The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
“At midnight on New Year’s Eve the S.S.Poseidon was struck by a 90 foot tidal wave and capsized.”
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Director: Ronald Neame
Cast: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters
Synopsis: A group of passengers struggle to survive and escape when their ocean liner completely capsizes at sea.
The early 1970s saw the advent of a new bandwagon known as the disaster movie, which, in one form or another, has been with us ever since – particularly since the breakthrough of CGI and the Syfy channel’s decision to bombard its viewers with crap movies about the end of the world. Back in 1972, though, the sub-genre still retained a sheen of respectability, and attracted well-known stars – albeit many of whom had seen better days – and reasonable budgets. Script was already secondary to spectacle, but at least back then the writers still made some kind of effort to give life to their characters. In 1972, The Poseidon Adventure – unlike the cruise ship after which it was named – rode the crest of this wave of popularity to score a solid box office success. It was produced by Irwin Allen, the king of the disaster movies, who went on to produce The Towering Inferno (1974) before sullying his reputation somewhat with The Swarm (1978) and then Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), the ill-advised sequel to this movie.
The Poseidon Adventure boasts the usual cast of characters for this kind of movie. There’s Reverand Scott (Gene Hackman – Bonnie and Clyde, Zandy’s Bride), an unconventional preacher who assumes charge of a ragged band of survivors (that’s right – after a biblical-scale disaster the holy man guides his flock to safety; trust me, religious metaphors abound in The Poseidon Adventure). Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch, Rail Kings), over-acting for all he’s worth, is Rogo, a retired police chief who is clearly unused to taking orders from anyone, let alone a man of the cloth. Rogo is married to an ex-prostitute (Stella Stevens – The Nutty Professor) terrified that her fellow guests will somehow uncover her chequered past. Other guests who will find themselves fleeing from a watery grave before their New Year’s celebrations are complete include the Rosen’s, Belle (Shelley Winters – A Double Life) and Manny (Jack Albertson – The Harder They Fall, The Patsy), a Jewish couple on their way to Israel to see their grandchildren for the first time; Martin (Red Buttons), a retiring bachelor; Nonnie (Carol Lynley – The Four Deuces) the singer with the ship’s resident band, and Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) and Robin (Eric Shea), a pair of young siblings travelling without their parents. This plucky band of survivors, together with Scottish waiter Acres (Roddy McDowall – How Green Was My Valley, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin – struggling in vain to tame a runaway accent), must overcome a series of obstacles as they strive to travel upwards to the hull of the overturned liner before the sea claims them.
For a relatively new sub-genre, The Poseidon Adventure employs a depressingly over-familiar cast of characters which, together with the right-on 1970s fashions, make the film look even more dated than you’d expect of a movie made when flares and tank-tops were king. There’s also not much effort put into making these people particularly likeable, either. Scott and Rogo become embroiled in a conflict which is mostly just a series of shouting matches that casts neither of them in a good light, and Nonnie has to be the most annoyingly helpless lump ever committed to celluloid. She can’t swim, she can’t climb ladders, she has a worrying attachment to her dead brother, and she can’t do anything to help herself so that, long before the hardy band of survivors draw near to their goal, you find yourself wishing they’d just leave her to fend for herself, thereby immeasurably improving their own chances of survival immeasurably.
Despite these annoyances, The Poseidon Adventure provides some solid entertainment, and isn’t always predictable when deciding who will or won’t survive. After 40 years, the special effects still hold up pretty well, although the famous capsize scene seems comparatively short when viewed in this age of CGI effects, and the ship seems improbably calm immediately after the disaster despite being semi-submerged in what must still have been turbulent waters.
(Reviewed 28th March 2015)