‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972): 50 years later, disaster epic still an all-star of the era

It was unquestionably the perfect drive-in double feature: The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. I can still see those remarkably evocative posters hanging up in the the late, great Jesse James Drive-In‘s faux-wooden bunkhouse/concession stand, waiting to get my Chinese eggroll with the cartoon on the wrapper and an orange drink (“Easy on the ice—I don’t want it watered down,”). To say I was excited would be the understatement of the year (apparently, when I was told we were going, I entered into a fugue state that only abated when they waved the newspaper movie listings under my nose).

By Paul Mavis

How those movies made any kind of impact on viewers back then was remarkable, considering half the time you couldn’t see the screen, or hear the tinny sound coming from that 50lb box speaker hanging off your window. But somehow they did, particularly two blockbusters like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure: I can close my eyes and still see those movies through our Pontiac Bonneville station wagon windshield, and see the rapt faces of the ticket buyers in the cars around me, staring up at the huge screen (except for that one couple I thought were wrestling until the old man ordered me not to look…while he watched), and hear their scattered laughs and cheers and gasps, rolling along the warm summer air.

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It’s hard to believe, but this December 13 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, the all-star disaster epic from 20th Century-Fox and producer Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen, starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, Pamela Sue Martin, Arthur O’Connell, Eric Shea, and Leslie Nielsen. The second highest-grossing movie of 1972 (and still among the 100 highest grossing movies of all time, adjusted for inflation), The Poseidon Adventure is still a wow of technically-brilliant spectacle and deliciously hammy/movingly real histrionics. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised there wasn’t an effort to re-release this in theaters (even on a small scale) for the 50th anniversary (after all, we can’t displace one of those empty theater-showings of Whykantawemakeathegoodmoviesanymore Forever), but the fact that there’s no 4K Blu out yet for The Poseidon Adventure, is criminal.

That grand old lady, the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon, is making her final holiday crossing from New York to Athens, where she’ll be sold for scrap and torn apart. Her pilot, Captain Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), has become increasingly worried about the voyage, due to the breakdown of the ship’s main pump; they can’t take on ballast to steady the ship in the sea’s increasingly rough waters. Not that fixing the pump will matter, anyway; the liner’s new owners, represented on-board by snotty, officious Linarcos (Fred Sadoff), have ordered full-speed ahead, and damn the risks. Every minute wasted in the Atlantic is money burned by the waiting salvage crews. And if Harrison doesn’t like it, Linarcos has the authority to relieve him of command and put a junior officer in as captain.

Passengers for the Poseidon‘s New Year’s Eve voyage include just-this-side-of-being-an-aethist preacher, Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a brawling, bellicose blowhard who’s heretical message is, “Screw God; he doesn’t care about you, anyway…you’re on your own!”, a trendy self-help attitude that dismays his mummified colleague, Chaplain John (Arthur O’Connell); absolutely screaming from minute one NYPD Detective Lieutenant Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his equally vocal new wife, ex-hooker/forever-a-looker Linda (Stella Stevens); lonely, older New York haberdasher James Martin (Red Buttons), whose only friends are his vitamin pills; leggy, faintly dim hippie singer Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), whose brother’s band is playing the Poseidon main lounge in exchange for passage; completely ineffectual ship’s waiter Acres (Roddy McDowall); New York Jewish couple Belle and Manny Rosen (Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson), on their way to Israel to see their grandson; and obnoxious little brat Robin Shelby (Eric Shea), who’s being accompanied by his gorgeous 19-year-old sister, Susan (Pamela Sue Martin), who, every time she sees Reverend Scott, discreetly inquires of the purser where she can get her panties laundered.

Just before the New Year’s Eve celebrations get into full swing, the Captain is called to the Poseidon’s bridge: an urgent report has been received of a 7.8 Richter sub-sea earthquake 130 miles northwest of Crete. Harrison immediately has all hatches battened down, while his lookouts scan for rogue waves. As midnight strikes, the passengers of the S.S. Poseidon joyously sing Auld Lang Syne before their world is literally turned upside down: an enormous wall of water strikes the ship and capsizes it. Now, Reverend Scott, battling not only the physical obstacles present in a sinking capsized ship but also the doubts and fears and hysteria of his charges, has to convince the survivors that they must climb up through the bottom of the ship, if there’s any possibility of rescue.

