HELL, UPSIDE DOWN.
When I was a kid I fell in love with disaster movies. I’m not sure why, but I know that I still love to watch a group of people fight for their lives in an isolated area. Survivor is a great idea for a reality show. My favorite among the disaster movies is The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and despite its many flaws it remains an exciting thriller. Perhaps one reason why it’s special to me is that its inferior sequel was the first review I ever wrote, at the age of 16.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about Irwin Allen. A former journalist and documentary filmmaker, he turned to science fiction movies in the 1960s and then produced this film as well as The Towering Inferno (1974), starting a trend of disaster movies. He became known as the “Master of Disaster”, but The Poseidon Adventure owes as much to Airport (1970) as the vision of one producer. It has the same formula; an all-star cast, a catastrophe at the center of the story and characters that are more plastic than real.
The Poseidon is a luxury cruise ship headed for Athens when on New Year’s Eve it crosses paths with a giant tsunami. The impact is so severe that the ship capsizes. Most of the passengers are celebrating in the ballroom when everything suddenly turns upside down. Initially, the survivors decide to stay where they are and wait for the rescue, but a small group led by the irreverent Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) starts thinking they have to get out of the ballroom and head for the hull before the Poseidon sinks. It’s a motley group… but most of them might just make it if they only get past all the fires and floodings.
Struggling with the clichés
Reverend Scott is a true rebel, even within the Catholic Church, a compelling leader who gets pissed when God does bad things. Soon, he has to contend with Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), a New York cop who has always followed the rules and can’t quite understand why everyone in the group should follow the preacher’s whims. This conflict is an important part of the script and the Hackman/Borgnine pairing is very effective. Shelley Winters is also a standout as an overweight lady who is moving to Israel. For practical reasons she’s a problem for the group, but she eventually finds an opportunity to shine, and so does Winters who is very amusing and likeable. It is however a fact that most characters and situations are very clichéd, something the cast and the director are struggling with. Leslie Nielsen appears in the early scenes as the captain, and it’s hard not to think of all the spoofs he was to act in years later; parts of The Poseidon Adventure would look funny in Airplane! (1980).
How fortunate then that Neame has solid special effects to rely on; he keeps the action going and you soon begin to care about this quest. Say what you will about the corny details, but turning this ship upside down is a terrific, inventive idea, and there’s plenty of dangerous situations for the diminishing group to deal with. John Williams also wrote a great score, one of his most memorable among the early ones.
As an adult, I find the concept of disaster movies less alluring, not least because most of them suck. This one is no masterpiece, but Neame is a pro and he delivers a requisite amount of thrills.
The Poseidon Adventure 1972-U.S. 117 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Irwin Allen. Directed by Ronald Neame. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant, Wendell Mayes. Novel: Paul Gallico. Music: John Williams. Song: “The Morning After” (Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn). Cast: Gene Hackman (Frank Scott), Ernest Borgnine (Mike Rogo), Red Buttons (James Martin), Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens… Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, Leslie Nielsen.
Trivia: Gene Wilder and Sally Kellerman were allegedly considered for parts in the film. Followed by Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979); remade as Poseidon (2006) and the TV movie The Poseidon Adventure (2005).
Oscar: Best Original Song. Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Winters). BAFTA: Best Actor (Hackman).
Last word: “We did all the scenes ourselves, crawling through the tubes and everything. It was so wet and miserable, that I looked forward to going outside at the end of the day into the L.A. smog.” (Borgnine, Sarah’s Backstage Pass)