San Francisco, the city that waits to die!

This post is intended to honor one of the great geology films of all time. Really a classic. It is amazing how many people I know who at some time in their career have seen this film, but yet how little information exists about it. I actually think that Apparent Dip will become the most informative site relating to this film, at least that I can find. The movie is a BBC documentary from 1971 called “San Francisco, the city that waits to die.” I first saw this in college, it was brought out during the last lab of my intro course. I remember the impression I got at the time was kind of patronizing, “oh look how silly those old geologists were, how much smarter we are now.” Truth is, over the last 10 years or so I have watched this film dozens of times, and every time I do I get a greater appreciation for it.

The only part of the movie that I still think is a little absurd is the tone with which it is narrated (by Paul Vaughan). Basically, Americans are idiots, look how stupid they are, man, no one else in the world is as stupid as those bloody Americans. Although the tone is kind of annoying, what gets me about this film is that I can imagine, 30 years from now, watching something similar but this time dealing with global warming. Scientist after scientist is trotted out and basically says “we know it is dangerous, we know we put buildings where we shouldn’t, we know many of the buildings aren’t safe, but there isn’t much we can do about it.” Politics and real estate dollars rule. Some notables that make appearances include

Louis C. Pakiser, the first director of the U.S.G.S. earthquake center at Menlo Park and 1996 recipient of the Geological Society of America Distinguished Service Award

CalTech Geophysicist Clarence Allen

Geothechnical engineer, Cal Professor, and alleged outstanding soccer player Harry Seed. Here he is demonatrating liquefaction. If you look closely, you can see a small yellow house perched on a column of wet sand, that is then shook until the house sinks. Incidentaly, this house is roughly the same size as my last apartment in California.

CalTech Professor Emeritus George Housner, one of the original earthquake engineers (distinct from the O.G.’s)

David Evans, one of, if not the first person to demonstrate the relationship between pore fluid pressure and induced seismicity (see Evans, D.M. (1969), Fluid Pressure and Earthquakes, Eos, Transaction, Amer. Geophys. Union, 50, 5, p. 387-388.)

And who demonstrates the famous beer can experiment

and Darrell Wood (sp?), sitting in front of “one of the largest computers in the world,” at Stanford’s linear accelerator.

There are a few fantastic statements about earthquake prediction, guaranteed to bring some chuckles, including, “if the [next] San Francisco earthquake does not occur within the next 5 years it is my opinion that we will be able to predict it.” I remember actually being kind of struck by some of footage. I remember especially the discussion of the numerous buildings, including schools, hospitals, and police stations, that sit right above the Hayward fault. Like the home of the second best college football team in the bay area (below)

Or my favorite, an old school for the deaf in Berkeley, which is now the Clark Kerr campus (where at the time I first saw this film I had a friend living)

Also footage of the creeping part of the fault system in Hollister

And footage of a USGS led project to monitor slip across a strand of the fault by using geodolites. The footage below is from Mount Diablo where they were making measurements

Perhaps the oddest thing though is the soundtrack for the movie. It is “California Earthquake” by Mama Cass. The full on song blares in the beginning and end of the movie, when the motorcycles are cruising all over the place, over the bay bridge, through the streets of the city, catching major air… I am not sure what the connection is between the motorcycles, Mama Cass, and earthquakes. During the more reflective parts of the film, we are treated with a tuned down instrumental version of the song. Truth is, without this soundtrack, I don’t think the movies would really have stuck in my head, it would have just been a normal old boring class film strip. Well, except for the predictions about predicting earthquakes and the narrators apparent excitement about the prospect of using nuclear weapons to trigger earthquakes. Fortunately none of the geologists interviewed supported the idea of intentionally triggering earthquakes with H-bombs.

This movie was released in 1971, filmed in 1970. This is really at the beginning of the acceptance of plate tectonics as a field. Tectonics is referred to at a few points in the film, mainly the ideas of plates, but it certainly doesn’t play a large role, and there are some definite factual errors. But really, for the state of the field, the information isn’t really that bad. I also am thankful that no one is asking me on tape to make predictions, because my track record….well, err..

Prof. Advisor “Hey Thermo, when is this alleged lab you’ve been building going to be up and running?”
PhD Candidate Thermochronic, “Well, assuming that turbo pump is ready for me to pick up Friday, I’ll be pumping out data by spring of 2002, easy.”

Is this movie standard fare at other schools? I see it in many library holdings, small liberal arts school had a copy, is it pervasive? Am I crazy to think with a better editor and less annoying soundtrack this movie might be excellent?

This entry was posted in earth hazards, earth science, pictures, politics, questions, science and society. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to San Francisco, the city that waits to die!

