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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anne Billson

Volcano films – ranked!

French volcanologist Katia Krafft by a volcano in Iceland in Fire of Love.
Crate expectations … French volcanologist Katia Krafft by a volcano in Iceland in Fire of Love. Photograph: Image'Est

20. The Last Days of Pompeii (1959)

Steve Reeves seeks vengeance for his father’s murder and Vesuvius erupts in a shower of sparks in this handsome peplum epic, no more faithful to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel than countless other films that borrowed its title. Sergio Leone made his directorial debut when the original director fell ill.

19. When Time Ran Out (1980)

Irwin Allen’s run of disaster movies sputtered to an ignominious halt with Paul Newman drilling for oil on the slope of an active volcano; it’s rumoured the star used the fee to launch his charitable salad dressing. Also features the world’s stupidest hotel guests, and half the cast falling into molten lava.

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano.
Hot and bothered … Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

18. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

Tom Hanks plays a humble clerk who learns he is terminally ill and agrees to throw himself into a live volcano in return for a platinum Amex card in this whimsical romcom with a very silly ending. Meg Ryan plays three roles for no particular reason; Colonel Blimp this is not.

17. Bird of Paradise (1951)

The always interesting Delmer Daves directed this load of old tiki starring Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget – Hollywood’s go-to white actors for ethnic minority roles – as Polynesians. She angers the witch doctor by marrying a Frenchman (Louis Jourdan) and it all goes South Seas when the volcano erupts. But, hey, sometimes human sacrifices do work!

Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman.
Fired up … Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman. Photograph: Focus Features/Aidan Monaghan/Allstar

16. The Northman (2022)

Robert Eggers’ viking revenge saga isn’t as bonkers as one would like, but there’s no arguing with the showdown between Alexander Skarsgård and Claes Bang, stark naked, clobbering each other with big swords and yelling “hraaggh!” on the slopes of an erupting Icelandic volcano.

15. One Million Years BC (1966)

Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion triceratops and giant turtles are almost upstaged by Raquel Welch in Hammer’s slice of prehistoric exotica, filmed in the lava landscapes of Lanzarote. Raquel is abducted by a pterodactyl and wrestles with Martine Beswick before the tribal wars are interrupted by volcanic wobblicam.

14. St Helens (1981)

A prog-rock score by Goblin is the MVP of this made-for-cable account of the devastating eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980, which culminated in a 670mph pyroclastic flow. Generally respectful of the real-life victims, though the family of the geologist who shouts “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” threatened to sue.

13. Pompeii (2014)

Slave turned gladiator Kit Harington competes with corrupt senator Kiefer Sutherland for the governor’s daughter in Paul WS Anderson’s 3D peplum pic with extra abs. Just as well you don’t care about the characters, because one-third of the film is devoted to wiping them out in CGI-rendered fireballs, a tsunami and pyroclastic cloud.

Blofeld’s lair in You Only Live Twice.
Enemy territory … Blofeld’s lair in You Only Live Twice. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

12. You Only Live Twice (1967)

Sean Connery’s fifth outing as Bond features one of John Barry’s best scores, a traumatised White Cat of Evil and the ultimate Bond-villain lair, designed by Ken Adam. The interior of Blofeld’s Japanese volcano comes equipped with all mod cons, including heliport, monorail and a self-destruct button that sets off an eruption.

11. Mysterious Island (1961)

Escapers from the American civil war are stranded on an island swarming with giant bees and crabs. Ray Harryhausen does his stop-motion magic; Bernard Herrmann provides the score; Herbert Lom makes one of cinema’s great entrances as Captain Nemo. Can our heroes use steampunk science to refloat a sunken pirate ship before the volcano explodes?

John Cusack and Woody Harrelson in 2012.
John Cusack and Woody Harrelson in 2012. Photograph: Sony Pics/Everett/REX

10. 2012 (2009)

Solar flares destabilise the Earth’s crust, triggering the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera. Conspiracy theorist Woody Harrelson is toast, but can John Cusack, his ex-wife and their family outrun the fireballs and pyroclastic flow? You bet, but that’s just the beginning of the end. The most credible details here are politicians and oligarchs scrambling to save themselves, leaving everyone else to die.

