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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

If there's one thing we can all learn from the cinema of the 1970s, it's never to embark on any kind of luxury travel. The films of the decade were diligent in warning us of the dangers of cruise ships, transcontinental railways and especially airliners. For good measure, they also took care to remind us of the hazards of gold mines, roller coasters, swarms of bees and very tall buildings.

Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure
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.

The film is based on a novel by Paul Gallico, and scripted by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes. Gallico's 1969 novel was inspired by an incident that occurred while he was on board the Queen Mary 30 years before, when the ship was buffeted by a large wave that overturned tables and spooked the passengers on board.

I'm not sure how plausible the premise of a ship actually being turned upside down by a wave is, but it's a clever hook. The characters though are all stock types and the script is very clunky, especially in the establishing part of the film. Gene Hackman's Reverend Scott is angry, rebellious, critical, a renegade. We know this because in an early dialogue scene Hackman says he is “angry, rebellious, critical, a renegade”, as if he's accidentally read out his character biography instead of the script. I suppose it saves time on character development. The film is also a little compromised now by the casting of Leslie Nielsen as the ship's gravely serious captain. Nielsen is now better known as the deadpan star of movie spoofs, and The Poseidon Adventure reminds us just what a wooden actor he was before Airplane! reinvented him as a comedy star.

Leslie Nielsen in The Poseidon Adventure
"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".

The Poseidon Adventure was produced by Irwin Allen, producer of the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, and it set him on to a new career path as a maker of disaster movies. Allen took the story to Twentieth Century Fox, but after a string of expensive flops, the company was reluctant to fully fund the film, so he raised half the budget himself, with Fox providing the other half. Allen's original conception was to cast George C. Scott instead of Gene Hackman in the role of Reverend Scott. The swimming star Esther Williams was in line for the role of a former swimming champion, which was eventually taken by Shelley Winters, while Red Buttons was a late replacement for Gene Wilder. Sets were built that mimicked the rolling of the ship and, appropriately enough, pre-disaster parts of the film were shot on board the Queen Mary, which by that time was docked at Long Beach in California.

Original poster for The Poseidon Adventure
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 EarthquakeAirport 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.

The rise of the disaster movie was aided by improvements in special effects technology and the increased availability of a surplus of film stars in the slimmed down production environment of the 1970s. But the genre is also very much of its time. The decade was an anxious one, beset by political and economic turmoil, and the cinema of the '70s has a definite edginess to it. In the world of the disaster movie, everyday life can be disrupted by a life-changing event, turned literally upside down in this case, engulfing ordinary people with it. It's also notable just how wedded the disaster genre is to the 1970s, effectively beginning with Airport in 1970 and ending in 1980 with the release of the dire (but appropriately titled) When Time Ran Out, and the merciless spoof Airplane! The disaster movie couldn't outlive the decade that gave birth to it, and when advances in computer generated effects helped to bring it back briefly in the 1990s, it was obvious that no one's heart was really in it.

The Poseidon Adventure characters
Some of Gene Hackman's flock

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

Year: 1972
Genre: Thriller, Disaster movie
Country: USA
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


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