“St. Helens” – Explosive Disaster Movie

Although I have now written about all of the movies that I included in my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“, there are still new disaster movies coming out – such as Greenland. I am also still finding older disaster movies that I didn’t manage to get before I completed my research on the English-language disaster movies for my study. One of these is St. Helens (Ernest Pintoff, 1981) – also known as Mount Saint Helens.

In case you are not familiar with the movie, here is the very brief summary on IMDb:

Dramatization of the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The movie begins with the volcano’s awakening on March 20 and ends with its eruption on May 18, 1980.


I remember the eruption – seeing it on John Craven’s Newsround probably, but possibly also the main evening news (that used to follow straight after children’s programmes on BBC). Here is more information about the event from Wikipedia.

Mount St. Helens is known for its major eruption on May 18, 1980, the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people were killed; 200 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles (24 km) of railways, and 185 miles (298 km) of highway were destroyed. A massive debris avalanche, triggered by an earthquake of magnitude 5.1, caused a lateral eruption that reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 ft (2,950 m) to 8,363 ft (2,549 m), leaving a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide horseshoe-shaped crater. The debris avalanche was 0.6 cubic miles (2.5 km3) in volume.


Although I have never been to St. Helens (though I perhaps saw it in the distance either in 2001 or 2018), when visiting Seattle in 2001 I went to an IMAX cinema to see a film of a helicopter ride around the mountain – the only thing of which I remember is that it made many people in the cinema travel sick.

As for the movie, since I couldn’t get my hands of a copy in time, I didn’t include St. Helens in my study, but having tracked it down decided to watch it. Although the version that I saw is clearly showing its age in terms of the quality of the picture (the way in which it was filmed also adds to this), it is very watchable. At the moment St. Helens has an average of 6.2 on IMDb – but that is from just 512 ratings, which is low, probably reflecting how hard it is to get a copy.

Overall, the whole move works very well as a dramatization of an actual event and its a shame that it’s not easier for people to see. Perhaps it’s one of those movies that would benefit from a remake – though the temptation to show off CGI and the improved technology available to film studios now wouldn’t necessarily mean that we end up with a better movie.

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