Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens and Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.
The Poseidon Adventure is the quintessential 'Disaster Movie' of the 1970s.
It tells the story of a handful of passengers aboard a luxury liner making its final voyage before being sent to the scrap yard. A giant wave caused by an underwater earthquake capsizes the ship just minutes after midnight on New Year's Eve. The only chance for survival is for the passengers to make their way “up" to the ship's hull where the steel is one inch thick.
Several things make this a great movie.
One is the sets and the way the cast of characters make their way through the upside down ship. Their journey through this sinking maze is fraught with danger. It is brilliantly conceived and executed. Just who will survive and who will perish?
The most important ingredients are the script and the all-star cast. The talented actors in the cast bring these fully fleshed-out characters to life. You desperately want to see them all live but you just know that they all can't make it out alive.
Gene Hackman is a rather unorthodox minister who assumes the role of group leader. Ernest Borgnine is a cop on his honeymoon with his ex-hooker wife (Stella Stevens), he provides the muscle. Red Buttons is a mild mannered bachelor who takes it upon himself to save an hysterical young woman (Carol Lynley). Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea are a young sister and brother going to meet their parents in Greece. Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are an older Jewish couple on their way to Israel to see their grandson. Roddy McDowall is one of the ship's waiters.
Several scenes in The Poseidon Adventure have become classics. One is when they use a giant Christmas Tree to climb out of the ship's grand ballroom. The other is Shelley Winters' swim to save Gene Hackman when he gets trapped underwater. After rescuing him she says, "You see, Mr. Scott? In the water I'm a very skinny lady." A great moment in a great movie.
'You can make it. Keep going. Rogo! Get them through.'
The Poseidon Adventure shouldn't be as enjoyable as it is. The tacky 1970s clothes, the melodramatic moments and very intense acting borders on campiness, and yet somehow it holds its garishness in check and keeps you invested in these characters right up until the end. Watching it again for the I don't know how many times, I found myself laughing at the sometimes silliness of it all, but still rooting strongly for them all to survive even though I knew, of course, which ones would live and which ones would die.
Part of my affection stems from the fact that this was a favorite movie around our house when we were kids. It was one of those movies, in those pre-cable, pre-VCR, and light years pre-internet days that we would always try to watch when it came on television. You see kids, back in the olden days you had to watch whatever the television programmers wanted you to watch. Crazy, I know. In my memory it seems as if we watched it dozens of times, but it can't have been more than a few really.
What makes the story work is the characters and the actors who portray them. We are presented with a group of very distinctly drawn personalities, in some cases almost caricatures. Leading the group is the fiery Reverend Scott played by Gene Hackman and his magnificent comb-over. Tagging after him with a crush as hot as her hot pants is a young Pamela Sue Martin and her smart aleck young brother, whose geeky knowledge of the ship comes in very handy. You've got the gruff cop and his hot, former prostitute, wife. There's the confirmed bachelor and the hot young singer he picks up along the way. Then there's the old Jewish man and his...well, okay, not hot wife, but she is a scene stealer as played by Shelly Winters who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance. Lastly there's the waiter played by Roddy MacDowell, who, after providing some necessary info, is given the shaft. All of the characters are given a moment or two in the spotlight and each are quite distinctive.
Reportedly, this wasn't one of Hackman's favorite movies and he rarely talks about it. I actually think he does a very good job. He manages to convey a self confident exterior while revealing in a few quiet moments that maybe he's not so sure of himself after all. Borgnine is equally good. The back and forth between him and Hackman is one of the highlights of the movie.
While those two heavyweights dominate the story, there are two female characters who do their best to steal it away from them. Shelley Winters is, of course, terrific as the overweight Mrs. Rosen schlepping her body around the ship. Her big moment in the water always makes me laugh and feel sad at the same time. The other scene stealer is Stella Stevens. She gets some of the movie's funniest lines including the classic, " I'm going next. So if ole' fat ass gets stuck, I won't get stuck behind her." in reference to Mrs. Rosen.
There have been many disaster movies made since 1972, including a remake of this one, but I'm not sure any has ever equaled it in terms of sheer enjoyment. Patrick called it "the quintessential Disaster Movie of the 1970s", but I wouldn't limit it to just that decade. I say it's the quintessential Disaster Movie of all time.
Stella Stevens, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, Shelly Winters, Red Buttons and Eric Shea in The Poseidon Adventure
The character I remembered the most from watching this as a child, and obviously related to, was that of Robin Shelby. With only his sister's supervision, he seemed like he had the run of the ship. Not only did he represent freedom to me but he was a direct asset to the groups survival. It was he who announces where the ship's hull is only an inch thick. He was not just some whiny kid needing saving, he was helping to do the saving.
He spouts information at random intervals. "The Andria Doria stayed afloat ten hours before she sank." My favorite line of his is when he is helping to lift Shelly Winters up some stairs and says, "It's all right Mrs Rosen I helped my dad pull in a 600 pound sword fish off Hawaii." It takes him a few minutes to realize what he said and later apologizes to her.
For about ten years, Eric Shea was a very busy child actor. He appeared in several movies but did most of his work on television shows. His familiar face popped up on such shows as "Batman", "Gunsmoke," "The Brady Bunch" and a favorite around our childhood home, "Little House on the Prairie." His acting career did not continue into adulthood, but he did become quite a familiar face to a generation.
With this viewing I enjoyed other aspects. With the exception of the obvious model used to show the Poseidon at sea, the sets Patrick mentioned are very well detailed. Try watching the movie upside down. I also agree with my brothers that the cast is mostly great. Pamela Sue Martin being the weakest link. Her acting in the scene where she tells everyone she thinks Reverend Scott is gone is horribly amateurish.
The characters I enjoyed the most this time around were Mr and Mrs Rosen. They come across as a very real couple entering their twilight years. Shelly Winters and Jack Albertson play off each other with loving familiarity. They are the true heart of the story, representing to the other younger survivors that a long life is worth fighting for, especially if you have someone to share it with.
So many films fail to live up to a childhood memory but The Poseidon Adventure exceeded it. The adventurous and deadly trek through the ships bowels still kept me at the edge of my seat. I could not remember exactly who would and who would not make it out. As Scott wrote, the characters are all well defined and we get to know most of them very well. It hurts to see any of them die. The Poseidon Adventure is a truly great film.
Photos © Copyright Twentieth Century Fox (1972)