St. Helens (film)

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St. Helens
Screenplay byPeter Bellwood
Larry Ferguson
Story byMichael Timothy Murphy
Larry Sturholm
Directed byErnest Pintoff
StarringArt Carney
David Huffman
Cassie Yates
Albert Salmi
Music byGoblin
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
Producer(s)Peter S. Davis
William N. Panzer
CinematographyJacques Haitkin
Running time90 minutes
Original release
  • May 18, 1981 (1981-05-18)

St. Helens, alternatively titled St. Helens, Killer Volcano, is a 1981 made-for-cable HBO television film directed by Ernest Pintoff and starring David Huffman, Art Carney, Cassie Yates, and Albert Salmi. The film centers on the events leading up to the cataclysmic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington, with the story beginning on the day volcanic activity started on March 20, 1980, and ending on the day of the eruption, May 18, 1980. The film premiered on May 18, 1981, on the first anniversary of the eruption.


On March 20, 1980 an earthquake of 4.1 on the Richter Scale strikes Mount St. Helens, signalling the first signs of volcanic activity there in 123 years. During the earthquake, a flight of quail becomes disoriented and smashes into the windshield of an Aerospatiale SA341G Gazelle helicopter in use for logging operations. The helicopter's pilot, Otis Kaylor (Ron O'Neal), makes a successful emergency landing, only to be accused of nearly killing a group of loggers.

Shortly afterward, United States Geological Survey volcanologist David Jackson (David Huffman) arrives to investigate the activity. Upon arriving in the small town of Cougar, Washington, he quickly befriends Linda Steele (Cassie Yates), a single mother who works as a waitress at a restaurant named Whittaker's Inn. While at Whittaker's Inn, he stirs up concern with its owner, Clyde Whittaker (Albert Salmi), and a group of farmers and loggers. Meanwhile, the 83-year-old owner of the Mount St. Helens Lodge, Harry R. Truman (Art Carney) has a defiant attitude toward the idea of leaving his home on the slopes of the volcano.

After the State of Washington declares a danger zone around the volcano and prohibits anyone from entering it, owners of property inside the prohibited area demand access to their property. To appease them, the state government agrees to let them into the danger zone as long as they sign waivers agreeing that the state has no liability for death or injury they suffer due to volcanic activity. On April 30, 1980, state officials in Cougar give them waivers of liability to sign.

As the volcanic activity increases, so does the attraction between David and Linda, and the two eventually fall in love. Presumably on the day before the eruption, David packs Linda and her son off to safety and stays behind for the scientific work he still needs to do on a ridge a few miles north of the volcano. Later that night, he pays a last visit to Harry.

On the morning of May 18, 1980, David hikes to a ridge a 6 miles (10 km) north of Mount St. Helens to monitor a massive bulge that has been growing on the north face of the mountain for the past few weeks, while Harry goes fishing in Spirit Lake at the foot of the mountain. At 8:32 a.m. PDT the mountain's entire north face collapses in a massive landslide, causing the mountain to explode in a lateral eruption. The eruption kills both David and Harry and continues for hours. Pyroclastic flows destroy everything in their path, and lahars sweep down into the valley of the North Fork Toutle River, taking houses, trees, and bridges with them. Linda soon realizes the horror of the day's events when a radio announcer declares that David was one of the first victims.

The film ends with a scene of a small tree growing amidst the barren moonscape of the post-eruption North Fork Toutle River valley.


Fictionalized aspects of the film[edit]

  • There are no recorded incidents of any aircraft running into disoriented birds in the Mount St. Helens area during the March–May 1980 period depicted in the movie.
  • The first newscast in the film, which supposedly takes place on the day of the first earthquake on March 20, 1980, correctly mentions the Iran Hostage Crisis as being one of the major newsmakers of the day. However, it erroneously states that the Iranians took a total of 53 hostages, when in reality the Iranians took 66 hostages and released 13 of them prior to the period depicted in the movie, leaving 53 still in captivity at the time of the events at Mount St. Helens. In the newscast, the anchor also says, "Today marked the 139th day of captivity for the 53 American hostages," but March 20, 1980, when earthquake activity began at Mount St. Helens, was the 106th day of their captivity.
  • The David Jackson character is a fictionalized analog of real-life volcanologist David Johnston, who died in the eruption. Unlike the fictional David Jackson, David Johnston never fell in love while working at Mount St. Helens, although he did fall in love with a woman prior to working on the Augustine Volcano in Alaska. The film depicts David Jackson getting involved in a fight, but in reality, David Johnston was not involved in a fight.
  • Although Cougar, Washington, is a real-life town located about 11 miles (18 km) southwest of Mount St. Helens, Whittaker's Inn is fictional.
  • In real life, scores of owners of property near the volcano demanded access to their property after the State of Washington declared a danger zone around the volcano and made it illegal for anyone to enter it. Under great pressure by the property owners, then-Governor Dixy Lee Ray and then-Washington State Patrol Chief Robert Landon suggested appeasing them by allowing them to enter the prohibited area as long as they signed the waivers, under which they agreed to give up their right to sue the State of Washington in the event that they suffered death or injury from volcanic activity while they were in the prohibited area. State officials handed out the waivers on May 17, 1980 - the day before the eruption – in Toutle, Washington, after which the Washington State Patrol escorted a convoy of vehicles carrying the property owners to the mountain. The movie depicts these events differently, showing state officials handing out the waivers on April 30 rather than on May 17 and in Cougar rather than Toutle, and it makes no mention of the convoy of vehicles.
  • Harry R. Truman was the real-life, elderly owner of the Mount St. Helens Lodge who became a folk hero for refusing to leave his lodge during the weeks leading up to the eruption. However, contrary to his depiction in the movie, he did not own a dog, he claimed to be allergic to them; at the time of the eruption he owned 16 pet cats and a few raccoons, all of whom lived indoors with him. The film depicts Harry fishing on Spirit Lake on the morning of the eruption; He lived alone at his lodge and nobody knows his exact location at the time of the eruption, and his remains have never been found. He and his pets presumably all died instantly when the largest landslide in recorded history and a pyroclastic flow traveling on top of it struck the lodge almost simultaneously at the beginning of the eruption on May 18, 1980, burying it under 150 feet (46 meters) of volcanic ash and debris.
  • David Johnston died at his observation post on Coldwater Ridge, as did the fictional David Jackson. However, unlike Jackson, Johnston did not have to hike Coldwater Ridge to get to his observation post, and, unlike Jackson, Johnston had a truck and camper at his observation post. The way up Coldwater Ridge at the time was a series of switchback logging roads that led to a small clearing, in which Johnston's truck and camper were located. The propane tank and other remnants of Johnston's camper were found in 1993, three miles (5 km) away from where Johnston's observation site had been located.
  • In the scene depicting the May 18, 1980, eruption, there is a shot of a reporter (who had been seen earlier in the film interviewing Harry R. Truman) driving a car down a dirt road and running into a tree; he later gets out of his car and starts videotaping. The experience of an actual news photographer, David Crockett, who worked for KOMO-TV in Seattle, Washington, inspired this scene, and his footage was used. However, Crockett never hit a tree, although he did find his path blocked by rapidly developing mudflows that were destroying sections of a logging road he was using as an access route.


