The Poseidon Adventure (Special Edition) Review
This review is an edited version of one that was posted during my first months here but which still works well. If you wish, however, to jump to the image comparison with the old Region 2 or to simply read about the bonus material, please click here.
Such was the run of disaster movies in the early- to mid-seventies that Hollywood, representing 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. This included boats, buildings, the Earth, ants, bulldozers, viruses from space, the sea, robotic theme parks and bees. In one sense, this was some come-down for the generation that had practiced free love less than a decade earlier. Or, with a conspiratorial wink of the eye, these could just have been a way for The Man to impose himself once again on the smelly hippies, reminding them that nature, and indeed life, wasn't all peace and love.
What's particularly hard to believe, though, is just how enormously successful these films were. Staples of the Sunday afternoon schedules they might well be now but The Towering Inferno alone took the two leading stars of 1974, two source novels, two studios, Fox and Warner Bros, and the undoubted master of disaster himself, Irwin Allen, to get made. 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? The concept really is that high with the SS Poseidon on its final voyage from New York to Athens one Christmas and New Year's, encountering disaster in the Mediterranean. As the company man pushes for an earlier arrival in Athens, much to the chagrin of the ship's captain (Leslie Nielsen), word comes of an earthquake and of a tidal wave, heading in the direction of the Poseidon. Unaware of all of this, the guests assemble for a New Year's Eve party on the boat, guests of the captain. As midnight nears and the band - a New Seekers-ish collection of happy clappers - play the opening bars of Auld Lang Syne, the ship's captain spots the tidal wave approaching their position and, with sirens blaring, prepares for impact. As the cast scatter about in confusion, the tidal wave hits and the ship begins to capsize, gently rotating as the cast spill about the ballroom. Now upside down, the Poseidon buckles under explosions and as the cast gather themselves and retrieve Pamela Sue Martin from the table on what is now the roof, they clamber up and Christmas tree and into what were the lower levels of the ship, all in the hope of being rescued but with little more than faith...
And faith is key to The Poseidon Adventure. Not only in a small band of passengers led by the Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) up and through the ship but in his decision to lead them there. What hope they have lies with not only getting through the ship - explosions that rock the ship, fire and, as one might expect, water are all hazards that they'll face - but in finding a section of the hull only one inch thick. And yet, as much as we tend to associate The Poseidon Adventure with a test of one's endurance, it is much more a test of faith with Scott being the voice in the wilderness, one who, despite being a man of God, is not without questions for his creator. Fittingly, Paul Gallico, the author of the book on which The Poseidon Adventure is based, had intended his book as a religious tale with a particular focus on Reverend Scott and it's this sense of faith that is at question with every advance made by the survivors. Should Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) put her trust in those below her and jump? Should the Rogos, the Shelby and the other survivors believe in Scott when he tells them to climb the Christmas tree and onwards through the ship? Should Mrs Rosen, even with her lifesaving medal, dive in after a stuck Rev. Scott? Scott preaches a strong faith, arguing that God likes those who try to succeed against the odds, not those who give up easily. He even 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. That the two part soon after the ship capsizes would seem to suggest that it's Scott's faith that wins out but that they part as friends, the film also reminds us that faith is for everyone, not just those who trust in Scott.
Of course, this is The Poseidon Adventure not The Passion of the Christ and one can take or leave the issues of faith without it impacting one's enjoyment of the film. It is, after all, a disaster movie and The Poseidon Adventure doesn't disappoint, with the water being a visible reminder of the brevity of the lives of the survivors. With the Stirling Silliphant script structured to give each member of the cast a decent introduction (and, for some of them, an equally decent exit), the film is a comfortable exercise in the deaths of thousands. At heart, it's a made-for-television movie with much of the cast looking as though they'd be just as much at home on The Love Boat as on the SS Poseidon. Mike and Linda Rogo as a cop and an ex-prostitute, Manny and Belle Rosen on their retirement cruise and Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea as Susan and Robin Shelby, sister and brother on their way to meet their parents, the characters aren't awfully complex but neither is the story. 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 - the ship rolls over, the waters come crashing in and up the Christmas tree they go, led by Rev. Scott.
And so begins the real adventure as the cast tries to keep ahead of the water flowing into the ship. With Acres (Roddy McDowell) bringing up the rear, the cast begin to drop away one-by-one. The deeper into the ship they go, the more the cast are put at risk and when their time comes, they go with some verve and not a little poignancy. With a couple of surprise deaths, the frequency of which seems to increase as the survivors get closer to their possible exit, The Poseidon Adventure does rush to a conclusion with Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame offing three of the cast in less than ten minutes, for no more reason, it would appear, that to bulk up the celebrity hit count.
