In today's headlines, a disaster aboard a cruise ship is as simple as a norovirus making the entire ship's passengers and crew sick with diarrhea and vomiting (notwithstanding the recent Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia accident). Back in the day, it was passenger ship disasters like the Titanic or the RMS Lusitania that captured the world's attention. But for an impressionable 8 year old kid (who would grow up to become CrazyFilmGuy), it was the fictional passenger ship christened the S.S. Poseidon that introduced me to a different kind of catastrophe -- disaster films.
For whatever reason, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) touched a nerve for me when I was a youngster. It was one of the first adult (i.e. PG rated )film I ever saw in a movie theater. And bless my grandmother Armella. She was the kind soul that took her grandson to see the disaster/adventure epic. Why my parents allowed me to see POSEIDON ADVENTURE yet wouldn't let me see producer Irwin Allen's next disaster blockbuster THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) two years later I will never know?
My grandmother and I saw THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE at the now defunct Eastgate Theater in east Portland. I believe it was the top bill of a double feature (the other film was 1973's THE NEPTUNE FACTOR which believe it or not also had POSEIDON actor Ernest Borgnine in it). I faintly recall we caught the end of NEPTUNE as we arrived in the theater but the Canadian knock-off that looked like it was shot in some one's fish bowl was forgettable compared to the incredible fictional story of the Poseidon.
Producer Irwin Allen (who apparently also directed some of the action scenes uncredited in POSEIDON ADVENTURE) first hit it big with the feature film (1961) and subsequent television show (1964 to 1968) VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA about a nuclear powered submarine. But it was THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that is Allen's finest moment, even more so than his next production THE TOWERING INFERNO. After INFERNO, Allen would produce and/or direct several more disaster films like THE SWARM (1977) about those pesky killer bees and BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979) but they pale next to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, Academy Award winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) adapted the book with Wendell Mayes and weaves several compelling human stories throughout the special effects laden movie.
The S.S. Poseidon is on its final journey from New York to Athens, Greece, headed for the scrapyard. It's New Year's Eve. The Captain (Leslie Nielsen) is being pushed by Mr. Linarcos (Fred Sadoff), a representative for the ship's owners, to get the Poseidon to Athens quicker. Director Ronald Neame introduces us to the main characters and their back stories. Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) is an idealistic, rebellious minister shipped off to Africa by his diocese. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a New York cop vacationing with his wife Linda (Stella Stevens), a former prostitute who Rogo wooed off the streets. Comedian Red Buttons plays Martin, a lonely bachelor. Belle and Manny Rosen (Shelly Winters and Jack Albertson) are a Jewish couple headed to Israel to see their grandson for the first time. Rounding out the cast are big sister Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother Robin (Eric Shea) traveling by themselves and the ship's entertainment, singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley).
The Poseidon's New Year Eve's Party is ruined as a 7.8 sub-sea earthquake near Crete sends a gigantic wall of water at the Poseidon flipping the ocean liner upside down. As the survivors try to make sense of their topsy turvy new world, a band of passengers led by Reverend Scott decide to make their way upward toward the hull of the ship to be rescued. But obstacles await their every move. Acres (Roddy McDowall), a waiter, is the group's best guide through the ship's labyrinth but he makes an early watery exit. The constant threat of rising water, raging fires, and explosions within the ship keep the survivors on their heels. And Reverend Scott and Rogo grapple as the alpha males, yelling and fighting with each other as to which one can lead the rest to safety.
To reach the propeller shaft, the survivors must swim through a watery maze that will test the endurance and bravery of every man, woman, and child. Each member will get to show their worth or overcome a fear. Mrs. Rosen proves to be a good swimmer and rescues Reverend Scott when he's trapped underwater. Young Robin's knowledge of the layout of the ship from earlier visits to the Captain and Purser prove handy. And the singer Nonnie, the weakest link of the group, overcomes her fear of heights and swimming with the assistance of perpetual bachelor Mr. Martin. But in a disaster film not all the passengers will survive and it is surprising in the end who dies and who lives.
I think the enduring success of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is because of the special effects, sets, and stunts in the film. All the exterior shots of the Poseidon cruising through the ocean are real, a large miniature model used in an enormous water tank on the 20th Century Fox back lot (a few on deck exterior shots with some of the actors were done on the actual Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA). For the most part, all of the establishing shots and even the tidal wave striking the ship are realistically done. It is incredible to imagine that these effects are all pre-CGI (computer generated images). The sequence when the ship begins to capsize and the guests begin flying all over the set is memorable and well-staged. Passengers hanging onto upside down tables, hundreds of feet in the air before falling to their deaths is unforgettable. There's even a bit of humor in the survivors grim escape when young Robin has to use the rest room and stumbles upon the toilets and urinals all upside down.
Director Wolfgang Petersen (DAS BOOT) would direct a remake called simply POSEIDON (2006) but even with advances in special effects technology, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE'S special effects seem more impressive than POSEIDON'S CGI effects. Petersen chose a younger cast (Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Emily Rossum, and Richard Dreyfus in the Red Buttons/Lonelyhearts role). It treats the original with respect but like many recent remakes, it won't make you forget the original.
