The Big Bus (1976)


USA. 1976.


Director – James Frawley, Screenplay – James Frawley, Lawrence J. Cohen & Fred Freeman, Producers – Lawrence J. Cohen & Fred Freeman, Photography – Harry Stradling Jr, Music – David Shire, Special Effects – Gail Brown, Bob Dawson & Lee Vasquez, Production Design – Joel Schiller. Production Company – Cohen and Freeman/Phillips/Paramount


Joseph Bolgona (Dan Torrance), Stockard Channing (Kitty Baxter), John Beck (Shoulders O’Brien), Ned Beatty (Shorty Scotty), Lynn Redgrave (Camille Levy), Sally Kellerman (Sybil Crane), Bob Dishy (Dr Kurtz), Richard B. Shull (Emery Bush), Rene Auberjonois (Father Kudos), Jose Ferrer (Ironman), Ruth Gordon (Old Lady), Larry Hagman (Parking Lot Doctor)


The world’s first nuclear-powered luxury bus The Cyclops, which contains an onboard bowling alley and a swimming pool, is readied for its maiden trip from Chicago to Denver. However, a rival bus company plants a bomb that kills the drivers. This necessitates the recruitment of a replacement driver who was accused of eating 110 fellow passengers while trapped in a crash and another who is prone to blackouts at the wheel. With a group of passengers that include a disillusioned priest, a nymphomaniac, a man with six months to live, a pair of bickering divorcees and a vet sued for malpractice after placing an IUD in a rabbit, The Cyclops sets out. What the passengers are not aware is that there is another bomb on board somewhere.

The Big Bus is a mildly amusing parody of the disaster film cycle that was in full swing during the 1970s with films such as Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Indeed, The Big Bus predates the superior and more well-known disaster movie parody of Airplane/Flying High (1980).

When it is funny – like the parodies of Survive (1976), based on the true story of the Andean airline disaster where the survivors were reduced to cannibalism – “You eat one lousy foot and they call you a cannibal”, or of Airport 1975 (1974) with a pickup truck ludicrously impaled in the side of the bus, or the vet forced to act as a doctor, “When his nose is wet you’ll know he’s well” – The Big Bus is very witty. There are spoofs of numerous other films – like the bus’s emergence from the hangar to the accompaniment of Also Sprach Zarathrusta in a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – and it is often a game of spotting the reference.

However, when it is not being funny, The Big Bus is only a set of mildly well-known tv faces yelling loudly. The film starts off amusingly but soon into the journey, starts splintering off and not firing on all cylinders. Director James Frawley lacks the manic zest for visual slapstickery that Airplane had, nor the knowing when to let a good gag go. The ending is not an ending so much as the story coming to an abrupt halt.

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