Friday, 16 April 2010

"Will history blame me or the bees?"

At the start of former Golden Turkey Award winner, The Swarm (1978), Richard Widmark's General Slater at first assumes the attack to be a pre-emptive communist strike - and who can blame him? The killer bees descending on Texas do seem to behave just as one might expect a Dirty Red to behave. First, they attack a military institution - a nuclear missile base no less - and then a picnicking family. Of course, a picnicking family may not sound like an obvious military target, but this perfect blond-blue-eyed nuclear family, setting off into the countryside in their denim and their gingham and their cowboy hats, are not just any American family. They are the American family, the very archetype of the American family, poster children for white America's idealised self-image. The bees are attacking the American Way of Life.

As Mikel Koven points out, in the late seventies, when The Swarm (along with other killer bee movies, such as The Bees, The Savage Bees, and Terror Out of the Sky) was made, America was reeling from defeat in Vietnam and required a fantasy military victory to compensate for the loss 'in reality' (Koven even relates a bee's characteristic black and yellow stripes to the black uniforms and 'yellow' skin of the Viet Cong). In The Swarm, the bees are repeatedly referred to as an "invading force" and the humans identify their struggle against the bees as "war", by both the hawkish General Slade, and Michael Caine's more peaceful, scientifically minded, Brad Crane. When Crane, says "the war that I've always talked about has finally begun" he implies the necessity for a constant state of military preparedness, even for events considered highly unlikely by most experts.

Of course, despite the Wu Tang Clan's affectionate (or ironic?) tribute, with the constant verbal slippages in The Swarm between "Africanised killer bees" and "African bees" or sometimes even just "Africans" (as in Widmark's reference to "war against the Africans") and the almost complete absence of black faces in the film (Koven spots one black extra somewhere in the back of a crowd scene), it is not hard to discern another, more domestic fear permeating the script's ideology. "They have been here some time," says Crane, "Breeding, increasing." The stated route of these "more aggressive" bees who tend to strike "without provocation" mirrors that of the old slave routes from Africa to the USA via the Caribbean. Koven frames it as an opposition between bees and WASPs, and for America's WASPs in the seventies, the perceived defeat just dealt to the American Way of Life, was just as much the victory of the civil rights movement as the failure in south Asia. "This is really a dress rehearsal," says Slater, "to set procedure for any future African challenges."

There is at least one more possible interpretation of The Swarm's narrative, and that is as a story about Hollywood itself. As we watch the film's all-star cast of great old timers, Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, Olivia De Havilland, getting picked off and killed by the bees, one can't help but see the film as emblematic of the final full stop on the classical Hollywood era. From this point on, only guest star slots on Murder, She Wrote would be available to these former titans of the movie business. And what, from the eighties to the present day, has chiefly replaces the familiarity of such faces and the classic Hollywood genre system of westerns (represented by Henry Fonda), crime films (by Fred MacMurray) and swashbucklers and historical epics (Olivia de Havilland), is increasingly, the big production number effects movies, films like The Swarm itself. Except of course, that one of the most curious things about the 'effects' in The Swarm is that they are (pretty well) all real. They really did use twenty million odd bees flying around the set. You simply cannot imagine today, someone making a killer bees movie and not using CGI.