Well, look at it this way: at least he's not around to see this one come back. Warner Bros., as part of their newly launched Paul Newman Film Series, kicks hardcore Irwin Allen fans right in the groin with the release of 1980's disastrous disaster epic, When Time Ran Out..., without a doubt Paul Newman's worst movie (an honor he previously gave to The Silver Chalice until this one rolled out to empty theaters and hysterically laughing critics). I write "kicks in the groin" because Warner Bros., in some kind of colossal screw-up akin to Warner Bros. originally green-lighting this atrocity, has inexplicably decided to put out a truncated version of the film - a move which no doubt will alienate the few buyers who would have ran to pick up this title had the W.B. put a little effort into securing at the very least the original 121 minute theatrical version of the film, or better yet the extended version of When Time Ran Out... (which ran at 141 minutes on VHS - I endured that, too). Hmmm...more When Time Ran Out.... On second thought....
The plot, as it were, is needlessly convoluted...and entirely ripped off from every other film Irwin Allen ever made. Paul Newman is Hank Anderson, a neatly-pressed oil driller who just struck Texas Tea on a remote Pacific island (which looks suspiciously like the Big Island of Hawaii). This is good news, because his bankroller, clean-cut-but-somehow-slimy Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), desperately wants to show up the memory of his dead father, who was the island's big kahuna when it came to the sugar cane business. Spangler, who also operates a crater-edge volcanic observatory (?), is married to riding-crop-brandishing Nikki (Veronica Hamel), but he's having it off with native girl and hotel greeter, Iolani (Barbara Carrera), who was engaged to largely somnambulant islander Brian (Edward Albert). Into this heady mix comes wizened multi-millionaire hotelier Shelby Gilmore (William Holden), who has the hots for large-breasted Kay Kirby (Jacqueline Bisset), a gorgeous advertising executive who's flying to Spangler's island to help Shelby promote his new luxury hotel there. But Kay isn't going for that huge rock the much-married Shelby pulled out on the plane ("What would I be? The seventh?" Kay asks. "The last," Shelby groans). Evidently, Kay had a big thing going on with Hank, and she wants him back. Which is all fine and good, until "unusual magma movement" indicates that a hellacious explosion from that smoldering volcano just about over there, is going to level the island - and it's every man, woman and child for himself as the frightened survivors, dodging earthquakes, tidal waves, flaming explosive balls of rock, and a river of magma, fight for their very lives!
Hey, I paid money to see this in a theatre back in 1980, so I'm owed a little payback. I wish I could write that When Time Ran Out... is so bad it's good (a curious phenomenon that might apply to Allen's The Swarm), but the sight of so many good actors enacting a turgid, terrible script by two of the best scribes in the business (Stirling Silliphant and Carl Foreman, for god's sakes), leadenly directed by a once-promising helmer, James Goldstone, isn't funny - it's depressing. I think we all knew that by 1980, the time had temporarily passed for this kind of big-budget disaster movie (a late 70s passing helped along, no doubt, by Irwin's two previous flops, The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, as well as b.o. disaster tankers like Meteor and The Concorde...Airport '79 - and yes, I saw them all at my local movie house). And anyone up on movies knew there was something fishy about those trailers, too; what was Paul Newman, Bisset, Holden, Borgnine, and the rest of that cast doing in a big, silly volcano movie (I've read that Newman somehow owed Allen a picture, after signing on to The Towering Inferno)? Even the budget seemed suspicious; a highly-touted 22 million dollars (a relatively hefty amount back then), and yet the special effects - what little there actually were in the dialogue-heavy film - were obviously sub-par (most of that money had to go for salaries, one would assume). When Time Ran Out...'s reception was even worse than Allen's two previous films (a less-than 2 million gross at U.S. theatres), and its failure was widely seen as the last nail in the coffin for big-budget studio disaster films at that time. Irwin Allen, the "Master of Disaster," went back to whence he came - television - and never produced another big-screen feature film again.
