The Great Los Angeles Earthquake

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The Great Los Angeles Earthquake
The Great Los Angeles Earthquake.jpg
Genre Drama
Written by William Bast
Paul Huson
Directed by Larry Elikann
Starring Joanna Kerns
Dan Lauria
Lindsay Frost
Joe Spano
Michael T. Weiss
Richard Masur
Ed Begley, Jr.
Theme music composer David Shire
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Frank von Zerneck
Robert M. Sertner
Editor(s) Stephen Adrianson
Gregory Prange
Cinematography Dennis C. Lewiston
Running time 180 minutes
Production company(s) Von Zerneck Sertner Films
Distributor NBC
Original channel NBC
Original release
  • November 11, 1990 (1990-11-11)

The Great Los Angeles Earthquake is a 1990 television film about a massive earthquake that strikes Los Angeles, California. The movie stars Joanna Kerns in the movie's lead role, seismologist Clare Winslow, who tries to warn city leaders of the possibility that a powerful earthquake may strike southern California.


The movie begins with a small tremor beginning in the hills outside of Los Angeles near a United States Geological Survey (USGS) research post. The scene then cuts to a teenage girl on a date with her boyfriend at the Earthquake Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. The girl is later revealed to be Heather, daughter of Clare Winslow (Joanna Kerns), who is the chief seismologist of the U.S.G.S. office in Pasadena, California. A highly demanding job, it requires Clare to travel the world, and at the beginning of the movie she has just returned from a month's long trip from Mexico City in which she reviewed data that was learned from the severe 1985 Mexico City Earthquake. This fact has caused some strain between Clare and her family; nevertheless, her husband Steve (Dan Lauria) remains supportive of her job.

Upon her return to southern California, Clare is alerted by her staff, among whom is her assistant Jerry Soloway (Ed Begley, Jr.), that they have been studying a series of tremors that have been taking place near the beachside community of Bombay Beach near Los Angeles. The tremors are occurring along California's famed San Andreas Fault and after reviewing the data Clare reluctantly decides that the U.S.G.S. should raise a mid-level C earthquake alert, fearing that a significant earthquake could be imminent. She is advised by her boss and friend Ray Goodrich (Richard Herd), director of the main U.S.G.S office in Virginia, to review the data a little more before making her call. Goodrich turns out to be right as it is revealed that the tremors are just normal activity along the fault. In an effort to support some interest, and hopefully some money, for the U.S.G.S., Goodrich convinces Clare to accept an informative interview with Kevin Conrad (Richard Masur), a sensationalist television reporter. Reluctant Clare agrees only to later on have the interview blow up in her face when Conrad prematurely airs a highly edited version of the interview which raises the notion that an earthquake is imminent, which ultimately creates a political firestorm. At the same time Clare and her team begin to notice some unusual activity along the lesser known Newport-Inglewood Fault. Analyzing this information, she is able to conclude that there is a better-than-average chance that a massive earthquake will strike and cause severe damage to Southern California ... and the likelihood of said earthquake happening is imminent, just along another fault.

Clare's husband Steve happens to be working closely with high-powered and wealthy real estate developer Warren Cates (Robert Ginty), who faces losing money and his socio-political reputation from public fear of the possibility of the earthquake. Warren threatens Clare and attempts to have her fired from her job, which puts some tension between Steve and Clare. Nevertheless, Clare tries to alert the more skeptical city and state government officials including Chad Spaulding (Joe Spano) of the Office of Emergency Management. Her relationship with Spaulding is severely strained for many reasons. First it is learned that Spaulding owes his highly political job to the likes of Warren Cates, who pressures Spaulding into squashing any public reminders that Southern California is overdue for a big quake. Additionally it is hinted at several times throughout the film that two years previously Clare and her team had convinced Spaulding, along with city and state politicians, that a big quake was imminent leading to a series of public emergency preparations. In the end, however, the prediction turned out to be a false warning, creating a public embarrassment, explaining the reasons for Clare's reluctance to raise an alert, despite convincing evidence. Fearing embarrassment and possible political fallout from this new threat, Spaulding decides to ignore her warnings.

As this unfolds, Clare's family dynamic is further explored through her strained, though loving, relationship with teenage daughter Heather (Holly Fields), which is mirrored by the relationship of Clare's mother Anita Parker (Bonnie Bartlett) and Clare's sister Laurie (Lindsay Frost), who are estranged from one another due to Anita's open resentment of Laurie's romantic relationship with L.A.P.D. officer Matt (Alan Autry).

