Produced by ‘master of disaster’ Irwin Allen and directed by Ronald Neame, this 1972 disaster movie features an all star cast led by Gene Hackman. Dave Foster reviews this two-disc special edition released through Fox Home Entertainment which offers a great transfer and some fine extras.
Opening with a brief write-up explaining the S.S. Poseidon met with disaster at midnight on New Years Eve enroute from New York to Athens, and only a handful of survivors were rescued, director Ronald Neame sets up this disaster movie in a way that puts the viewer into the correct mindset. That of following these survivors as they traverse the many decks of the cruise liner, turned upside-down and gradually flooding as they head for the bow which is identified as their best hope of survival. Save for the opening twenty-minutes which rather laboriously sets up the key figures in the group we are to follow and the event which causes the ship to topple and begin sinking, The Poseidon Adventure is an adept action adventure from a time period where an eye for detail wasn’t necessarily top of the list of concerns, but instead an entertaining set of characters we slowly begin to root for is key above all else.
Led by a rebellious preacher (Gene Hackman) who believes God wants us to help ourselves, not ask help of him, the small band of survivors whom we follow consist of a by-the-numbers detective (Ernest Borgnine) and the prostitute he made his wife (Stella Stevens), and another married but older couple (Jack Albertson & Shelley Winters) looking to find their way to Greece and for the first time meet their grandson. You also have a young boy (Eric Shea) and his teenage sister (Pamela Sue Martin) who were on their way back home to their parents, a young woman (Carol Lynley) who formed part of the ship’s entertainment and a lonely bachelor (Red Buttons) who takes it upon himself to guide the distressed young thing to safety, and lastly one of the ship’s crew (Roddy McDowall) who along with the young boy helps the preacher with directions.
Once you get past the initial event in which the ship is spun upside down and Hackman’s character puts his preaching into practice by taking the imitative and leading those he can persuade on their way towards the hull of the ship (now the part closest to sea level) the film begins to gel together rather nicely, as we are taken from scenario to scenario in various depths of the ship’s many decks as the group of survivors improvise their way through hatches and tunnels. In between the wonderful sets which recreate the many levels of the ship turned upside down we bear witness to some delightfully energetic banter which Borgnine’s detective and Hackman’s preacher bark at each other as they struggle to gain superiority amongst the group, with Borgnine being dragged along more by his pushy wife than his trust in Hackman’s preacher (along with the other younger ladies she is encouraged to don a hot-pants or plain-old-panties dress code for ease of travel, so who could blame him?). The other character dynamics are not quite as engaging, with the young boy very much of the “little Johnny” type I’ve come to despise in older American films and the two young women of the group the typical helpless whiney types who need to coaxed along at everyone else’s peril. Fortunately the director knows when enough is enough, and rarely stays on them long enough for it to become overly annoying, but I prefer the modern independent women we’d see in more latter day disaster movies than those found here.
Inevitably some of these characters will die along the way, and key to the film’s success is the way in which the deaths are setup, with some admittedly more predictable than others but – with the exception of the first and most predictable – they result in a definite sense of loss to the viewer as we have begun to identify and root with everyone in question. It’s this sense of importance that develops as the film progresses that help overcome some minor quibbles I had such as the group’s seeming inability to close watertight hatches behind them and the more technical oversight which sees the group take on the many flooded areas as if they’re wading through a heated swimming pool. Another great help in overcoming aspects such as this and the initially patchy start is the technical proficiency found in the cinematography, with the many well-dressed sets looking very fine in the letterbox frame whilst John Williams score offers the right blend of subtlety and majesty to match the scenes which are playing out.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen The Poseidon Adventure looks as good here as I’m sure it ever has, with the DVD sporting a spotless print, sharp detail levels and colours that leap off the screen. There is some softness at times, usually on the upper and lower edges of the frame which I suspect is more down to the photography than the transfer, but on the whole this is an excellent transfer of a great looking film.
The original stereo soundtrack is reproduced as is, with no attempts to offer a 5.1 remix there really is little need, with the Dolby Stereo mix offering fine separation across the front speakers and clear dialogue throughout.
Optional English subtitles are present for the film and all extra features.