9. Ashfall (2019)

Serial eruptions of Mount Paektu threaten to destroy the entire Korean peninsula in this disaster movie featuring some of South Korea’s biggest stars. Lee Byung-hun plays a spy who teams up with a special forces captain (The Handmaiden’s Ha Jung-woo) to fend off Americans and Chinese gangsters en route to setting off a uranium bomb under the volcano.

Volcano. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

8. Volcano (1997)

A solfatara erupts out of the La Brea tar pits in LA, sending a torrent of lava towards the Beverly Center! Tommy Lee Jones plays the man who must stop the magma; Anne Heche is the seismologist who senses something is amiss when one of her colleagues combusts. Cliches include dogs in jeopardy, kiddies in peril and a heroic transit worker meltdown.

7. Krakatoa, East of Java (1968)

A famously mistitled blockbuster (Krakatoa is west of Java but producers thought “east” sounded more exotic) inspired by the 1883 eruption that sent shock waves around the world. Maximilian Schell and his boat face the tsunami, John “Johnny Remember Me” Leyton goes down in a diving bell, and Rossano Brazzi flies over the fiery crater in a hot air balloon.

Krakatoa: East of Java.
Krakatoa: East of Java. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

6. The Return of the King (2003)

Sauron forged the One Ring in the molten lava of Mount Doom, and it is into Doom’s fiery depths that Frodo must cast the all-powerful bling after an epic voyage across Middle-earth to Mordor. But oh no! What if he changes his mind at the last minute? Step forward Gollum … Doom is played by New Zealand volcanoes Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.

5. The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

Two years after King Kong, Ernest B Schoedsack and Merian C Cooper kept the title of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, added Basil Rathbone as Pontius Pilate, and ditched everything else except the explosive climax as Vesuvius goes supernova. Willis O’Brien oversaw the special effects, which include panicking Pompeiians plunging into fiery pits, and a toppling giant naked gladiator statue.

4. The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961)

A volcano erupts on a Polynesian island where an alcoholic priest (Spencer Tracy) seeks redemption by teaming up with three dangerous convicts (one played by Frank Sinatra) to save leprous children. Tracy adds gravitas, and impressive-for-their-time effects include the obligatory lava, and death by volcanic mud. It’s like a classy version of When Time Ran Out, which pinched some of the plot.

Linda Hamilton, Jeremy Foley, Jamie Renée Smith and Pierce Brosnan in Dante’s Peak.
Boom and bust … Linda Hamilton, Jeremy Foley, Jamie Renée Smith and Pierce Brosnan in Dante’s Peak. Photograph: Cine Text/Sportsphoto/Allstar

3. Dante’s Peak (1997)

Pierce Brosnan tries to convince mayor Linda Hamilton that the apparently dormant volcano looming over her Pacific north-west town is about to blow. Often seen as a serious complement to the more preposterous Volcano, this is not without cliches (intrepid dog! Heroic granny!) but tries to inject realistic elements into its eruption with an acid lake, lahar and, yes, pyroclastic flow.

2. Into the Inferno (2016)

Werner Herzog and his co-director, Clive Oppenheimer, explore volcanoes from Vanuatu to Iceland in this rambling but fascinating documentary that wanders off at tangents to dig up fragments of bone in Ethiopia, or examine the nationalistic myths of North Korea, where Mount Paektu on the Chinese border (cause of all the mayhem in Ashfall) is considered the regime’s spiritual home.

1. Fire of Love (2022)

None of the special effects in the aforementioned films can match the awe-inspiring footage filmed by French vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. Sara Dosa’s unmissable documentary, narrated by Miranda July, notes from the outset that the couple lost their lives in the 1991 Mount Unzen eruption, before going on to show, via jaw-dropping imagery, how they pushed the limits of their shared passion.

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