In an unnamed city somewhere in the midwest, Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is fired from his job at an oil refinery. Herman does what any disgruntled former employee would do. He runs around the refinery and opens up all the valves and soon, the entire location is covered in a combustible mix of oil and chemicals. One spark is all it takes for the refinery to explode and the entire city to turn into a raging inferno.
While Fire Chief Risley (Henry Fonda, getting a special “And starring” credit for doing what probably amounted to a few hours of work) sits in his office and gives orders to his subordinates, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) cares for the injured at the city’s new hospital. Also at the hospital is Mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen) and local celebrity Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), who is having an affair with the mayor. Diana also went to high school with Herman and he still has a crush on her. When he shows up at the hospital to try to hit on her, he’s roped into working as a paramedic. Also helping out at the hospital is Nurse Shelley Winters. (The character may be named Andrea Harper but she’s played by Shelley Winters and therefore, she is Shelley Winters.) At the local television station, news producer Jimbo (James Franciscus) tries to keep his anchorwoman, Maggie Grayson (Ava Gardner), sober enough to keep everyone up to date on how much longer the city is going to be on fire.
Mostly because it was featured on an early pre-Comedy Central episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, City on Fire has a reputation for being a terrible movie but, as far as 70s disaster films are concerned, it’s not that bad. The special effects are actually pretty impressive, especially during the first half of the film and there’s really not a weak link to be found in the cast. It’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen playing a serious role but, before Airplane! gave him a chance to display his skill for deadpan comedy, he specialized in playing stuffy and boring authority figures. He actually does a good job as Mayor Dudley and it’s not the film’s fault that, for modern audiences, it’s impossible to look at Leslie Nielsen without instinctively laughing. Of course, there is a scene towards the end where Leslie Nielsen picks up a fire hose and starts spraying people as they come out of the hospital and it was hard not to laugh at that because it felt like a scene straight from The Naked Gun.
What the film does suffer from is an overabundance of cliches and bad dialogue. From the minute the movie starts, you know who is going to live and who isn’t and sometimes, City on Fire tries too hard to give everyone a connection. It’s believable that Herman would be stupid enough to start a fire because we all know that happens in the real world. What’s less believable is that, having started the fire, Herman would then go to the hospital and keep asking Diana if she remembers him from high school. It’s not asking too much to believe that Diana, as wealthy local celebrity, would be invited to the opening of a new hospital. It’s stretching things, though, to then have her deliver a baby while the hospital is in flames around her.
Coming out at the tail end of the disaster boom, City on Fire didn’t do much at the box office and would probably be forgotten if not for the MST 3K connection. A year after City on Fire was released, Airplane! came out and, through the power of ridicule, put a temporary end to the entire disaster genre.