Who's really counting, though, when the film keeps on delivering. I suspect that, with the right audience, The Poseidon Adventure would work as a cult favourite, with everyone cheering on the deserved death of the ship's purser, the moment Pamela Sue Martin swishes off her long skirt to reveal a pair of hotpants or each time Shelley Winters mentions her grandson or rubs her lifesaving medal. Red Buttons, as the twitchy, tight-assed James Martin, would be first on my particular list of those I'd like to have seen submerged into Davy Jones' locker and I almost jeer aloud with his every fussing around Carol Lynley's Nanee. Speaking of Lynley, as much as every disaster movie needs a hysterical survivor, you do wish that Allen and Neame had left her behind in the ballroom with Derek Smalls or whatever her luxuriantly-moustached boyfriend is called. Elsewhere, it's a pity that Pamela Sue Martin never fulfilled the potential shown here as she's always good fun in this, whilst Jack Albertson, who was also in Willy Wonka as Grandpa Joe, brings a great deal of tenderness and humour to a role opposite the comparatively annoying Shelley Winters. But it's Hackman and Borgnine's film and they make it a memorable one with the two of them biting chunks out of one another, only finding common ground when big Belle Rosen has her star turn.
More entertaining than finding out that it's a come-nude-to-work day after arriving late, The Poseidon Adventure is short, sharp and bristling with the thrill of watching stars die via obscure means. Falling forty foot down a ship's funnel...why of course...but it's funny and exciting in equal measures, picking up speed as soon as the tidal wave hits. A terrific film, it's a world away from the bloated movies that followed in its wake - not literally, the upside-down ship just bobs about for most of the night not leaving a wake at all - and, after years of it being scheduled on a Saturday evening, it's as comforting as a hug. There's not a surprise left in it but I love it still. Hell upside down? Not when it's as enjoyable as this it isn't.
The best touch from the old R2 release is gone - the image of the liner that worked as a selection prompt on the menu that flipped over when you press Select - may be gone but this is much better-looking release in all other respects. Still anamorphically presented in 2.35:1, this version of The Poseidon Adventure looks a little better than the existing R2 release, being slightly softer and with more muted colours. Granted, that this film was made in the seventies and the dominant colour is brown but this DVD does brown very well, possibly better than any other brown on any other DVD release. Orange too but such were the times. However, please refer to the screenshots below for a direct comparison:
The Existing R2 Release
This R1 Special Edition
The Existing R2 Release
This R1 Special Edition
The Existing R2 Release
This R1 Special Edition
The Existing R2 Release
This R1 Special Edition
Fox have included the original stereo soundtrack as they did on the existing R2 release but this sounds a little cleaner and not as harsh. There's some clear separation between the stereo channels and it's a very good track, particularly once the tidal wave approaches, with Fox worthy of praise for avoiding an unnecessary DD5.1 or DTS remix.
Commentaries: There are two commentaries included in this Special Edition - one from director Ronald Neame and the other from cast members Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley and Pamela Sue Martin. Neame is the kind of man who you would describe as being a decent old cove - well spoken, enthusiastic about his film and without a bad word to say about anyone, his commentary is a wonderful listen, the kind of track that plays out to your better side. Even in the occasional moment when he's perhaps less than flattering, such as when he describes a post-French Connection Hackman as believing that he was slumming it, he also admits he felt the same, thereby not making Hackman out to be difficult. So informative and kind-hearted is Neame that you could listen to him for much longer than the two hours he's on here.
As for the cast commentary, it's a much more giggly affair with the three women gently poking fun at each other's hairstyles, the fashions in the piece and how they were cast in the film. Stella Stevens veers between taking the piss and being very sincere but the three laugh, cheer on themselves and the others and reveal the goings-on behind the scenes. As with some of the best cast commentaries, they sound as though they're enjoying a glass or six of the best Bollinger and is hugely entertaining throughout. Good though the rest of the extras are, these two commentaries make it a great release.
Interactive "Follow The Escape" Feature: As one who's always marvelled at how the survivors only manage to go through five or six rooms on their way from one end of the ship to the other - I've been on cross-channel ferries that are bigger - this bonus feature branches off from the film to show the progress of the survivors through the ship. Bouncing back onto the screen every time one falls - poor Acres spends an awfully long time marked out with a red 'X' - this shows that for all the drama, Scott leads the survivors on a rather direct route through the ship. Had we this to hand before a screening, we may have wondered what all the fuss was about.