One has difficulty knowing where to start in discussing When Time Ran Out......because almost nothing works in it, from the stars, to the script, the direction, the cinematography, the art direction and sets, the music, the editing, or the laughably inept special effects. It's just a nightmare from the get-go, and you can smell it coming a mile off (Newman reportedly said he and the rest of the cast knew from day one that this was going to be a huge dog). Never mind that the film violates the very first and most basic rule of the "line 'em up and watch 'em die" appeal of 70s disaster films (the biggest "stars" to buy it are Alex Karras and James Franciscus? I mean...thank you for that, at least, but frankly, that's not nearly enough to satisfy me), too many elements of When Time Ran Out... are so obviously lifted from Allen's other films that the effect isn't so much repetitious but flat-out, creepy déjà vu. Newman's and Franciscus' dynamic is fashioned whole-cloth from The Towering Inferno, with Franciscus the scheming, double-dealing equivalent of the weasely Richard Chamberlain. Franciscus is terrified that the rumbling volcano will scotch his deal with Holden, so he lies to him about the terrible tremors that have rocked the island (he also has "daddy issues" of matching up with his dead father, very much like Chamberlain had in Towering, matching up with his father-in-law...played by Holden - the permutations just never end). Newman, of course, is the concerned professional, willing to shut down his newly successful oil rig because of the danger (just like he wanted to "shut down" the Tower when he discovered faulty wiring), but he allows his men to stay when they tell him they need the money (creating ready-made victims just like the ones in Towering, who refused to leave the penthouse party). Newman even has a remarkably similar confrontation scene with Franciscus, where he tells him, "Well, you do what you have to do, and I'll do what I have to do," which might be word-for-word from Newman's initial confrontation scene with Chamberlain in Towering).
Holden's role here is almost a carbon-copy of his previous one in Towering (although here, he's not complicit in any death-causing deceit), while Bisset serves the same purpose as Dunaway in Towering, creating romantic tension for the Newman character (Dunaway's dilemma was career versus love, while Bisset's is winning back Newman after leaving him for Holden). And it's not just the characters that are xeroxed here, but also the basic structure of the film and individual scenes. A luxurious building has just been built on faulty ground (faulty wiring in Towering), and a dedicated professional wants to close it down, but a shady schemer lies about the real danger until it's too late. A calamitous disaster hits, and the survivors have to trek their way through the jungle (or up and down through the tower, or up through the capsized boat), to get to safety. The plugging-in of previous Allen actors doesn't exactly help this sense of déjà vu, either, with Newman's, Holden's, Borgnine's, and Buttons' appearances only setting up the audience for expectations the film is woefully unable to meet (Borgnine's treatment - set on fire and then made blind, with his face almost completely covered for the majority of the film - is particularly ignominious, considering his contribution to the classic The Poseidon Adventure). And when the expectations finally die away (at about ten minutes into the film), we're left to contemplate the actual performances. Newman, looking stiff and uncomfortable in many scenes (he can barely get up that ramp in the observatory), clearly telegraphs his displeasure with the film, while Bisset pulls faces and grimaces in an effort to appear jauntily charming - an act that doesn't suggest sexiness as much as an indiscreet case of gas. And Holden is just flat-out scary. Wizened almost beyond recognition, with dead eyes that can suddenly go very bright and crazed, it's clear the actor is suffering under some kind of malady (otherwise known as "the hootch") - a sad and embarrassing sight for someone who, just five years earlier, had turned in one of the greatest performances of his career, in Network (apparently, a cripplingly drunk Holden scared everyone on the set, acting irrationally and physically pushing actors around because he thought he was the film's lead - he would die from an alcohol-related accident the next year).
It's no wonder, though, that all these talented performers look so bad when one hears the horrendous dialogue they're given here. When Time Ran Out... is a veritable treasure trove of inane exchanges, many of which highlight not only the poor scripting but the nonsensical plot. I don't know anything about active volcanoes, but I'm pretty sure you don't want to build a multi-million dollar observatory right on the edge of one, with a cantilevered diving-bell on wires that drops down into the middle of it. But I suppose if you're going to have that...don't make the bottom of the diving-bell out of glass. As Newman, Franciscus and a technician descend into the volcano, they start to sweat, with Newman intoning, "Better call upstairs; see what they can do about this heat," (even my kid cracked up on that one). Of course, the technician falls through the glass bottom (wouldn't his legs have been melted off?) after the diving-bell almost drops into the lava (with Karras, subbing no doubt for a wiser George Kennedy, miraculously cranking the bell back up manually for a bit until the winch is fixed), with the tremors knocking the boys around like the Three Stooges in there. Coming back up to the surface, Newman asks, "What happened?" to which Franciscus replies, "I don't know," (Uh...you both fell into a volcano, you idiots). Newman's and Bisset's dramatic encounters are no less unbelievable. Newman, acknowledging the power of Bisset's sexual allure, initially tries to fend off her advances with, "Why don't you shave your head, grow a moustache, and put on about 150 pounds so I've got some reason to throw you the hell out of here," to which Bisset responds helpfully, "You don't mean that, do you?" Later, they have a picnic on the beach, where Newman makes Bisset hysterical with his stories of teaching needlepoint in college (Silliphant and Foreman...yes, they wrote this), with her offering, "I don't need wine; you get me drunk," to which Newman replies, "I really like the way you laugh. I like the way you listen, too...come over here," with their awkward kiss interrupted by a powerful explosion (no, not that - the volcano).
