Friday, May 24, 2024

National Geographic: The Violent Earth (1973)

by G. Jack Urso
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

The National Geographic specials were part and parcel of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. The specials reflect the publication's mission to survey the people, culture, and natural wonders of the Earth. Beginning in 1964, the specials aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS before moving to its own cable channel in 2005.

The episode made available above on the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel, “The Violent Earth,” profiles French volcanologist Haroun Tazieff who journeys with his team to explore the active volcano on Mount Nyiragongo in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Tazieff also provides some of the cinematography, likely because he is the only one qualified to get as close to the action as he does. This version originally came in two reels, probably due to the limitations of school film projectors, but I joined them together in one complete file for this post. With a total runtime of about fifty minutes, the film was perfect for one full high school class period or an hour-long block on television (with commercials).

This episode was written and directed by Dennis Azzarella, who also co-wrote and co-directed the 1972 National Geographic Special “The Last Tribes of Mindanao” (1972) with Bud Wiser and Robert M. Young, respectively. Being given sole control of both roles for this second feature showed executive producer David Wolper’s growing confidence in Azzarella who, unfortunately, passed away the following year in 1974, cutting short a promising career at 34. The narrator is Leslie Neilsen, typifying the kind of voice work he did before Airplane! (1981) changed the course of his career.

While the National Geographic continue producing documentaries for its own cable channel, the classic episodes from the 1960s through the 1980s left an indelible mark on Baby Boomers and Gen X. When there were only four networks, any television show at any time only had three other competitors, and maybe one or two independent channels. While National Geographic has its own cable channel now, it is just one of many hundreds of cable channels and streaming services, and consequently consigned to background noise in a sea of sports channels, shopping channels, angry news commentators, and Bigfoot/UFO “researchers.” These important programs which help bring cultural gaps while exploring the planet have an increasingly smaller piece of the audience, and much to our collective loss. 

Still, despite all the competing programming, whenever I hear that soaring theme by Elmer Bernstein, I know I'm in for an hour of adventure that remains the gold standard for science documentaries and provides an amazing archive of human endeavor in the 20th century. 

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