  • The entire movie was shot on location in Bend, Oregon, and at Mount Bachelor in Central Oregon's Cascade Range. In the film, both Mount Bachelor and the South Sister (of the Three Sisters volcanic chain) served as the pre-eruption Mount St. Helens, and the film opens with a picture of Mount Bachelor and the Central Oregon Cascades.
  • The setting for the pre-eruption Spirit Lake was actually Sparks Lake, located west of Mount Bachelor.
  • The setting for the Mount St. Helens Lodge was Elk Lake Lodge, located approximately 30 miles (48 km) from Bend along Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway.[1][2]
  • The film used Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway (Cascade Lakes Highway) to depict Washington State Route 504 (known now as the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway).
  • The sequence of photos during the depiction of the May 18, 1980, eruption showing the north face of Mount St. Helens collapsing and exploding were taken by an amateur photographer at the Bear Meadow campsite 11 miles (18 km) northeast of the peak. The photographer, Gary Rosenquist, became a household name shortly after the eruption, and his photo sequence was widely used by the scientific community to reconstruct the events that led to the eruption.
  • The eruption images of Mount St. Helens were sourced from actual file footage of Mount St. Helens, much of it from ABC News, KOMO-TV in Seattle, and KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon.
  • One of the film's associate producers, Seattle filmmaker Otto Seiber, nearly lost his life in a filming expedition on Mount St. Helens shortly after the May 18, 1980, eruption. His film crew had been dropped off by helicopter in the area on May 23, 1980, and as they filmed the devastation, their compasses started malfunctioning due to the magnetic field differences in the volcanic ash. This resulted in them getting lost and nearly killed by a second large explosion on May 25, 1980. Brief clips from the 1980 documentary film The Eruption of Mount St. Helens! filmed during that expedition were included in the movie, as were clips from a previous expedition to the Mount St. Helens area several weeks before the May 18, 1980, eruption.
  • Filming of the movie began in November 1980 and finished in April 1981. The film premiered on May 18, 1981, on the first anniversary of the eruption.The film was given a limited theatrical release, mostly in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Film production crews used facilities at the Inn of the Seventh Mountain resort in Seventh Mountain, Oregon, for lodging and production offices.
  • Gerri Whiting, the sister of lodge owner Harry Truman, served as a historical consultant for the film. According to her, Harry Truman and David Johnston were indeed friends and spent some time together.
  • One of the film's writers was Larry Sturholm, a Portland and Seattle television news reporter and personality known for humorous local news stories. Sturholm was murdered in 1989 before his subsequent screenplay, Shadow Games, could be completed.[3]


The behavior of the movie's David Jackson character sparked controversy. David Johnston's parents criticized the film, arguing that it possessed not "an ounce of David in it" and that the fictional Jackson character portrayed him "as a daredevil rather than a careful scientist."[4] Johnston's mother stated that the film had misrepresented many aspects of the eruption and had depicted her son falsely as "a rebel" with "a history of disciplinary trouble."[4] Johnston's family threatened to sue the makers of the film because they felt that it had sullied his memory.[4]

Prior to the film's premiere, 36 scientists who knew Johnston signed a letter of protest against the depiction of Johnston in the form of the David Jackson character. They wrote that, "Dave's life was too meritorious to require fictional embellishments," and that, "Dave was a superbly conscientious and creative scientist."[5] Don Swanson, a USGS geologist, was Johnston's friend and, due to other commitments, had convinced Johnston to take his place at the Coldwater II observation post on the day of the eruption,[6] believed that a movie based on Johnston's true life and exploits would have been a hit because of his friend's character.[5]


  1. ^, Bulletin, Bend Oregon, January 1, 1981, p30.
  2. ^, Bulletin, Bend Oregon, November 20, 1980.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c "Family Unhappy With Film Portrayal Of Son". The Daytona Beach News-Journal. The News-Journal Corporation. 1980-12-01. Retrieved 2010-04-02.
  5. ^ a b Parchman, Frank (2005). Echoes of Fury: The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Lives it Changed Forever. Kent Sturgis. ISBN 0-9745014-3-3., p. 206.
  6. ^ Parchman, Frank (2005). Echoes of Fury: The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Lives it Changed Forever. Kent Sturgis. ISBN 0-9745014-3-3., pp. 21–22.

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