AMC Backstory (25m09s): "Raise your hand those who are going to be killed!" Not words you'll hear often - at least not outside of a bizarre suicide cult - but they're said here by Irwin Allen in one of the few behind-the-scenes shots that opens this retrospective feature on the making of The Poseidon Adventure. Beginning with Irwin Allen browsing the shelves in a bookshop for a project and the struggle to convince 20th Century Fox to finance the picture, this goes on to cover the actual production through footage and interviews with those that were there, including director Ronald Neame, actors Roddy McDowell, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine and crew members like production designer William Creber. For fans of the film, there's a good deal here that, though probably not new, is all the better for having it in the one place.
Featurettes: There are six featurettes here, none of which are particularly long but, when combined, cover some of the most memorable parts of the movie. The Cast Looks Back (5m42s) brings in most of the cast who are left alive - Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman aren't here but Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowell and Pamela Sue Martin, who still looks terrific, are. Memories, as you'd expect, are somewhat rose-tinted but it's still good fun to listen to the cast recount them.
Meanwhile, if you ever watched special-effects shows of the late-seventies, most of the next feature will be familiar as actor Ernie Orsatti, who played Terry, describes his falling from a table backwards into a window. As he describes it, he was an actor who was told by Irwin Allen that everyone was doing their own stunts and after watching a stuntman throw, at first, his dog and then his wife onto the mattress, he was convinced. From something that could have been inconsequential, Fox ought to be congratulated on tracking Ernie down for Falling Up with Ernie (4m09s) and for just letting him speak, producing something that's funny and which pays credit to one of the most memorable scenes in the film.
With a feature on writer Stirling Silliphant (9m15s) up next - not bad but one for devotees only - this is followed by The Heroes of the Poseidon (9m52s), which examines faith as the theme of the film, how it is constructed as a story and how it compares to Dante's The Divine Comedy. I admit, I found the last one something of a stretch - much as The Poseidon Adventure advertised itself as, "Hell...upside down!", it's a walk in an upside-down park to what Dante tours - but not half as much as the comparison made between the Rev. Scott and Lt. Rogo and Jesus Christ and St. Peter. The Morning After Story (8m59s) is that of the Oscar-winning song that features in the film, interviewing songwriter Al Kasha, who pays credit to his partner Joel Hirschhorn. Finally, RMS Queen Mary (6m27s) describes the building of the ship and how it was used as the setting for The Poseidon Adventure and, via novelist Paul Gallico's transatlantic crossing on the ship, the inspiration for his story.
Conversations With Ronald Neame: Veteran director Neame describes the making of two scenes in the film, which are illustrate by clips. Those chosen are Sinking Corridor (3m20s) and Turning Over the Ship (2m26s) with a third interview, Generation of Fans (3m17s), deals with the public's reaction to The Poseidon Adventure and how he still receives letters telling of people's love of the film.
Vintage Promotional Material: Being something of a catch-all for any existing material in this set, this includes an Original 1972 Featurette (10m00s) - this is the same one as was included in the old R2 release - a Teaser (1m38s) and two trailers, one for The Posidon Adventure (3m17s) and another for The Towering Inferno (2m13s). Although no better than the more recent features, this original one does feature interviews with Gene Hackman, Leslie Nielsen, Shelley Winters and Ronald Neame, although sadly nothing with Irwin Allen other than the on-set footage of him at work.
This second disc finishes up with three Photo Galleries - Marketing, Publicity and Behind-The-Scenes - an American Cinematographer article and Storyboard-to-Film Comparisons for three scenes, Ship Capsizes (2m44s), The Vertical Shaft (2m20s) and Saving Reverend Scott (2m04s).
Finally, there is a little booklet that accompanies this set as well as a set of eight Lobby Cards.
So good is this film that I'll happily watch its sequel - Beyond The Poseidon Adventure - and have watched this numerous times on television and on the old R2 DVD. However, with this release, The Poseidon Adventure has finally got the treatment that it deserves with some superb extras, two great commentaries and a buffed-up picture. With Earthquake and The Towering Inferno also released on the same day, 9 May 2006 is proving to be a classic for fans of the disaster movie but this is the high point, a Special Edition that more than lives up to the name.