Lights, camera, eruption! Volcanoes in the movies

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As Volcano Awareness Month nears its end, we conclude our look at volcanoes and society by exploring the cinematic treatment of volcanoes over the last century.

Given the infamy of the A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius, it is not surprising that the first volcano-related film was "The Last Days of Pompeii," an 1897 silent film based on a novel that was first published in 1834. Several additional films with the same name have been made over the century since, with Hollywood first producing its own version of the story in 1935. Sergio Leone (famous for directing Clint Eastwood in the now-classic spaghetti westerns) co-wrote and co-directed a version of the story in 1959. In 1984, the story was made into a TV mini-series that featured Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, and Ned Beatty.

Volcanoes, however, are rarely the focus of a movie (even if they dominate the title), and are used, instead, to provide a backdrop for human drama. In the 1950 film "Stromboli," Ingrid Bergman plays the role of a woman from eastern Europe who escapes an internment camp by marrying an Italian and moving to his home on the volcanic island of Stromboli. There, she has to deal with not only eruptions from the volcano, but also with being an outsider. The film is perhaps better known for the real-life drama of the affair between the actress and director Roberto Rossellini (both married to other people at the time), which led to a child born out of wedlock and the public condemnation of Bergman in the United States.

Volcanoes have also been featured in cartoons, including the animated Superman short "Volcano" from 1942 (viewable on the Internet through YouTube). In the cartoon, Superman saves Lois Lane from lava flows erupted by Monokoa volcano (perhaps a play on the name of Hawai`i's Mauna Loa volcano?), then diverts the lava to save a nearby town.

The late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, saw the production of numerous disaster movies, featuring building fires, overturned ocean liners, and earthquakes. Volcanoes, of course, were also a primary backdrop for such movies. "Krakatoa, East of Java," released in 1969, tells the story of a salvage boat captain who searches for sunken treasure with his mistress while he transports a shipload of convicts and tries to avoid a volcanic eruption. The filmmakers must never have looked at a map of Indonesia, however, since Krakatau volcano (sometimes called Krakatoa) is located west of the island of Java.

The 1980 volcano disaster movie "When Time Ran Out" stars such Hollywood legends as Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, and William Holden. The setting is a tropical island reminiscent of Hawai`i, where an oil driller has to rescue tourists from the erupting volcano. The movie was filmed on the Big Island, including scenes of Paul Newman walking across Kīlauea Iki crater in his silver suit. While Newman reportedly regretted making the movie, he used his salary from the film to start the Newman's Own company.

Movies featuring volcanoes have also been beautiful, as well as funny. Akira Kurosawa, the visionary filmmaker behind the classic film "Seven Samurai," also directed the 1990 film "Dreams," a collection of short stories based on Kurosawa"s own dreams. One dream involved a nuclear meltdown that led to an eruption of Mount Fuji (the film was co-produced by Steven Spielberg, with special effects by George Lucas). Also in 1990, the movie-going public was treated to the now cult-comedy "Joe Versus the Volcano," starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Who can forget a volcano named "The Big Woo"?

The late 1990s and 2000s saw an explosion of volcano movies, including 1997's "Dante"s Peak" and 2005's docudrama "Supervolcano." Many of these films have been surprisingly realistic in terms of their portrayal of volcanic eruptions. While the same cannot be said for 1997's "Volcano" (about an eruption in Los Angeles, and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Ann Heche), at least many recent movies included professional volcanologists as advisors. Perhaps this trend will continue, and we can look forward to future movies that have all the drama that viewers crave, while retaining realistic representations of volcanoes and their eruptions. Certainly an event as spectacular as a volcanic eruption needs no embellishment from Hollywood!

We hope you have enjoyed this series of articles on the interactions between volcanoes and religion, art, literature, and the movies, as well as other events associated with Volcano Awareness Month. Best wishes, and Happy 2010 from the staff of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory!


Volcano Activity Update

Surface flows have been active near the top of the pali within and just above the Royal Gardens subdivision. The westernmost of these flows was slowly moving downslope along Ali`i Avenue and had reached down to about the 1400-ft elevation by Wednesday. Another deflation/inflation cycle at Kīlauea's summit also started on Wednesday, and may cause the surface flows to slow or stop. Surface flows in the same general area above the pali will likely start again when the volcano re-inflates.

At Kīlauea's summit, the lava surface deep within the collapse pit, inset within the floor of Halema`uma`u Crater, was visible via webcam. The deflation phase of the deflation/inflation cycle caused the lava to retreat to a deeper level, but will likely rise again after the volcano begins to inflate. Volcanic gas emissions remain elevated, resulting in high concentrations of sulfur dioxide downwind.

One earthquakes beneath Hawai`i Island was reported felt during the past week. A magnitude-3.0 earthquake occurred at 2:37 p.m. on Monday, January 25, 2010, H.s.t., and was located 4 km (2 miles) west of Pahala at a depth of 38 km (23 miles).