By the early 70s, Hollywood needed a new setting for one of its favorite genres: adventure. WWII had pretty much dried up, and with Vietnam raging out of control no one was in the mood for war anyway. The Western had been dead for years, even with its late-60s shot in the arm administered by Sergio Leone. And we were still years away from the Spielberg-Lucas blockbusters of the late 70s. But producer Irwin Allen had a firm finger on the moveigoing pulse, and somehow sensed that the postwar era of heightened technology and industry brought with it a great public neurosis about its safety. We were building skyscapers a mile high and developing jet airlines that could travels thousands of miles in a few hours, but what if something went wrong? Something minor, very minor, in the age of yore, but now having potentially disastrous consequecences. And there it was – a new genre was born. The Disaster genre.
Allen’s first big hit of his new species was The Poseidon Adventure, and yes, I have a story to start with (I told you: no eye rolling). I first saw the film at the ripe old age of eight or so, on the CBS _______ Night Movie, and was white knuckled from beginning to end. I was so engrossed I’m sure I begged on hand a knee my parents to waive the traditional 9PM curfew and let me stay up ‘till 11 so I could see how these guys got rescued, or even – gasp! – if they got rescued. I’m not sure if I got any considerable sleep that night but I know one thing: the movie stayed in mu hed for weeks thereafter. Sure, it was a movie; I knew that. But somehow reason like that doesn’t help when you go on vacation to Lewes, Delaware, and your method of travel: the Cape May ferry. I think I stayed inside the cabin the entire time.
But the reason I was terrified then (and to a lesser degree now) is the same reason the film made 84.5 million at the box office – it struck a nerve. Ocean liners and mammoth cruise ships were sailing the seas with increased frequency, facilitated by advances in steam power and cheaper fuel. But, again, what if? What if a disaster the scope of Titanic occurred? Allen makes that all-too-possible scenario a terrifying reality with Poseidon – he even makes his hell very specific, very detailed, turning the boat upside-down, so that the survivors had to navigate a topsy-turvy armageddon in order to find their salvation. Yes we get action shots of the boat flipping and indoor scenes of crushed furniture, but we also get very real images of frightened passengers falling, screaming, dying.
Of course, it’s all Captain Leslie Neilson’s fault, or more accurately, the owner’s – a Greek tycoon who insists on running the liner at full speed to save money. But it’s risky; the S.S. Poseidon, on its final voyage from New York to Athens, is top heavy, and Neilson’s attempts to take on ballast are met with threats of his demotion. And so, just minutes after the New Year’s countdown, an enormous tidal wave capsizes the ship. The crew, which were all on the desk, immediately perishes; a few dozen revelers in the main dining area survive the wave, but a rebellious, help-yourself-first reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) sees that the only way to survive is to move up the ship, to the propeller vent where the steel is only ½” thick, and he convinces nine others to join him as the rest stubbornly drown when the dining room now becomes submerged. The other nine are:
· Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), a retired cop, and hotheaded husband of…
· Linda Rogo (Stella Stevens), a somewhart crass but beautiful former prostitute, afraid of being recognized by former johns.
· James Martin (Red Buttons) a sensitive, sensible, health-conscious man who acts as protector of…
· Nonnie (Carol Lynley), fragile lounge singer, traumatized by the death of her brother, fellow musician
· Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson), elderly, affable husband of…
· Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters), portly, sentimental woman who believes in love.
· Acres (Roddy McDowall), an injured waiter
· Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin), a young woman meeting her parents in Greece, along with…
· Robin Shelby (Eric Shea), her 12-year-old brother.
Once inside the ship’s labyrinth of vents, hallways, shafts and ladders, our fearless band meets with one obstacle after another. When they move up a slowly submerging vertical tunnel, Acres falls and is lost. They meet another group of survivors moving toward the bow, but Frank is convinced they must find the engine room in the opposite direction – his naysayers give him fifteen minutes to prove its location. He finds it, but it requires everyone to swim underwater for a good minute or so, and this is where Belle sacrificially suffers a heart attack and dies.
The propeller shaft is now in perfect view, but they must now perilously walk a metal grid to access it, hovering perilously over blazing-hot water. A sudden jolt sends Linda to her death, and when Frank is forced to shut off a steam valve after a pipe is ruptured, he meets his maker as well. Rogo leads the others to the shaft and bangs on the hull, where rescuers hear them and get them safely aboard a helicopter.
In the 45 years since its release, The Poseidon Adventure has achieved classic status, although it must be admitted that in some circles it’s considered a cult classic. In some ways, time has not been kind to the epic, particularly in its blatant sexism in having only the women (except Winters) remove part of their clothing for easier travel throughout the ship. And yeah, some of the dialogue is not exactly hard-boiled, especially by today’s hipper-than-thou standards. And we can’t quite overlook the presence of Leslie Neilson, who, no matter what pre-Airplane! role he played, will always be perceived as Lt. Frank Drebin from the Naked Gun films.
But in many ways Poseidon is dateless, and actually comes up looking better than most modern-day action flicks, disaster or otherwise. Look, for example, at the 2006 remake, in which digital technology and advanced editing techniques did little to improve upon the original. In fact, all those bells and whistles actually detracted from the original’s sense of carefully executed suspense; credit director Ronald Neame for building up the disaster so artfully, and then coming wit a series of credible obstacles to keep the narrative moving, so it doesn’t simply come off as a sinking ship flick. Only one other director in my mind has done so with equal success: James Camerson, whose Titanic utilized all parts of his vessel with the same resourcefulness.
And there’s something else Poseidon has that few other modern films can manage. In the half-hour or so before the wave hits, we are introduced to no less than twelve major people, and the tight script delineates their characters so well that we feel like we know them personally, quirks, qualities, warts and all. This is essential for any movie, but for a disaster flick, it’s indispensible; that way if the character dies, you care, and if the character lives, you care. How have contemporary writers lost their way to the point that this kind of exposition is such a lost art? Hell, even the Love Boat scribes knew it – every line of dialogue on that show served only one function – to get us to differentiate, and care about, that character. That, quite frankly, is why the Poseidon remake… sucked.
And there’s another reason to admire it. Poseidon, like any other example of its ilk, features a boatload (pun intended) of deaths. Not just the four major ones, but the “supporting” deaths that occurred before the band of ten made its voyage. And each and every one of those deaths was treated meaningfully. They were treated with respect, emotion, a warm embrace by a loved one…. and time. They weren’t rushed through the Disaster Film conveyer belt. They mattered, just as much as they would in a great war film or a tearerker. And that surprised me, watching the film after all these years. And, quite frankly, it took me aback; so many modern films even shy away from death, not really knowing how to deal with it. Here’s how: you treat it like you would the death of your own loved one. Easy fix; next, please.
There’s probably more I could propound upon, but I’ll stop here – it’s just a wonderfully, nail-biting film, whether you’re 12 or 90. Let me just comment on the DVD while we’re here. This edition came out in 2006 to capitalize on the remake, and it has two great special features. One is an audio commentary by Stevens, Sue Martin and Lynley – three of the four female stars – and it adds a fun, x-chromosomal bent to the proceedings. You get some gossipy, intimate backstory, along with some fun fashion facts most commentaries would shy away from. And then there’s a “Follow the Adventure” feature in which, at periodic intervals throughout the film, you can go to a map to see where the characters are on the ship at that point, as well as which ones kicked the bucket. Easily one of the best DVD features I’ve seen in a long time.
So much for my effort to keep it short. Just go see it if you haven’t. End of story.