For a disaster film, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE has a plenty of religious themes and metaphors which I missed as a young boy. The Reverend Scott character is unique among disaster films and played with great style by Gene Hackman who had just won the Academy Award for Best Actor in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Hackman gives the preacher much more depth and layers than a disaster film lead deserves. Scott is a Jesus Christ like figure. He's an outcast, banished to Africa by his church leaders for his outspokenness. He wrestles with his faith. The passengers who join him to try and escape become his flock. At one point, Rogo admits he almost was a believer in Scott's crazy plan to escape. Scott pleads to his father (God) to stop taking his flock's lives when one of his group dies. Ultimately, Scott will sacrifice his life as Jesus did to save the others. But am I going too far to imply that Linda Rogo, the hooker turned wife of a policeman, is Mary Magdalene. Probably. But Linda pays for her sins in the end as well.
Obviously, novelist Paul Gallico borrows some similarities between the Poseidon and the real life passenger ship the Titanic that sank in 1912 which director James Cameron would turn into the blockbuster hit TITANIC in 1997. But THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE takes us into TITANIC territory with a twist. Whereas the Titanic hit an iceberg, the Poseidon is struck by an enormous tidal wave caused by a sea earthquake (we would call it a tsunami today). Both films have company men pressuring the captains of each ship to make faster time, pushing the ships to their breaking points before forces of nature block the way.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE would be the prototype for how to cast future disaster films like EARTHQUAKE (1974) or AVALANCHE (1977). Mix in one hot star (Gene Hackman), throw in a few middle-aged actors (Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens), add a few movie icons in their golden years (Shelly Winters, Jack Albertson, and Red Buttons), and finish it up with young, fresh faces (Pamela Sue Martin, Carol Lynley, and Eric Shea) and producer Irwin Allen had his recipe for a hit. I don't think it's any coincidence that POSEIDON ADVENTURE has 5 Academy Award winners in its cast (Hackman, Borgnine, Winters, Buttons, and Albertson) bringing some cache and class to this disaster film. Producer Allen would top himself with THE TOWERING INFERNO bringing together two of the biggest stars at the time with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen (in their only film together) as well as Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Fred Astaire.
Performing in a disaster film like THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE requires the actors to deal with water, fire, heat, cold, gas, and a set that rotates 45 degrees. The actors have to crawl, swim, and climb. It's a tough, physical film. Kudos to Shelly Winters. She's the heaviest of the principles in the film yet she climbs up ladders and swims through a flooded section of the ship like she's a teenager. And Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley, and Pamela Sue Martin spend much of their time in their underwear, wet shirts, or tight shorts, soaking wet for a good part of the film. Director Neame and his editor Harold F. Kress have the tough (or fun depending on how you look at it) task of limiting the number of butt shots on these poor actresses forced to leap and clamber up all kinds of ladders, stairs, and scaffolding as they try to survive. Hats off to elder statesmen Jack Albertson and Red Buttons as well. They handle the elements as well as the younger performers.
As usual, the memories from watching the film in early 1973 change upon recent viewing. As a kid, I remember a scene where Reverend Scott and Susan are passing through the kitchen galley and we see the burnt face of one of the dead crew. I could swear his white eyes were popping out from his blackened face and I recoiled. But watching it as an adult, the eyes were not protruding out from his skull, just open, a vacant stare. It's a pretty tame shot. How the mind plays tricks on our recollections. I also became a huge Roddy McDowell fan after watching THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. I don't know if it was his Scottish accent or because he was so helpful yet he was the first to die. I would track Roddy down afterward and began watching him in THE PLANET OF THE APES movie series.
Director Ronald Neame would not be the first person that comes to mind to direct a disaster/adventure film. Neame started out as a cinematographer before becoming a director and his filmography up to THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE was more subtle with character oriented films like THE HORSE'S MOUTH (1958) and THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969). Neame was brought in to work on non-action scenes for POSEIDON ADVENTURE and he had a great cast to work with. Neame would end up directing the thriller THE ODESSA FILE (1974) with Jon Voight and another disaster film METEOR (1979) with Sean Connery so POSEIDON'S success sent his career in a different direction. THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is also notable as another early music score for the great John Williams (STAR WARS, E.T.). Williams score is used sparingly but effectively.
It's hard to believe that THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE cost just $5 million dollars and made over $90 million dollars. Producer Irwin Allen would try to rekindle the magic with a sequel BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979) starring Michael Caine and Sally Field among others but it never captured the magic of the first one. I mentioned the Wolfgang Petersen remake POSEIDON (2006) that proved state of the art special effects still can't improve an already superior film. There would even be a television version of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (2005), with a slightly altered plot as terrorists take over the ship before it capsizes. Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, and Steve Guttenberg sailed on this forgettable version.
You never forget your first love, your first bike, or your first PG rated film. THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE was the film that started me off on my infatuation with movies. Many thanks to a silver haired former elementary teacher who happened to be my grandmother for making her grandson the happiest boy in Oregon for a few hours back in 1973.