As the tremors continue, several other anomalies begin to occur that continue to raise Clare's concern. A severe drop in oil well pressure from the Baldwin Hills oil wells located outside the city, in addition to a major methane gas rapture along Farfaix Avenue in Hollywood, are among the anomalies Clare has seen predate big earthquakes in the past. Clare's warning falls on deaf ears; however, she is vindicated after a moderate 5.7 quake strikes the city, causing only some moderate damage. Clare and her team are received favorably by the press as it is felt that their attention to the warning signs predicted the quake, albeit a smaller one. Nevertheless, after reviewing data, she and Soloway realize that the moderate quake was only a foreshock and that a much larger quake is just around the corner. Worrying her even more is that the quake occurred at the intersection of the Newport-Inglewood and Whittier Fault faults, along the lesser known but highly dangerous Elysian Park Fault, which runs directly under downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. After reviewing her findings with other U.S.G.S. offices and Cal-Tech State University, Clare alerts Goodrich in Virginia that she in accordance with other U.S.G.S. offices in the state agree to raise an A level earthquake alert for Southern California, calling for a quake of a least a magnitude 7.0 to occur within the next 72 hours.

Warning city officials, it is agreed not to go public until the city and the state have all their preparations in place. Nonetheless, Kevin Conrad discovers the story and ultimately broadcasts a news conference to alert citizens of the looming threat. For most residents, however, it will already be too late. Not long after preparations and evacuations begin, the long-feared earthquake strikes when the Elysian Park Fault gives way. An initial shock of magnitude 8.0 followed shortly by an aftershock of magnitude 7.2 causes massive damage and kills thousands - among the victims is Anita, who had been trapped in a high-rise condominium elevator with Laurie during the quake. During the time that they are trapped, they reconcile shortly before Laurie is rescued by other survivors, but Anita is less fortunate and dies when the elevator crashes to the bottom of the shaft (during an aftershock, which happens just as she is within grasp of a rescuer). Another victim is Miguel, son of Clare's housekeeper Sonia, who is crushed and fatally injured during the collapse of his high school gymnasium during his graduation rehearsal. Steve Winslow is thought to be dead after being crushed by a wall at the airport, but he is revealed to have survived the quake at the end of the film.

More gratifying deaths include those of Warren Cates, who is thrown to his death from his skyscraper window; and Chad Spaulding, who (during a major aftershock) is electrocuted while attempting to escape from the USGS safety bunker beneath City Hall — after which his body is crushed beneath tons of office furniture, which come crashing down as the ceiling collapses. A more redeeming storyline is that of Kevin Conrad, who is transformed from a cutthroat reporter looking for a hot story into a more sensitive and humanitarian character deeply affected by the tragedy and devastation; at the end of the movie, during a live remote, Conrad tearfully remarks that the death toll could top the number of casualties seen during the American Civil War — just before the live transmission is lost.

The remainder of the movie centers on the political and social fallout following the earthquake, and Winslows' attempts to reunite with her family (from whom she had become separated).

The epilogue of the film states the likelihood of major earthquakes striking several American cities in the next several years along with their expected magnitudes. At the end it is stated that of all the cities mentioned Los Angeles is currently the most prepared city.

Broadcast History[edit]

The movie was aired over a two-night period on NBC during November 1990. There had been some public interest in earthquakes following the Loma Prieta Earthquake which rocked San Francisco in October 1989, and in addition seismologists at the time were predicting a massive earthquake to strike along the New Madrid Fault line, which runs along the Mississippi River, an event which ultimately did not occur. (A real earthquake would eventually strike Los Angeles just four years later.)

The original airing included a number of scenes and subplots that were removed from later airings; one of the excised storylines included an assassination attempt on South African trade minister David Motubu (Brock Peters), who is under the protection of security agent Roy Bryant (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.). The earthquake thwarts the assassin's initial attempt on Motubu's life, although Motubu's personal guard and Bryant's partner are both killed. Although Laurie's police officer boyfriend Matt (who is Bryant's good friend) tries to intervene in the destroyed streets of L.A., Roy falls victim to the assassin's gunfire, but only before Motubu kills the assassin himself.

The miniseries was re-aired on 22 March 1992,[1] sans the above-mentioned scenes that were cut from the film in order to have it run in a three-hour time slot on one night. The cuts nevertheless left the film running short, so scenes that were excised from the film's original airing were broadcast in this airing. In subsequent years the movie would periodically be re-run over the Lifetime movie channel; however, it was drastically cut in order to fit a two-hour time slot. This led to a lot of scenes and subplots being deleted, in addition to a lot of plot lines not being resolved.

All scenes were restored for the mini-series DVD release.

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