20th Century Fox
Directed by Ronald Neame
Produced by Irwin Allen
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes
Based on the novel “The Poseidon Adventure” by Paul Gallico
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE didn’t create The Disaster Movie genre. If you go all the way back to 1937 you can find “The Hurricane” which I suppose could classify as a Disaster Movie since the climax involves the mother of all hurricanes devastating a South Seas island paradise. But even though it may not have created the genre, over time it has emerged as the undisputed Champion of Disaster Movies. Yes, there have been Disaster Movies with far bigger budgets, more spectacular special effects, better received by critics and have grossed more at the box office. But I guarantee that if you ask anybody what their favorite Disaster Movie is, they’ll say THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. It’s the “Citizen Kane” “Gone With The Wind” and “Star Wars” of Disaster Movies.
The S.S. Poseidon is on her last voyage. This luxury liner, once the queen of the ocean has been retired and is scheduled to be scrapped. She’s heading from New York to Athens at full speed at the insistence of Mr. Linarcos (Fred Sadoff) who represents the ship’s new owners. The Poseidon’s captain (Leslie Nielson) warns that the ship is heading into rough weather and does not have enough ballast to ride out a severe storm.
During the New Year’s Eve celebration, The Poseidon is indeed hit by a tsunami that capsizes the ocean liner. Despite the insistence of the ship’s purser that help will be coming, a small group elects to undertake a perilous escape route through the now upside down vessel from the dining hall to the hull and hopefully they will be able to get out near the propeller shaft where the hull is the thinnest. Their decision proves to be the right one since it is quickly and horrifyingly apparent that The Poseidon is sinking. Slowly, yes, but still sinking.
The group is led by the charismatic yet heretical Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman). Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) is a tough, old school NYPD detective. His wife Linda (Stella Stevens) is an ex-prostitute he married to keep her off the streets. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother Robin (Eric Shea) are travelling by themselves, on their way to meet their parents. Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) are a retired Jewish couple going to Israel to meet their two-year old grandson for the first time. James Martin (Red Buttons) is a lonely, shy man who seems like the last person in the world who would go on a trip like this. Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley) was the lead singer of the band entertaining during the celebration. Acres (Roddy McDowell) is a waiter who’s knowledge of the ship is essential to the group’s survival. It’s a desperate race against time and it tests the group to the limits of their spiritual and physical strength. Some of them rise to the challenge. Some don’t. Some live and some die.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is one of those movies that I simply will not hear a bad word against. I saw this in the theater way back in 1972 and I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. I watched it today on Turner Classic Movies for what must have been the twentieth time and I was still just as engrossed in the characters and the story as I was the first time.
The performances are absolutely first rate. You’ve got no less than five Academy Award winners in the cast and they all give it all they’ve got. And it’s the performances that sell the movie as everybody takes this material as serious as cancer. Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine are especially good fun to watch as they bark and bite at each other like junkyard dogs. Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson may come off at first as if they’re playing a stereotypical old married Jewish couple but they get in nice little bits of characterization that display a lot of understanding of this particular type of couple they’re playing.
And yes, this is the movie where Shelley Winters gets to play one of the greatest, most classic death scenes of all time. And the reason why it’s so great is that Shelley Winters knew what she was doing with Belle in each and every scene that leads up to the death scene. So by the time we get to it, it’s a real gut punch. Yeah, other people die in the movie but it’s the death of Belle Rosen that we actually feel.
But it’s Red Buttons that always stands out for me. I can’t say that I’ve ever been a fan of his comedic roles or his stand-up. But when he’s in a dramatic role I can’t take my eyes off him. His quiet little haberdasher character surprisingly turns out to be quite the man of action when he’s put to the test and I really like the scene where he’s the one who jumps in between Reverend Scott and Mike Rogo when they’re about to come to blows and makes them stop their squabbling. And when Mike Rogo has given up and Susan breaks down into hysterics, it’s James Martin who steps up to the plate and takes charge.
Technically you couldn’t ask for anything better. It must have been an absolute nightmare to have filmed on those upside down sets, many of them filled with fire or water or in some cases fire and water. And it’s obvious that the cast did a whole lot of their own stunts, especially Shelley Winters and Gene Hackman in those truly tense underwater scenes. And of course everybody knows the iconic theme song; “The Morning After” but did you know that the movie’s score was composed and conducted by a young up and coming composer named John Williams?
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is one of those movies that I simply cannot imagine anybody who claims to love movies saying that they’ve never seen it. It’s got a preposterous premise that is given real life and real suspense by the superior performances of the cast and the technical expertise that totally convinces you of what you’re seeing on the screen. It’s quite simply one of the best movies of its kind ever made and there’s a good reason it enjoys the reputation it enjoys today. It earned it.