred in the course of disaster film history. These cycles have engaged with particular social and ideological preoccupations. This social involvement has assumed different forms. The social limitations of the period between 1950s and 1960s highlight the difference between films produced in that era and in the present-day (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

Disaster films of period between 1940s and 1950s casted a figurative eye upon the apprehension of the Cold War. Social and economic factors play a significant role in disaster film production. Researchers have identified the right and left cycles of production that appeared in response to the industrial, economic and social turmoil of the 1960s.

In addition to these comparatively direct responses to the present political, economic and social issues, historical disaster films have regularly dug up the American past. As scholars observe, these films frequently reference the present to draw concentration to the current resonances of their interpretations by integrating hints about their events (Rose & Kay, 2006).

Historical disaster films can be viewed as a way of engaging and reflecting evolving historical trends. These trends are tied to various factors that are imperative in creation of disaster films. These factors include technological and artistic, which changes with inventions, and economic which is closely tied to political factors.

Other factors like ideological and cultural factors are tied to the social life of people. It is possible to consider silent cinemas of 1920s about the Civil War as cultural representation of that historical era. Disaster films are distinctive in terms of the sociological and political discourse intrinsic in the eras represented by the films. In addition, they characterize a particular historical era across a long passage of time (Law, 2010).

Due to change in economic arena and increased competition, Hollywood produced cinemas that showcased film’s distinguishing qualities. Among the qualities included stereophonic sound, wider screen size, and color images. In 1950s, Hollywood concentrated on spectacular films such as biblical epics, political, westerns, and musicals (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

The history of disaster films now spans over a century. These films play a role as useful historical evidence since the beginning of twentieth century. The earliest successful projections occurred before the end of the nineteenth century. Films preserve not only the actions of people but also the images of long dead icons. Disaster films preserve the visual appearance of an event and most importantly, the passage of time. These films have also evolved depending on the time of production (Rose & Kay, 2006).

Though the two movies give an account of the same tragedy, some significant differences can be drawn from the two movies. A Night to Remember depicts how the tragedy happened while the Titanic depicts how the victims lived through the disaster. Cameron takes a more visceral approach and presents the Titanic as a modern day wreck.

He does not give a lot of details regarding the history of the ship; he concentrates much on the fictional protagonists. This shows the evolution that has occurred from the 1950s disaster films that concentrated on historical aspects of the disaster. Titanic is a contemporary hybrid genre that includes romance and action in addition to being a disaster film (Mast & Kawin, 2010).

The early stages of the two movies differ a lot in terms of how the story is built. “A Night to Remember” is unfussy and modest; after running for about forty minutes, the iceberg is hit. The rest of the time concentrates on the some passengers and some crew’s families at home. Baker made the story uncomplicated and straight to the point.

The buildup of the collision happens dissonantly effective without use of complicated soundtracks. On the contrary, Cameron gives the audience whole seventy five minutes as the story of Jack and Rose unfolds. The audience sees historical figures briefly painted with some brush. Cameron combines the romance, modern framing and history cleverly to familiarize the viewers with the ship as the protagonist move from the top to the bottom and to the boiler room (Rose & Kay, 2006).

Modern day effects have been used in Titanic to give the audience a sense of evolution from 1950s films to the present. When Jack, played by Leonardo Di Caprio is framed for theft and locked below the ship, Cameron brings some effective scenes where the audience sees Rose, a character played by Winslet wading in water filled corridors.

The combination of lighting and sound gives a viewer the feeling of a contemporary disaster. Lights fail for some second and the terrified breathing of rose is heard amid the threatening groaning and creaking of the ship. Cameron has used such scenes to add action and romance in the disaster film. Titanic has been described as an aesthetic piece of work that added more reasons for watching a disaster film (Rose & Kay, 2006).

In conclusion, the impression left by Cameron’s story is lasting; this is not the same for Baker’s “A night to Remember” since Baker tells only how the tragedy occurred. Cameron added more drama to his actors especially the lead actors. The added plot and emphasis on specific characters added more depth to the film. The audience is able to follow other side stories other than just how the ship sunk.

Special effects were used in Titanic to bring reality to the disaster unlike 1958 “A Night to Remember”. Lighting, sounds and added graphics made the sinking of the ship and the disaster to look real. Comparing “A Night to Remember” and “Titanic” provides an understanding of how disaster films have developed to become a hybrid genre. The audience can witness how cultural context has affected depictions of the event from the 1950’s to the present to produce two different films telling the same story.


Law, J. W. (2010). Disaster on Film. San Francisco, CA: Aplomb Publishing.

Mast, G., & Kawin, B. (2010). A Short History of the Movies, Eleventh Edition. Harlow, UK: Longman Publishers.

Rose, M., & Kay, G. (2006). Disaster Movies: A Loud, Long, Explosive, Star-Studded Guide to Avalanches, Earthquakes, Floods, Meteors, Sinking Ships, Twisters, Viruses, Killer… Fallout, and Alien Attacks in the Cinema!!!! Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

This research paper on History of Disaster Films was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Research Paper sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

801 certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2019, April 30). History of Disaster Films. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-disaster-films-research-paper/


IvyPanda. (2019, April 30). History of Disaster Films. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-disaster-films-research-paper/

Work Cited

"History of Disaster Films." IvyPanda, 30 Apr. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-disaster-films-research-paper/.

1. IvyPanda. "History of Disaster Films." April 30, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-disaster-films-research-paper/.


IvyPanda. "History of Disaster Films." April 30, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-disaster-films-research-paper/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "History of Disaster Films." April 30, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-of-disaster-films-research-paper/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'History of Disaster Films'. 30 April.

Powered by CiteTotal, essay citation generator
More related papers