Disc One boasts two commentary tracks and an interactive feature – Follow the Escape! – which charts the survivor’s journey through the ship by cutting to a diagram at key points in the film and highlighting where they are on the ship’s blueprint and who is still alive. It’s not something I’d usually bother with but you might want to switch it on and listen to one of the commentary tracks to get the most from the disc.
Director Ronald Neame hosts the first commentary track and proves to be an engaging fellow who despite being in his mid-nineties still has a good recollection of the shoot and bides his time between stories from the set, thoughts on the actors and his decisions as a director. Truly a decent old chap anything remotely negative he has to say about anyone is always followed by footing part of the blame on his role as a director. Towards the final third of the film his comments do tend to wane and repeat, making it a struggle to get through to the end, but on the whole this is a welcome effort and worthy of your time.
The second commentary track features three of the four lead actresses in the film (and now only surviving actresses following Shelley Winters death earlier this year), with Caroly Lynley (Nonnie), Stella Stevens (Linda) and Pamela Sue Martin (Susan Shelby) recounting tales from the set. All very complimentary the girls have fun talking their way through the film; making observations on the characters, actors and director and of course their own roles whilst also finding plenty to laugh at which makes this a lighter affair than Neame’s solo effort.
Disc Two plays host to a variety of material and opens with the AMC Backstory, a 25-minute produced for television featurette which provides a general overview of the film’s production and the role Irwin Allen played. Though presented through rose-tinted specs this piece still manages to engage the viewer thanks to the combination of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the cast, director and production crew and various stills that present the story as it was.
Next up is a series of featurettes totalling approximately 40-minutes and ranging from the easily dismissed to the genuinely interesting and well produced. Falling in to the former category are a nostalgic fluff piece where The Cast Looks Back, a rather bitter sounding stuntman turned actor (or actor turned stuntman, it depends who you ask) recounts his story in Falling Up with Ernie while The Morning After Story looks at the Oscar-winning original song featured in the film. R.M.S. Queen Mary is a short narrated piece which grates before long but does provide us with the back-story to Paul Gallico’s original novel and then offers some history on the Queen Mary luxury liner which doubled for the S.S. Poseidon in the film. Falling into the genuinely interesting category are the two nine-minute featurettes, The Writer: Stirling Silliphant and The Heroes of the Poseidon, which respectively look at the film’s screenplay writer through interviews with close personal friends and the writing itself as authors and a professor of religion examine the thematic aspects of the screenplay.
Conversations with Ronald Neame is split into three segments totalling approx. 10-minutes and sees the director reveal tricks of the trade as he dissects two of the film’s special effects sequences, while the third piece shows just how popular the film remains all these years on as he discusses the fan letters which still come through his mailbox. I can’t say these pieces interested me a great deal, mostly due to the brief and dull manner in which they are presented leading me to say you’re better off listening to Neame’s commentary track.
The remaining extra material gives the set a very complete feel, with a Vintage Promotional Material section offering an original 1972 Featurette and the original Theatrical Teaser and Theatrical Trailer, while an American Cinematographer magazine article is transcribed in its entirety (42 screens plus interactive photographs) and provides a very thorough insight to the filmmaking techniques used to create the varied effects found in the film. Then you have a Galleries section which covers Marketing, Publicity and Behind-the-Scenes with a veritable deluge of stills and finally there is a Storyboard Comparisons section which offers three two-minute scenes inter-cut with the exhaustively accurate storyboarding Irwin Allen had created for the shoot. The latter segment could have been more enlightening than it actually is, I for one like the idea of selecting a few key scenes and presenting them with storyboards (as opposed to offering the entire set of storyboards and leaving us wondering where to begin) but the presentation could have been better, maybe using a split-screen method instead of the fading between movie-footage and storyboards. It’s better than most multi-angle features however, something I find useless on these brief clips when you consider how long the average DVD player takes to switch between angles.
The Poseidon Adventure is an entertaining disaster movie which forgoes elaborate and lengthy exterior special effects sequences in favour of characterisation and internal struggles – more than likely because the technology simply wasn’t there at the time but for whatever the reason it’s a better film for it. This set produced by Fox presents the film with a wonderful transfer and some welcome bonus features though I found it to be lacking in anything with true depth and insight.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum