The Poseidon Adventure Review
There was a fascinating genre of disaster movies in the early to mid-70's encompassing this film as well as Earthquake, The Day Time Ran Out and The Towering Inferno. Hollywood and the cinema-going public must have been in a state of paranoia such that pretty much everything there was in the world, or outside it, was out to get them - boats, buildings, the Earth, ants, bulldozers, viruses from space, robotic theme parks and bees. For the generation that had practiced free love during the late-60's, this was some come-down...or, on the flip side, it could just have been a way for The Man to impose himself once again on the smelly hippies because if nature wasn't all peace and love, then life in general wouldn't be either.
It's hard to believe now, seeing that most of the films in the disaster genre are now staples of Sunday afternoon television scheduling, but these films were enormous. The Towering Inferno alone took the two leading stars of 1974, two source novels and two studios, Fox and Warner Bros, to get made, produced by Irwin Allen, the undoubted master of disaster. Allen was responsible for The Swarm, When Time Ran Out, The Poseidon Adventure and its sequel, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure and would have caused concern amongst millions were the concepts for his disaster epics not quite so ludicrous. Killer bees? Done in The Swarm. Volcano? When Time Ran Out. A luxury liner hit by a tidal wave turning it upside down with only a handful of survivors trying to make it back? That will be this one, The Poseidon Adventure from 1972.
Upside down boat? Tidal wave? Yes, the concept really is that high, where the SS Poseidon on its final voyage one New Year's Eve is hit by said wave and flips over. From that point on, a group of survivors fight their way up to the ship's underside, which is now above water, to what they hope is an exit. Of course, it is all more complex than that, particularly as the author of the book on which it is based, Paul Gallico, originally meant it as a religious tale and the focus for his symbolism is Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott. Hackman preaches a strong faith, arguing that God likes men and women who try to succeed against the odds, not those who give up easily, using the parable of the Talents from the New Testament as a basis for his homily during a service at the beginning of the film and for the entire film. Hackman clashes with the Catholic chaplain early in the film who fails to see his viewpoint, believing that God would also have just as much time for those who are not so strong.
All of the remaining cast are introduced within the first few minutes and most of them conform to simple profiles, many of whom would be just as much at home on The Love Boat as on the SS Poseidon. Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens play Mike and Linda Rogo, he a cop and she an ex-prostitute who fell in love while she was still working the streets. Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters are Manny and Belle Rosen who are on a retirement cruise and who strike up a friendship with lonely bachelor James Martin, played by Red Buttons, who, in turn, and after disaster strikes, takes care of Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), the singer in a band picked up to provide music for free carriage. Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea play Susan and Robin Shelby, sister and brother, who are on their way to meet their parents and bringing up the rear, often literally during the film, is Acres, played by Roddy McDowall who works on the Poseidon as a steward and who provides inside knowledge on the layout of the ship.
With the cast in place, the film moves quickly and with some early introductory scenes quickly out of the way - Linda Rogo is seasick, James Martin is a health freak, Susan and Eric Shelby don't see eye to eye - and the New Year's Eve party in full swing, the cast celebrate by singing Auld Lang Syne.
Meanwhile the ship's captain (Leslie Nielsen, playing it straight) gets called to the bridge to watch as the tidal wave crashes in and the boat begins to turn over. The actual disaster, when it happens, is very well handled with sirens blaring, general confusion among the cast with the ballroom, in which all this action happens, gently rotating. Clearly, with most of the disaster filmed in close-up, the money wasn't there for long-range, widescreen effects but the action is edited quickly disguising the lack of money available. There is one famous effect, of a man falling from a table to a large window, used in the credit sequence of a special effects series it the late-70's but look closely and see that he obviously throws himself backwards.
Following the disaster, the cast gather themselves, getting Pamela Sue Martin down from a table and after a quick discussion with Eric Shea, who knows the layout of the ship, they formulate a plan. Hackman and Borgnine use the Christmas tree in the ballroom to climb up to meet Roddy McDowall, who verifies the plan and from there, they begin to move through the kitchen, broadway (a corridor that runs the length of the ship) and the engine room to a section of the hull only one inch thick, compared to twice that elsewhere.
Of course, not all of this could happen without some further religious conflict and this occurs when, before the cast leave the ballroom, the chaplain decides to remain with the passengers who refuse to follow Hackman, repeating their argument from earlier. Unfortunately, as soon as Hackman climbs back up the Christmas tree to leave, an explosion rocks the ship, water starts flowing into the ballroom and the tree, which was the only route out, falls into the water. This begins the real adventure as the cast tries to keep ahead of the water that is flowing into the ship through the ballroom, both taking the same path through the ship. This being a disaster movie, not all of the cast make it but when their time is up, they tend to go with some verve and not a little poignancy. There are a couple of surprise deaths, the frequency of which seems to increase as the survivors get closer to their possible exit.
There is no doubt that this film is made by the performances of Hackman and Borgnine whose characters are so similar that there is never the slightest chance of agreement between the two, leading to a number of confrontations where Hackman makes exactly this point. The standout moment between the two is in a scene in a hallway where Borgnine questions Hackman's authority and his belief in the action he is taking. The relationship between the two is never less than great and when the two are onscreen together, the dialogue, which is no better than elsewhere in the film, really comes to life with a delivery exceeding what the source material deserves.