As for the art direction and special effects, they're as painfully undernourished as the dialogue. Director Goldstone, who doesn't even give a proper, ominous "intro" for the main character here - the rumbling, spitting volcano - can't seem to impart any sense of scale or size to the proceedings, which isn't surprising when you see what he's given to work with here. The few sets he has are curiously sparse-looking, while the special effects ain't so special. The first time we see the smoldering volcano off in the distance, the abysmal matting-in approximates those puff, puff, puffing papier-mâché volcanoes you made back in your seventh-grade science fairs. And when Newman rescues some natives who hang onto the skids of his copter, one of course falls into the volcano - seemingly sideways - in a matte effect that wouldn't have passed muster on Allen's Lost in Space (if Newman warns the guy that the air over the volcano is going to get rough and to hang on...why does he then proceed to fly right over the volcano? He couldn't go around it? It's a helicopter, for chrissakes - it can manuever). As for the tidal wave sequence that wipes out the town where Newman's riggers have cock fights (make your own joke) with Arnold from Happy Days, that sequence has been virtually eliminated from this 109 minute version of the film...which is fine, because the matte effects for the wave and the destruction it brought, were laughable, as well.
As for When Time Ran Out...'s big set-piece, the infamous "lava river crossing," where the actors go back and forth over a footbridge that spans the lava flow (with Burgess Meredith's character finally getting to do something - he's a tightrope walker. Get it?), it's at first alarming when one sees how foreshortened the set actually looks (that backdrop can't be more than twenty feet from the actors), with the coarse lighting making the set look like the inside of the old Disney World Polynesian Resort restaurant. The decision to make the endless crossing and re-crossing of this footbridge the finale of the film (it runs an interminable 20 minutes) is perhaps the cruelest joke in the film, made worse by the laughable framing and blocking of the sequence. In Allen's masterpieces, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, there were simultaneous, multiple levels of believable action within the various sequences, giving the films a "depth of engagement," if you will, that still keep them fascinating today, despite the advance in movie special effects. This paltry sequence in When Time Ran Out..., however, which doesn't make much sense, anyway (maybe it was a visual failure in achieving some scale, but wouldn't that lava flow below just about melt them on that bridge?), is so grimly linear and stunted in its reach, that as the minutes pile on and we realize that the movie is going to end soon, and that this, this, is the big finish, we finally understand that When Time Ran Out... can't deliver even the most basic, humdrum thrills that are required of any action film - let alone one from the "Master of Disaster," Irwin Allen. And strangely, it's an almost poignant, sad moment (in a totally mirthless, impotent film), a moment that you can definitively mark as the end of a former powerhouse producer's feature film career; a producer who had consistently delivered the goods, time and time again. With When Time Ran Out...'s total artistic and commercial failure, time had indeed run out for Irwin Allen - at least on the nation's big screens.
When Time Ran Out... is presented in an anamorphically-enhanced, 2.35:1 transfer that looks fairly good (from what I can remember of the film in the theatre). Dirt and scratches are present (presumably a trip back to the original negative was out), but the colors are reasonable secure, while grain is acceptable. I didn't see any break-up during the darker scenes, nor edge-enhancement issues, but one or two scenes did seem like the faces were smearing a little (perhaps a little heavy with the DNR?). Overall, this looks about as good as you're going to get.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track has an acceptable loudness level, and all dialogue is cleanly rendered. Wishing the film had been remastered into 5.1 misses a basic point: there just isn't enough action in the film to justify it.
There are zero extras for When Time Ran Out...; there's not even a trailer or chapter stops on the disc (you can tell Warner Bros. didn't give a damn about this release, not only because of the edited version, but also that horrendous cover art, with terrible cartoons of the leads).
It makes absolutely no sense for Warner Bros. to release When Time Ran Out... in a truncated version. At least release the original theatrical version, for god's sake. And if you really wanted to sell a few discs of this title, you could have put the extended version on here, too. That being said, at any length, When Time Ran Out... is a truly terrible, joyless film - not bad enough in an ironic fashion to be funny or laughable, just...mind-numbingly awful. Skip When Time Ran Out....
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.