I’ve written ad nauseam about the disaster genre and my particular love of its 1970s golden era (getting tired of it? You are? Screw, baby), but no discussion of this group of movies would be complete without a look at one of the best examples, The Poseidon Adventure. Despite some “pop culture authorities” (blech) stating flatly that The Poseidon Adventure kicked off that decade’s obsession with the genre, obviously 1970’s Airport, and its remarkable box office success during a year when such supposedly “old fashioned” entertainment wasn’t supposed to succeed with jaded, younger audiences, was the impetus for getting studios thinking about putting glamorous people in such outsized, deadly situations.

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The Poseidon Adventure‘s enormous box office take, however, did get the ball rolling for the disaster genre—which had been around forever, certainly way, way before Airport—to be the movie fad of the early to mid-70s (until Star Wars came along and screwed everything up). Certainly first, the unique spectacle of The Poseidon Adventure‘s dramatic set-up—people trapped in a capsized ocean liner—helped with attracting such a large audience. Whereas Airport‘s aviation peril was already well-worn (for example, John Wayne had a big hit in 1954 with the similarly-constructed The High and the Mighty), The Poseidon Adventure‘s approach of having its victims race against the ship sinking, their escape efforts hindered by having to navigate it upsidedown, brought a novel twist to standard ship-sinking dramas like 1953’s Titanic or 1960’s excellent, little-seen The Last Voyage.

As well, the “spot the celebrity victim” nature of The Poseidon Adventure‘s Oscar-winning all-star cast was certainly a publicity draw. During production, Hackman won the Best Actor Oscar for 1971’s smash, The French Connection (back when winning an Oscar could actually translate into terms of people seeking out the actor’s next gig), while co-stars Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson and Red Buttons already had their gold statuettes—a heady group in terms of p.r. for a “mere” thriller. Add to that a script focusing on only a handful of essentially likable characters (with some glaring faults, of course), and putting them in a pressure-cooker situation that exacerbates their already-scratchy dynamics, and the result is a set of screen types who come across as far more human and relatable than was standard for this kind of outing. By the close of The Poseidon Adventure, we’re actually rooting for these people (by contrast, we don’t care if the people live or die in the technically more grandiose but emotionally far colder The Towering Inferno).

And unlike previous disaster outings, where the special effects were reserved for a spectacular grand finale (something like 1936’s San Francisco or 1938’s In Old Chicago), The Poseidon Adventure gets right to the disaster, early on (that ship model may look like a model, but it still looks better than CGI), and then sticks to it, as the passengers fight for survival in the well-paced, beautifully-executed set pieces. Whereas Airport was a lot of glamor and a lot of personal drama, punctuated by an exploding bomb and an emergency landing near the movie’s end, The Poseidon Adventure hits the nitrous oxide early and keeps its foot on the gas pedal, never letting up the on the mounting tension and suspense. All of these elements combined to make The Poseidon Adventure go to the highest level of “must see” audience awareness in 1972.

Perhaps that last one is key to The Poseidon Adventure‘s success: it’s relentlessness. A lot of admirers of the movie point to the central conflict of Hackman’s character and his fuzzy mumbo-jumbo relationship with God and personal will, and his subsequent battle with the other passengers to see things his way, as the movie’s core dramatic element. However, it’s actually far more simple than that: those people have to climb up above the ever-rising water, and keep climbing…and there’s absolutely no guarantee they’ll all make it, or if there’s even going to be a rescue at the end.

It’s a primal fear: they’re trapped underwater, in dark, confined, dangerous spaces, and they have to claw their way like animals to the surface. Screenwriters Stirling Silliphant‘s and Wendell Mayes’ pissing contest between Hackman, God and Borgnine (in that order, apparently); Stevens’ fears about being recognized as a prostitute; Button’s loneliness; Winters and Albertson entering a new phase of their long life together—all of that helps expand the characters (aided enormously by those old pros’ expert limning). But what keeps The Poseidon Adventure‘s center pulsating is that elemental drive to survive, to live, to just keep one step ahead of the waters that don’t stop rising, an existential crisis manifested in concrete, punishing physical form.

There’s no doubt that producer Irwin Allen, used to being completely in charge of his television projects like Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, had frequent conflict with The Poseidon Adventure‘s actual director, the notable Ronald Neame (marvelous movies like The Man Who Never Was, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the musical Scrooge). As in: dipping his beak where it didn’t belong (apparently, Allen couldn’t stop offering his direction to the actors, which they didn’t like and which drove Neame crazy). Seeing Allen’s dire self-directed outings (The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, When Time Ran Out…), it’s clear The Poseidon Adventure was largely protected from him by Neame. Still, it’s a mistake to not give substantial credit to Allen for orchestrating The Poseidon Adventure‘s overall polished production.