That is one of the key problems of The Poseidon Adventure. Had the casting not been so good and less money spent on the effects, this could have easily been a TV movie. Some of the cast do let the film down and do little to dispel that idea, particularly Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley and Red Buttons but this view of The Poseidon Adventure probably comes from Irwin Allen's background in television on The Time Tunnel, Lost In Space and Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea but the film just about manages to lift itself out of the mire of TV movies, due mainly to Hackman and Borgnine.
From the other members of the cast, it's a shame that Pamela Sue Martin never fulfilled the potential shown here as she is always good to watch, as is Jack Albertson (who was also in Willy Wonka as Grandpa Joe), who brings a great deal of tenderness and humour to a role opposite a frankly annoying Shelley Winters. Red Buttons looks awfully confused throughout, just about fulfilling a role that requires him to step in between Hackman and Borgnine and bring arguments to a sensible, if boring, conclusion. You wish Carol Lynley had stayed behind in the ballroom with her dead boyfriend, who bears a quite remarkable similarity to Derek Smalls, as she is, without doubt, the worst character in the film but, and this is all I can come up with in her defence, she does give Red Buttons an opportunity to show concern for another character rather than just being the focus of Shelley Winters' pity.
If there is a problem with the film, it is that it does feel rushed to its conclusion. There is a sense that within the final ten minutes, the survivors who have made it to the engine room, almost to the exit, are being killed off simply to increase the number of celebrity deaths. These are handled badly as, throughout the film and excluding the actual death toll at the point the tidal wave hits, The Poseidon Adventure is quite free of fatalities. The appearance is one of Irwin Allen realising he hadn't killed off enough people and nor was the religious symbolism heavy enough so the final scenes had to be rewritten quickly. I have not read the source novel so cannot compare one to the other but the ending does not feel particularly assured.
The disaster movie makes a return every so often, Independence Day, Pearl Harbour, Deep Impact and Titanic being recent examples so the thrill of watching stars die in ludicrous situations must still hold some appeal. The Poseidon Adventure stands out from other disaster movies by not being that glamorous - it looks gritty, it's angry for a Hollywood blockbuster and it doesn't spend a long time leading up to the disaster, unlike these recent examples. It feels short, sharp and it bristles when it could have so easily been buried under the star cast attempting to look good, so it is worth a revisit if only to see a disaster movie that feels a lot less bloated than its brothers-in-genre.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 and looks better than any time I can remember seeing it, with the colours clear, showing no problems with the reds of the emergency lighting, the darkness of many areas of the boat and the brown of the Poseidon's decor - this was the 1970's after all and brown was in. Overall, the film looks great and, after thirty years of being seen only on television in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, seeing The Poseidon Adventure in its original aspect ratio is a joy.
The best touch is on the menu with the selection prompt being an image of the liner, which flips over when you press Select - very nice touch!
The DVD has been transferred with a stereo soundtrack only but given the age of the film, that is not a problem. The stereo soundtrack is clear and free of noise and the left and right channels are well separated.
It would have been nice to have a DTS or 5.1 soundtrack as there are a couple of scenes that would have been standout moments, such as the explosions on the ship and the tidal wave strike but there is no problem with only a stereo mix.
Making Of Feature (9m34s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Stereo): This is a period feature with behind-the-scenes footage intercut with scenes from the film and a number of very short interviews with the stars and director. It is very much a puff piece with very little discussion of the stars beyond how wonderful they are and the commentary is a little excessive with constant references to how exciting, star-packed and amazing The Poseidon Adventure is.
For a feature on the DVD, it does contain a few spoilers so if you haven't see The Poseidon Adventure, this would be best left until after you've watched the film.
Trailer (1m28s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, Stereo): Unlike the feature, this manages not to give away any spoilers but does at least focus on the Hackman/Borgnine relationship. As with the packaging inside the DVD case, it does also focus on the number of famous actors who appeared in the film but from the time in which it was made and from the producer of the film, this is only to be expected. You could also see The Towering Inferno for Irwin Allen's publicising of his films with the number of stars who appear in them.
Cast Profiles: These are actor profiles and filmographies for the seven main actors:
- Carol Lynley
- Roddy McDowall
- Shelley Winters
- Red Buttons
- Gene Hackman
- Ernest Borgnine
- Stella Stevens
The Poseidon Adventure is really just a great film and as comforting as a hug. It fails to hold even one surprise for me yet I still go back and watch it again and again. I doubt I'll ever get tired of it and, as poor as that film is, I'll even watch the sequel - Beyond The Poseidon Adventure.
It's impossible to completely recommend it as there is no doubt that as many of you will hate it and many more will feel indifferent to it as those who love it. If you are a fan, the DVD is likely to be as good as this film will ever get. Irwin Allen died in 1991 so the only extra that would have been much better than those included, a producer's commentary, will not be possible. Allen left a great legacy, not particularly his films and television shows, but in the packaging and production of blockbuster films. Much of his output has not aged particularly well, particularly The Swarm and The Towering Inferno, but The Poseidon Adventure has.
I don't know if there was a particular reason why it as aged well when others have not, though the clothes and hairstyles don't help. I suspect it was one of the first of its genre, coming in 1972 and before Hollywood started turning out identikit films. It may just be the performances of Hackman and Borgnine. Whatever the reason, this was a film that has lasted and on a DVD where they may not have done wonders, they also didn't ruin it and for a fan, that's all the justification I need to buy it.