The Movies Tell Us: How to Survive a Tornado

By  · Published on August 6th, 2014

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Technically I have been in a tornado. But it was a teeny one in Connecticut, caused no real damage, that I know of, and was from my vantage point not a well-formed funnel shape. If it hadn’t been for a news report stating that a tornado went through where I had been driving, I would have just thought it was a freak storm that came suddenly out of nowhere, passed really quickly and was dangerous enough to make me pull over and strong enough to make a passing bicyclist jump into my backseat for temporary emergency shelter.

I would never consider myself a tornado survivor, because that would be an insult to people in the Midwest who’ve encountered the real deal. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in such a disaster, as there’s something more terrifyingly visual about tornadoes than hurricanes and blizzards and other major storms I’ve been through. The shape of a tornado allows it to be a sort of villainous presence in cinema, and I assume it’s the same in real life.

But there I go making assumptions based on what I’ve seen in the movies again. I like to believe that a special effects driven disaster movie like Into the Storm (pictured above) goes for some level of authenticity in its depiction of tornadoes, but while watching it this week my mind wandered to all the representations of tornadoes in cinema through the years, and I realized that tornadoes in the movies tend to be pretty ridiculous – at times a rather playful and harmless form of transportation and at other times the most shark-filled exaggerations possible.

With something as real and destructive as tornadoes, people hopefully never look to movies for expectations or survival tips in the event of their actually facing one. To prove that it’s a bad idea to trust cinema, I’ve put together the following guide for how to survive a tornado according to the movies. Consider it a guide for how actually not to survive one.

Survival Technique: Chase It Away
Movie: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)

One of silent comedian Harry Langdon’s biggest hits was this movie about a cross-country foot race. It co-starred a young Joan Crawford and was co-written and somewhat co-directed by Frank Capra, and its climax involves a town being ripped apart by a “cyclone.” Langdon’s underdog character tries to seek shelter in many comical scenarios, including one where he delivers his best line (“somebody better come and get their building”), but ultimately he goes out into the street and faces the tornado head-on like it’s a Western showdown. He throws a brick at the storm, but the object is just hurled back at him. He continues to throw things at the animated funnel, running it out of town. A title on screen compares him to David (defeater of Goliath), but more notably the film gives a new (or old?) meaning to the term “storm chaser.” Also, we should probably assume that the truth is coincidentally that the tornado was dissipating at the moment of confrontation.

Survival Technique: Stay In Your Home and Literally Ride It Out
Movie: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The classic MGM adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s stories has given many viewers their first impression of a tornado, and here’s what that portrayal teaches us: Dorothy (Judy Garland) can’t make it to her family’s storm cellar, so she runs into her house. The building isn’t well-grounded, but at least the structure is sound enough to not crack when it’s swept up into a twister. If you somehow find yourself in the same situation of riding through the storm in your home, feel free to keep windows open and even stand near and look out of one. According to The Wizard of Oz, you won’t be sucked out, and you’ll probably witness some funny sights. Just be aware that you may crash land very far away from where your were picked up, possibly even in a magical realm over the rainbow.

Of course, the whole trip to Oz is just a dream, but even if she’s asleep the whole time, Dorothy does survive the tornado by being in her home.

Survival Technique: Strap Yourself to a Pipe
Movie: Twister (1996)

There is a good mix of accuracy and inaccuracy in Jan De Bont’s tornado blockbuster, but most of the issue we could have with the survival of characters in Twister has to do with implausible luck rather than impossibility. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton run through swirling debris unscathed as if they’re 1980s action heroes miraculously avoiding bullets during heavy gunfire. Their final means of staying alive, though, is that miracle times a hundred. Sure, strapping yourself to a strong and deeply set irrigation pipe could keep you from being pulled into even a category F5 that’s plowing right through your position (though the U.S. government’s National Climate Data Center claims you are likely to be be ripped apart), but you’re very unlikely to miss every object swirling at around 300mph with the potential to stab or dismember or pummel you to death.

The main survival technique to learn from Twister, however, is really not to be a villainous dick, a la Cary Elwes. They always get it in the end.

Survival Technique: Drive Straight Into It In a Convertible, Top Down
Movie: Dr. T and the Women (2000)

In maybe the strangest scene Robert Altman ever shot (yes, even stranger than anything in Popeye), the title character (Richard Gere) climactically drives through a storm in his convertible, and he’s getting soaked because the top is destroyed. Then a tornado forms on the highway in front of him and he keeps driving. We watch as he twirls through the air, the vehicle flying nearby, until the screen goes black. In the next and final scene he’s landed unharmed somewhere in Mexico, but his car is in pieces. Would he also be in pieces had he not thrown from the open car? It’s not likely he would have been any more alive. If only Helen Hunt’s character would have gone away with Dr. T, then maybe she could have helped steer him clear or provided another bad technique like the one she uses in Twister.

Survival Technique: Stand Underneath an Overpass
Movie: Man of Steel (2013)

In the latest Superman movie, the Kents are driving down the road when a tornado forms in their path. While Jonathan “Pa” Kent (Kevin Costner) is killed playing the hero and idiotically telling his super-powered son not to save him (another bad technique: play the hero), the rest of the characters and extras in the scene run for safety underneath an overpass. That’s actually not a recommended technique, because in spite of some cases to the contrary, overpasses do not protect people from these storms. Many have died because of this misconception, and the movie actually received criticism from weather officials last summer regarding its perpetuation of the idea. You should only do as these people do if you have a super-powered young man standing at the opening. Clark likely kept the storm from harming those behind him because his body is like a tank.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.