The China Syndrome

Produced by IPC Films and released March 16, 1979, by Columbia Pictures in widescreen color, Dolby stereo sound, 122 min.

poster from IMDb
DIRECTOR: James Bridges
PRODUCER: Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda's IPC Films

EDITOR: David Rawlins
SET DECORATION: Arthur Jeph Parker
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Henry Millar, Jr.


This film is a political thriller about a news crew that accidentally witnesses a control room crisis at the fictional Ventana nuclear energy plant; the news team photographer surreptitiously shoots the event. Mike Gray wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1974 based on a real event at the Dresden II reactor near Chicago in 1970 due to the stuck needle of a water level gauge. Another draft was written in 1975 based on another real event at the Browns Ferry reactor in Alabama on March 22 when a fire disabled the cooling system and almost uncovered the fuel core threatening a 5000 degree meltdown nicknamed "The China Syndrome". As an engineer, Mike Gray understood the technology and used realistic jargon in his script, such as "turbine trip" and "scram" and "valved out." Michael Douglas agreed to produce a movie based on Gray's script. Douglas had emerged as a TV star on the Streets of San Francisco with Karl Malden 1972-1976, and he had successfully produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starring Jack Nicholson in 1975. Douglas got Richard Dreyfuss to play the reporter, but when Dreyfuss wanted more money in 1976, he was replaced by Jane Fonda who wanted to do a movie on the Karen Silkwood story. The car accident scene that was added to the script strongly resembled the real Nov. 13, 1974, accident that killed environmetal activist Karen Silkwood, on her way to meet a New York Times reporter with documents showing safety violations at the Kerr-McGee Corp. Cimarron plutonium processing plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. The documents were never found and the cause of her death is still a mystery. Silkwood's father won a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee for plutonium contamination, the verdict announced several months after The China Syndome was released. The 1983 film Silkwood starring Meryl Streep portrayed these events.

Fonda persuaded Jim Bridges to direct the film on July 31, 1977. Bridges wanted an accurate set for the control room, and with Douglas and George Jenkins visited the Trojan plant near Eugene and took photographs to build the movie set. New Columbia VP Sherry Lansing was given the movie as her first project and allowed the budget to grow from $4.8 million to $5.9 million. Michael Douglas followed NBC cameraman Bob Brown to learn his role, and Jane Fonda followed Connie Chung and other LA newswomen for her role. One of them kept a pet turtle. Filming started on January 16, 1978, with the scene of Jack Lemmon testifying before the NRC. The control room accident scene was filmed at the end of January, with the help of ex-GE engineer Greg Minor. In March, the car accident scene was filmed on the first day Sherry Lansing left the hospital following a near-fatal car accident. During the filming, Jane Fonda broke her foot and delayed the completion of filming for two months. She was still limping when the last shot was filmed, of Kimberly Wells coming home tired after a long day.

In August, 1978, the first rough-cut of editor David Rawlins was screened and one of the drivers on the movie, karate expert Rene Baken, was murdered the night before, fighting off a man with a gun. In November, NBC cameraman Bob Brown was killed in Guyana. On Dec. 9, 1978, a sneak preview in San Diego returned an 87% approval response. The movie was successful in its first two weeks, grossing over $20 million. Eleven days after release, America's most serious reactor accident took place at Three Mile Island starting March 28. Columbia's stock gained 5 points over the weekend and Jane Fonda began a national tour promoting the movie and crusading against the nuclear industry.



revised 5/5/04 | Filmnotes