In 1970 Hollywood kicked off the “all-star” modern disaster film with Airport, an adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s bestselling novel where a mad bomber threatened the lives of all those on board a fateful Boeing 707, but it was with the release of The Poseidon Adventure that the 70s disaster boom was properly launched, and today we will be looking back at the doomed voyage of the S.S. Poseidon and the true birth of the modern disaster movie.
The man most responsible for the disaster boom of the 1970s was producer Irwin Allen, who would later be dubbed “The Master of Disaster” for his contribution to the genre, but prior to this, he’d spent over a decade working in television where he created and oversaw such classics as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space and it was his astute ability at handling such genre fare that made him the perfect producer for a disaster film of this scope. The most important element of The Poseidon Adventure, aside from the stunning array of stunts and practical effects work, is that this film’s script basically set the template for the disaster genre for years to come, which was to set up a variety of interesting characters prior to the disaster and then make the viewer wonder who would survive to the end credits.
When it comes to this film’s cast of characters screenwriter Stirling Silliphant had his work cut out for him because he had to introduce more than half-a-dozen people before the big wave struck, so as to ensure that we at least cared a little if they lived or died, and that was no easy task considering he had less than thirty minutes to achieve this goal. The leader of this film is Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) a firebrand of a preacher whose rebellious nature and attitude towards religion had resulted in him being stripped of most of his ecclesiastical powers, next, there is Detective Lieutenant Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) who is on his first real vacation with his wife, Linda (Stella Stevens) who’s self-conscious about her former life as a hooker and worried that it could be exposed, then there Belle (Shelley Winters) and Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) who are retiring to Israel where they will finally meet their two-year-old grandson, then we have Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) who is travelling with her younger brother, Robin (Eric Shea), to join their parents. The kid will turn out to be a nautical expert and will get our cast moving in the right direction, and finally, we have Acres (Roddy McDowall) the ship’s steward and Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley) a singer performing at the ship’s New Year’s Eve bash prior to the rogue wave.
Note: The model of the S.S. Poseidon was twenty-three feet long and while that sounds impressive the reason for its size is due to the inability to downscale water for miniature work – which is why model boats have to be large – and some shots do look better than others.
As is the case with most disaster movies, Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure is not what one could call “plot-heavy” as it’s simply a survival story that only needs the most basic set-up, in the case of this film we have an ocean liner that is slated for retirement which is travelling from New York City to Athens, and despite safety concerns from Captain Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), the new owner’s representative Linarcos (Fred Sadoff) insists that they go full speed to save money, which prevents the Poseidon from taking on ballast and thus making it top-heavy when a tsunami strikes the ship and allowing it to roll over. The script by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes was based on the novel by Paul Gallico and its structure follows themes and elements found in Joseph Campbell’s “The Heroes Journey” and Dante’s “The Devine Comedy” with its protagonists going through different levels of Hell, and while the movie is fairly faithful to the source material the screenwriters did make some key changes – in the book Susan is raped by a young, terrified crew member and this moment was wisely excised from the film adaptation – but where in the book, Reverend Scott was rather ruthless with his “Only the strong will survive” mentality, the film tones this down a bit and focuses more on the conflict between Scott and Rogo as these titans of personality are almost more volatile than the exploding boilers and the chemistry between Hackman and Borgnine is one of the film’s best selling points.
• If you’ve booked a New Year’s cruise and you find out that the captain is Leslie Nielsen you should really rethink your holiday plans because the only thing worse than that would be if George Kennedy from the Airport franchise was at the helm.
• The ship’s new owner insisting they go at full speed and not take on ballast, despite warnings from the Captain, was a clear nod to real-life Bruce Ismay who is often portrayed as pressuring Captain Smith to increase the speed of the Titanic in order to arrive in New York ahead of schedule.
• The Purser is portrayed as a “pompous ass” for telling the passengers to remain where they are and wait for rescue, but even if they all agreed with the reverend’s plan there wasn’t enough time to save everyone as the sea began filling the room only seconds after the last of our main castmembers climbed the tree.
• Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowell, Stella Stevens, Shelley Winters, Pamela Sue Martin, Bob Hastings and Leslie Nielsen all later appear on various episodes of The Love Boat after this movie, that this series didn’t end with the Love Boat sinking was a clear missed opportunity.
• Science Note: The roaring fires inside the capsized ship would have used up all the available oxygen and thus the escapees would have suffocated long before rescue, which is also another factor that made the sequel rather ridiculous, but then we wouldn’t have had Michael Caine facing off against Telly Savalas.
Easily one of the dumbest sequel ideas ever produced.
What makes The Poseidon Adventure so memorable is that it perfectly captures the terror of this nightmarish scenario and with this cast of incredible actors filling this wonderfully diverse collection of characters you are able to truly care for them as they flee through the bowels of the ship, even hysterical Nonnie manages to avoid being too annoying, which makes this film more than a simple disaster movie but an exploration of faith and determination. Of course, even a cast of Oscar winners isn’t enough to guarantee your disaster film will be a hit, Irwin Allen’s box office bomb The Swarm can attest to that, for it to work you have to have nail-biting scenes of peril and spectacle that are achieved by great stunt work and contain unique and unforgettable set pieces, and in that area, The Poseidon Adventure is unparalleled.
Now, does the moralizing of the script get a little heavy-handed at times, sure, but as this movie is basically an operetta of death and destruction this kind of take on the subject matter actually works and director Ronald Neame was able to balance such elements perfectly. Ronald Neame wasn’t even known for big action spectacles, one of his most notable works was the musical Scrooge with Albert Finney, but he was recruited to direct The Poseidon Adventure after the contracted director left the production and it turned out to be an inspired choice as his handles of the action, as well as such a diverse collection of actors, made him an ideal choice to helm such a feature, then you add music from legendary composer John Williams and it’s no surprise that this thing has become a classic. Some may find this film to be a little formulaic but one should take into account that it was the movie that set the formula for all that would follow, and if you can’t get enjoyment out of Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine blasting away at each other that this probably isn’t the film for you, but if intense drama amongst a topsy-turvy world of rising water and fiery death is up your alley, then The Poseidon Adventure will be right up your alley.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Movie Rank - 8/10
Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure is the Gold Standard when it comes to disaster films, modern entries like San Andreas and Deep Impact owe a debt to the “Master of Disaster” that can never be repaid, and while some may call this film a bit overly melodramatic one cannot deny it is an amazing stunt spectacular and a visual masterpiece of death and destruction