The Poseidon Adventure may have had a surprisingly small budget for that time (less than $5 million, remarkably, mostly because Fox was still in appalling financial straits in 1971), but it certainly looks ultra-smooth (thanks in no small measure to silky lensing from cinematographer Harold E. Stine). Neame (or Allen, or both) had a knack for getting shots that impart a real sense of scale to the proceedings, such as that early shot through the bridge windscreen, which shows the ship listing sickeningly to port, or that remarkable shot of the partygoers hanging off upsidedown tables 30 feet in the air, with dirt and dust and glitter whirling in the air (the actual capsizing is a terrific montage of tilted shots mixed with big gags, like the piano crashing straight down into the ceiling, and actor-turned-stuntman Ernie Orsatti’s crazy backward fall into a light fixture—check out his head realistically quivering with fear before he drops). All the gags are achieved practically (little or no opticals), with gimbaled sets, Dutch angles, gyroed cameras creating a rolling ship feel, and actors merely throwing themselves around the set give an illusion of realism that even famed German director Wolfgang Petersen couldn’t approximate with a huge budget and a bank of CGI computers for his ludicrous 2006 Poseidon remake (don’t forget John Williams’ heroic, forbidding, even sinister Herrmann-esque score, like something out of Homer’s Ulysses).

Particularly noteworthy is the movie’s expert lateral movement, often within the scenes themselves, between action and humor then back again, critical to letting us catch a breather from tension. One of the reasons The Poseidon Adventure has continued to maintain such a sizeable cult following (while The Towering Inferno or Earthquake have not) is the sheer number of funny lines and their readings from this expert group of actors. No question Stella Stevens (who should have been nominated for an Oscar) gets the biggest laughs here, screaming right back in the unhinged face of Ernest Borgnine such classics as, “I’m busy in here!” as we hear the toilet flush, and the unforgettable, “Fercrissakes I know what to do with suppositories!” (one of the single most criminally underutilized actresses of the 60s and 70s). Ernest Borgnine, apparently deciding it was best to start bellowing after his second onscreen line, is a remarkable counterpoint to Stevens—they’re both yelling like crazy, but who else but Borgnine could make this character not only likeable, but even loveable?

Speaking of loveable, Red Buttons plays “adorable” as if his life depended on it (let’s face it: he wins The Poseidon Adventure. Everyone else either dies or loses someone or comes out even-steven, but he’s up one, getting a shot at Carol Lynley). Winters, who was nominated (but lost to a lesser performance by Eileen Heckart in Butterflies are Free) is rather miraculous here at times (as only she could be), wavering between this side of crudeness (popping up out of the Christmas tree after Hackman gets a handful of that huge ass, she emphatically states, “Mrs. Peter Pan I’m not,” to huge laughs), and a most delicate kind of emoting (her first scene with Albertson, after the capsizing—who doesn’t have nearly as much to do here—is beautifully, tenderly understated).

The rest of the actors, for the most part, do quite well, too (only poor Roddy McDowall is truly given the shaft—couldn’t resist—with a totally thankless role). Pamela Sue Martin, only 19 years old with very little experience, holds her own with what must have certainly seemed like some intimidating talents, while little Eric Shea comes off just the way he should: a smart, obnoxious little kid with spunk and guts (his “Shove it! Shove it! Shove it!” is a particular favorite among the Mavis smallfry). Carol Lynley, for some unknown reason, often gets flack from hardcore Poseidon cultists, but perhaps they’re mixing up the actress with the character: who doesn’t want to slap Nonnie around at least once (just climb up the freaking ladder, Nonnie!). When she’s given a chance, she’s quite effective, as in her short scene, talking about her dead brother (and she’s easy on the eyes, too, which should never be dismissed in an actress or actor).