  1. I think you are overlooking the absolute amazing-ness of a geology movie that starts out with a song by Mama Cass and shots of motorcycle riders on the Bay Bridge. You have to love a movie that finds a way to connect Mama Cass and earthquakes!

  2. Yami McMoots says:

    Uh, I need to double-check the terms of my funding for this semester, but I believe I’m contractually obligated to take offense at that “second-best football team” remark.

  3. CJR says:

    Ah, the good old days, when the BBC made decent science documentaries….

  4. That football comment is as close as I can come to an alumni donation this year.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone know where I can download a copy of this video? Thanks

  6. Finding a copy is tough, some libraries have old film copies, and I am sure some departments have transferred the film to VHS and/or DVD, but I don’t know of any place to get an actual honest legal copy.

  7. Anonymous says:

    As a kid growing up in Washington State, I think I saw this film at least four times, and the opening shot of motorcycles (or are they “choppers”?) on the Bay Bridge seems permanently seared in my brain. I’ve tried to tell my colleagues and friends here on the East Coast about the film, and they assume I’m kidding, at least about the title. Thank you for the post. It brings back fond memories and provides independent verification that at least some parts of my childhood were as weird and wonderful as I believe they were.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I am a geologist by training and also saw the movie, loved it, and when I saw that there was an earthquake in San Francisco today, I immediately googled the movie. My daughter and son-in-law are PhD geologists and I really would love for them to see it, so if anyone finds it available, pls post where we can get a copy! Thanks!

  9. jwotis says:

    This one stuck in my head, too, was required watching in our Intro to Geology course. Ironically, I got my Geo degree and promptly moved out to San Francisco.

    I periodically do a search of the web hoping that somebody will have finally digitized what I remember as the most entertaining class filmstrip ever. Way better than the “Fire Under the Sea” one about pillow basalts.

  10. Anonymous says:

    We were shown this film in my Idaho public school, very close to the year it was made. Scared the hell out of me, then my mother buys us a honeymoon trip to San Fran for our first wedding gift…Hmmmmmmmm…Thanks! Enjoyed reminiscing & would like to find it to see again…

  11. Anonymous says:

    “They say that the fault line
    runs right through here!”

    Best intro music ever, with “Janis Joplin”-y vocals and lots and lots of loud choppers.

    Saw this in 1984 in Intro Geo class as a college senior (humanities major taking required breadth elective). Fantastic film. Having grown up in Los Angeles and experienced the 1971 quake as a kid, I didn't feel it patronized at all, but instead talked sense!

  12. Anonymous says:

    This documentary was very controversial when it was released in the US; the major networks refused to show it. That may explain why so many libraries acquired copies. KQED in San Francisco, the public TV station, aired it, which was considered very bold at the time. As a 12 year-old at the time, I made sure I was going to see anything authorities didn't want me to see — and the demonstrations of soil liquefaction and shaking of high-rise buildings in the film are still unforgettable. This was the time of maybe the first big public concern over earthquake safety (to the dismay of developer and construction interests), and the film made a real contribution to the adoption of better building safety laws. As a kid, I also thought one reason the US networks didn't want us to see it was that it was cool! BBC documentaries had higher cinematic standards and were more au courant than the grave, stodgy, and safe US TV world. A hippie singer singing a rock song about the shaking foundation of America behind images shot from the back of a Harley streaming over the Bay Bridge — as part of a serious documentary? That broke too many informal rules, and you weren't going to see that on TV in those days.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I remembered this movie from my youth, I saw it at Gorsebrook Elementary in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Recently I was considering moving back to Vancouver, B.C. Canada, but remembered my proff. from my University ” Rocks for Jocks” course ( the arts geology course) ,warning that if Japan gets a big earthquake, vancouver will get one soon after. It all seems surreal! I have been looking at the footage of the tsunami that swept over parts of Japan, and have been trying to imagine how it would play out over the lower mainland. I guess, like they tried to explain years ago in the film, people just don't think it can happen, eventhough we know it will! Vancouver, Canada, is like Sanfransisco! Life goes on, untill!!

  14. Anonymous says:

    I saw this doc in my geology class at MATC in Madison, WI, back in the early '90s. The title has stuck with me and I always refer to SF as the city that waits to die. Nobody ever knows what I am talking about, nor has anyone I known seen this. Now I can link to your site to prove I'm not crazy! Thanks!

  15. Anonymous says:

    You may be able to buy this film direct from BBC TV London for private use. Try the Contributor Access Dpt for advice – they supply copies for programme contributors only but should be able to point you in the right direction. Alternatively ask for the film and video library: 00 44 208 743 8000

  16. Anonymous says:

    really would like a copy of this if anyone knows where to find. i saw stanford has a copy.

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