The Poseidon Adventure
Screenplay : Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Paul Gallico)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1972
Stars : Gene Hackman (Rev. Frank Scott), Ernest Borgnine (Mike Rogo), Red Buttons (James Martin), Carol Lynley (Nonnie Parry), Roddy McDowall (Acres), Stella Stevens (Linda Rogo), Shelley Winters (Belle Rosen), Jack Albertson (Manny Rosen), Leslie Nielsen (Ship's Captain), Pamela Sue Martin (Susan Shelby), Eric Shea (Robin Shelby)
Along with "The Towering Inferno" (1974), "The Poseidon Adventure" is probably the best of Hollywood's seventies-style disaster hokum. Produced by the infamous Irwin Allen, it came after the movie that started it all, "Airport" (1970), but before movies like "Avalanche" (1978) and "The Swarm" (1978) that finally killed the genre. With a formulaic plot, bad dialogue, and a cast full of big name stars in wooden roles, "The Poseidon Adventure" has all the right ingredients to keep it constantly veering along the edge of sheer camp without falling over.
The plot is simple enough: on New Year's Eve, a luxurious cruise liner, the S.S. Poseidon, is on its final voyager before being dismantled. An undersea earthquake nearby sends a flood of tidal waves, one of which is ninety feet high and capsized the Poseidon, turning it completely upside down in the water. Most of the people on board were in the ballroom celebrated the beginning of the New Year when the disaster occurs.
When the dust settles, a small group of survivors, led by the self-determined, liberal preacher Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), decides to make its own fate. Instead of waiting to be rescued, they start moving upwards to the hull of the ship which is their only chance for escape. Of course, this is much more difficult than it seems because everything is upside down. Not to mention the various fires burning around them and the fact that the ship is slowly taking on water, so every level they move upwards toward the hull, they are always being followed closely behind by the sea that is rising just below them.
As with all disaster movies of this kind, the group of survivors is a motley bunch of rag-tag people from various backgrounds. We have Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), a loud-mouthed cop who is constantly waging verbal warfare with Rev. Scott over who is leading the group; Rogo's ex-prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens); James Martin (Red Buttons), a wormy bachelor who turns out to be one of the most heroic of the group; Manny (Jack Albertson) and Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters), the sympathetic old Jewish couple who were on their way to see their grandson; and, Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) and Robin Shelby (Eric Shea) the token teenage brother-and-sister team.
Robin is by far the most annoying of the group, with his loud proclamations about where the group should be going and the way he belts out "Sir!" to everyone he talks to do. Earlier he had a tour of the ship from one of the engineers, so despite his small stature, he's the only one who truly knows where to go. As Belle Rosen, Shelley Winters runs a close second in the annoying department, as she spends a great deal of the film complaining about how overweight she is and how she won't be about to fit through the small air ducts the group constantly has to crawl through; nevertheless, she was nominated for an Academy Award.
Despite a terribly wooden beginning featuring Leslie Nielsen overacting as the ship's captain, "The Poseidon Adventure" becomes engrossing half an hour into the action. Director Ronald Neame pulls us into the story slowly but surely; it isn't long before we've forgotten all the early passages and are concentrating only on how these people are going to get out. Neame's direction is sure and effective, and he gets a great deal of help from John Williams' musical score, Harold E. Stine's sharp, colorful camera work, and the fantastic set design by William J. Creber (who also did "The Towering Inferno"). What he doesn't get help from is the ridiculous dialogue in the script by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes (from the novel by Paul Gallico).
Everything leading up to the actual capsizing of the ship is almost pointless, because it doesn't truly develop any characters worth caring about. A great many people die in the movie, both those unknown to the audience and those we get to know through the action. Most of the "serious" deaths are sheer melodrama, the worst of which has an inadvertently hilarious Borgnine screaming at Hackman, "It's your fault! You killed her!" But, with a seventies-style disaster movies, these are things you just have to expect.
©1997 James Kendrick