Our heroes climb up an overturned cruise liner in the film that launched a thousand enjoyable disaster movie clichés
Director: Ronald Neame (Irwin Allen)
Cast: Gene Hackman (Reverend Frank Scott), Ernest Borgnine (Mike Rogo), Red Buttons (James Martin), Shelley Winters (Belle Rosen), Jack Albertson (Manny Rosen), Carol Lynley (Nonnie Parry), Roddy McDowell (Acres), Stella Stevens (Linda Rogo), Pamela Sue Martin (Susan Shelby), Arthur O’Connell (Chaplain John), Eric Shea (Robin Shelby), Leslie Nielsen (Captain Harrison)
New Year’s Eve on the biggest cruise liner in the world and the money men have ordered “Full steam ahead!” into a storm – after all, it would be terrible publicity to arrive late at harbour. Needless to say, it’s a terrible idea, as the Poseidon is hit by a tsunami and flipped upside down. Everyone at the top of the ship is killed, leaving only the party goers in the promenade room alive. Who is going to make it out from the one of the most famous disaster films of all time?
Produced by the Master of Disaster himself Irwin Allen – he personally staked half the budget and made a fortune – the ship’s passenger log is a host of Oscar-winning stars, each balancing soapy plotlines. Gene Hackman is the maverick priest, body pumping with muscular Christianity, who believes God helps those who help themselves. Ernest Borgnine is a grumpy police chief, on a long-delayed holiday with his ex-call girl wife Stella Stevens. Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are a retired couple heading to Israel to see their grandson for the first time. Red Buttons is an unlucky-in-love fitness freak, Roddy McDowell a plucky steward. Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea are two (unbearable) kids travelling to join their parents while Carol Lynley is the ship’s terrified singer.
The Poseidon Adventure cemented the tropes you’d come to know and love in disaster films. The maverick leader, the grouchy contrarian, a plucky pensioner with a vital skill, adorably brave kids, a self-sacrificing nice guy… They’re all in here, the actors playing these cardboard cut-out characters with gusto as they climb up the endurance obstacle course set of an upside-down cruise liner.
Allen’s film takes a while to get going: a quarter of the run time is dedicated to setting up the various character dilemmas. Is a member of the crew a former client of Stevens’ Linda? Will Gene Hackman find new purpose in his faith? Will Red Buttons find love? Neame shoots these opening exchanges with the uninspired professionalism the exposition-filled dialogue demands (there are several variations on “What am I doing on this ship? Let me tell you…” lines). But what makes the best of these films work is when the soapy shallowness manages to make the characters endearing. It’s what happens here: the cast could do these scenes standing on their head, but gosh darn it we end up hoping the Rosens will live to see their grandson at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The film of course “starts” proper with that wave hitting. At which point, Allen (and Neame) knows exactly what works. He makes the stakes clear, the target simple (climb up, get out) and taps into common fears of falling, drowning etc. He knows how to make us thrill at the stunts – that tipping ballroom, with various stuntmen plunging downwards – and throw in the odd moment to remind us how tragic it all is (like Red Buttons sadly laying his jacket across some poor soul).
It also understands that we need to feel smarter than the crowd of extras caught up in the drama. When Gene Hackman earnestly tells everyone their only chance of survival is up, we want to feel that we’d be smart enough to go with him, rather than join the sheeple listening to the literally-out-of-his-depth purser (“What you’re suggesting is suicide!”). Allen knows we need to feel smarter so much he later throws in another group led by a confident-but-wrong authority figure (the ship’s doctor) blithely walking downhill to the flooded aft, ignoring Hackman’s cries that they are striding to a watery grave.
No, we’d definitely be with the plucky stars. After all Hackman can’t be wrong! (Gene Hackman’s priest, for all his bluster, is remarkably unpersuasive – he even only just holds onto authority in the group). The stunt work and production design as the battered stars climb up the overturned ship to the hull are remarkable – not for nothing did this scoop nine Oscar nominations – and while the film is undeniably slightly cheesy, it’s played with an absolute earnest seriousness by the cast (Hackman, to his eternal credit, acts as if his life depended on it – which considering it’s clearly a pay cheque role other actors would have coasted through is admirable).
The set pieces are superb. As the cast is whittled down, the deaths carry a certain weight – again conveyed by the honesty of the grief from those left behind. Shelley Winters bagged the best role – and the most iconic scene – as an overweight old lady with a Chekhov’s skill, performing (at great cost) an act of heroism no one else could manage. (She landed an Oscar nomination, largely for this stand-up-and-cheer moment with a sting). Most get a moment to shine – although Carol Lynley’s pathetic, panicking singer (she can’t swim or climb or hold her breath or run…) who spends her time shrieking tries your patience no end.
The film is so much about the experience of seeing this group of people overcome death-defying climbs, swims and flames that when the survivors stagger into the sunlight, the film abruptly ends. It’s all about the ride, with most of the plot points established earlier settled by someone dying on the way up. But it’s entertaining and lands just the right side of involving. The characters may be artificial, but we still care about them.
The Poseidon Adventure was a massive hit and still the best maritime disaster film made (certainly much better than its belated, lame, remake). Allen cements a formula where swiftly sketched characters, played by recognisable actors, go through endurance tests in front of us via terrifying set-ups and death-defying stunts. It’s grand, old-fashioned entertainment, perhaps taking itself a little too seriously, but giving us lots to gasp and cheer at.