Too bad about Hackman, though. Listen, nobody loves his “Popeye” Doyle character more than me (there are too many superlative performances from this icon to even begin to list), but clearly he has contempt for his role here, and frankly it shows. He’s yelling like Borgnine, but Borgnine revels in it; Hackman just looks embarrassed with himself (Hackman himself has made it clear over the years how little he thinks of this movie and his role in it). He’s certainly not helped with the dialogue given to him, nor with the overall conception of the character; it’s a perversely off-putting anti-hero hero (the way Hackman plays him, he doesn’t give a sh*t about the people that won’t follow him—it’s about obeying him, not really saving anyone), but one that Hackman breathes no real life into (nor, critically, any humor). When an actor is actually given a piece of self-describing dialogue that goes like, “The best kind [of ordained minister]: angry, rebellious, critical, a renegade, stripped of most of my so-called clerical powers,” what else can they do but try and avoid looking down at the floor in shame? It’s one of Hackman’s worst performances…but in terms of The Poseidon Adventure‘s gamey hamminess, it’s a pure delight.

And just a quick note about poor laughed-at Leslie Nielsen. After Airplane! came out, it’s been impossible for many viewers to watch his turn in The Poseidon Adventure and not laugh at every single line reading he has. That’s a shame, because prior to that limiting context, his resolutely non-humorous turn was precisely what was needed to set the entire plot in motion: an authority figure we naturally trusted, forced against his own better judgement to do precisely what he knew was wrong. We wouldn’t feel any of the impending dread for the Poseidon‘s fate if Nielsen didn’t convey that assured authority-turning-to-impotence when he realizes disaster is inevitable (I don’t think anyone short of Charlton Heston could match his awed, frightened line delivery on, “Oh my god,” when he sees the wall of water coming for the ship). Too bad everyone laughs at him now.

There are other unintentional laughs in The Poseidon Adventure, which no doubt delight fans looking for camp aspects (I can enjoy laughing at it as much as I like taking it seriously). Did anyone actually look up what rogue waves and tsunamis are, because they combine them here (a sub-sea earthquake would produce an unseen tsunami, deep underwater, but not a huge, visible rogue wave that would capsize a ship). Are those the brightest emergency lights ever? Even underwater? How about Winters’ laughably convenient medal for being NYC Underwater Swimming champ…three years running (that’s the laziest scripting ever, and totally unnecessary)? I always crack up at the cranks who bitch about the hot women losing their skirts, but they never say anything about hunk Hackman’s snug turtleneck over his muscley body (paraphrasing the wife). Speaking of Hackman and medals, he wins the Best Cinematic Loogie Toss of the 20th Century when he lays one right on Winter’s face (a title previously held by spittle-throwing lunatic Richard Widmark in Judgement at Nuremberg). And my favorite: the sound editor politely turning off the screams of the people drowning in the ballroom, so we can quit imagining their real horrors and get back to enjoying the movie, guilt-free. An easy task, with something so close to perfection like The Poseidon Adventure.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

6 thoughts on “‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972): 50 years later, disaster epic still an all-star of the era

  1. British fan here, my late father took me to see it at my local cinema, think it might have been Christmas but maybe early 1973, I was 14 and absolutely loved it, a great fan of Ernie Borgnine anyway. Watched it on Netflix recently but of course it needs to be seen on the big screen, never get tired of watching, it’s that excellent

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      1. Embargoed? No worries in the UK, yes, deserves a release, a new generation who must be fed up with Marvel and DC films, not every film needs the green screen 🙂

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  2. Ten year old me was quite moved by Winters’ death scene, and by the blessing conferred on her by Buttons as the group moves on without her.

    Ten year old me was also quite moved (for entirely different reasons) by Stevens’ revelation that she was only wearing panties under her gown.

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  3. Hackman’s character is toned down and a lot more heroic than he was in the original Paul Gallico novel and the first draft Wendell Mayes script (the final script of the film is all Silliphant. Allen threw out Mayes’s first draft which followed the novel closely and Silliphant started from scratch). In that one, his sense of ego about wanting to lead is what drives him, and the ugly twist is that in the end his ego crusade is for nothing because when the survivors exit the shaft, the ones who stayed behind in the dining room have been picked up and are all still neatly dressed! There was also a disturbing scene of Susan getting lost in the dark and getting raped by a frightened steward (and in the Mayes draft it was Martin!) and we also had a prim Englishwoman librarian with a secret infatuation with Scott (Susan’s fascination with Scott is the one remaining vestige of this character) and the ultimate howler of the Mayes script is that when they reach the shaft they’ve got nothing to bang against the hull so they all start singing “Roll Out The Barrel” at the top of their voices! Thankfully Silliphant refused to be bound by the structure of the novel and basically retained the general concepts of the characters, stripped of their more dislikable aspects and gave us a much better screen story that in the hands of a good director who got some good performances out of the actors created a true classic.

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