|God give me strength! - Gene Hackman hangs in there|
One of the earliest entries in the 1970s disaster movie cycle is The Poseidon Adventure. The film tells the story of SS Poseidon, a cruise liner en route from New York to Athens. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, the ship encounters a colossal wave that turns it upside down. One of the passengers, a charismatic preacher (Gene Hackman) leads a ragtag group of survivors through the upside down ship towards the hull, from where they hope to be rescued. Most of the other passengers stay behind and are engulfed in a wave of water surging through the ship, leaving only the best known actors to survive.
The group consists of Hackman, an outspoken cop (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife (Stella Stevens), an annoying kid (Eric Shea), his teenage sister (Pamela Sue Martin) who has a sweet crush on Hackman, an elderly couple on the way to Israel (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson), an ageing bachelor (Red Buttons), the ship's steward (Roddy MacDowall, with what I take to be an attempt at a Scottish accent) and a singer (Carol Lynley) whose brother has been killed. The group face the hazards of water, fire, a personality clash between Hackman and Borgnine, and of course the general difficulties of navigating a ship which is upside down. The script also awkwardly attempts to build a romance between Buttons and Lynley which is best forgotten about.
|"Don't call me Shirley" - Leslie Nielsen in The Poseidon Adventure|
The film was directed by Ronald Neame, who replaced Gordon Douglas early on in the filming. Neame's approach is mostly workmanlike, but he does manage to work up some tension and claustrophobia as the group make their way through the bowels of the ship. Not all of the survivors will make it of course, but I think the characters who survive are about 80% guessable. The effects are quite good, although to my eyes the opening shots of the ship cutting through a choppy sea look like a big model. Quite a nice model, but still a model. There are also some clever sets and a not bad John Williams score, although this is still a couple of years before his most productive period.
Some of the book's content is toned down in the film version, but the underlying theme of a doubting man of God whose faith is tested to extremes remains. It's Hackman's preacher who must lead the survivors, if not exactly to the promised land, then at least to safety. In doing so, he and they have to draw on all their reserves of strength and faith to surmount the hazards of fire and floods. The flames, jets of steam and intense heat make this almost a Dantean environment, something hinted at by the film's bold tag line "Hell, upside down".
|Hell, upside down: original poster for The Poseidon Adventure|
The Poseidon Adventure is a significant, if often overlooked, film in the history of the 1970s blockbuster, with extensive TV advertising selling it as an event movie. Made on a budget of $5 million, the film was an enormous hit, grossing over $160 million. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for visual effects and best original song, "The Morning After". The film also generated a sequel, the universally panned Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and two remakes, The Poseidon Adventure, made for TV in 2005, and Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon (2006).
Its most significant legacy was the creation of the disaster movie, one of the box office staples of the 1970s. Although Airport (1970) was an early foray into this genre, it was The Poseidon Adventure that opened the floodgates. It was quickly followed by Earthquake, Airport 1975 and The Towering Inferno, and thereafter by a deluge of increasingly absurd entries in the cycle, with the genre reaching its nadir with the likes of The Swarm and Meteor in 1978-79.
|Some of these characters survive|
Most disaster movies are, in truth, pretty bad. It must have one of the highest rates of stinkers in any film genre, and there is arguably something slightly distasteful and exploitative about it. While The Poseidon Adventure is not a great film, it's a lot better than most of its kind and looks like a masterpiece compared to the misguided 2006 remake. Despite its clunky script and occasional awkwardness, its singular premise, intriguing subtext and general if uninspiring competence make it one of the best examples of its type.
The Poseidon Adventure
Genre: Thriller, Disaster movie
Director: Ronald Neame
Cast Gene Hackman (Reverend Scott), Ernest Borgnine (Rogo), Red Buttons (Martin), Carol Lynley (Nonnie), Roddy McDowall (Acres), Stella Stevens (Linda Rogo), Shelley Winters (Belle Rosen), Jack Albertson (Manny Rosen), Pamela Sue Martin (Susan), Arthur O'Connell (Chaplain), Eric Shea (Robin), Fred Sadoff (Linarcos), Sheila Mathews (Nurse), Jan Arvan (Doctor Caravello), Byron Webster (Purser), John Crawford (Chief engineer), Bob Hastings (M.C.), Erik Nelson (Mr. Tinkham), Leslie Nielsen (Captain)
Screenplay Stirling Silliphant, Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Paul Gallico Producer Irwin Allen Cinematography Harold E Stine Production design William Creber Editor Harold F Kress Music John Williams Stunt coordinator Paul Stader Costumes Paul Zastupnevich Special photographic effects LB Abbott Mechanical effects AD Flowers
Running time 117 mins Colour Deluxe Widescreen Panavision
Production company Kent Productions Distributor Twentieth Century Fox