Retro Cinema: The Poseidon Adventure Published in City Monthly Magazine June 2004

Hell, Upside Down
Sit Down you're rocking the boat

"The Poseidon Adventure" (1972)

"At midnight on New Year's Eve, the SS Poseidon, en route from New York to Athens, met with disaster and was lost. There were only a handful of survivors. This is their story..."

"The Poseidon Adventure" was one of most well known of a huge wave (get it?) of disaster movies that dominated the movie industry throughout the 70's. Produced by Irwin Allen, it was a hallmark of it's kind; an event movie with a star studded cast and a somewhat thin plot, plus big sets, bigger hair styles and plenty of screaming and explosions.

"The Poseidon Adventure" was Gene Hackman's 21st movie, having been nominated for 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde" (also starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty) and having just won Best Actor for "The French Connection" (1971). Twenty five years later, in "The Birdcage" (1996), Hackman plays an uptight rightwing politician who faces some harrowing issues in a blonde wig and pumps, dancing in a South Beach drag bar. He was also a corrupt mayor in the wonderful but underrated modern western "The Quick and the Dead" (1995), starring Russell Crowe as a somewhat renegade preacher, and directed by Sam Raimi, who is currently directing the "Spider-Man" trilogy.

Hackman won best actor for his performance as the corrupt Sherriff Daggett in Clint Eastwood's career masterpiece, "The Unforgiven" (1992). In this movie he plays a somewhat renegade preacher, Reverend Scott, in a tan turtleneck, furry sideburns and a comb over, reminding me of Kevin Spacey as the timid school teacher Eugene Simonet in "Pay It Forward" (2000), but with considerably more moxy.

Ernest Borgnine, eyes bugged out and in full scene chewing mode, stars as a cranky, burly cop who has arrested a voluptuous blonde bombshell hooker (Stella Stevens) six times, explaining, "I had to figure out some way to keep you off the streets until you'd marry me." While Stevens flits around in little more than her husband's oversized dress shirt, Borgnine and Hackman are constantly at odds with each other, but Hackman emerges quickly as the passionate leader and Christ-like savior of the flock.

Roddy McDowell started acting at age ten, and had a long career as a child actor in movies and on Broadway. Most of the 70's were spent in simian make-up for the successful film and tv series, "Planet of the Apes". "Apes" was such an integral part of my adolescence, and Roddy was so perfect for the role, that he will forever be Cornelius to me. Whenever I see him out of the monkey makeup, he seems odd, like he's missing something. Cornelius reminds me of C-3PO from "Star Wars"; they both have a similar grace and attitude. Here he plays vaguely Scottish waiter Acres, in an understated yet integral role - he's the only one who knows his way through the ship, or what's left of it.

In 1977 Pamela Sue Martin was TV's "Nancy Drew", teaming up with "Hardy Boys" Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, solving mysteries and undoing wrong-doings every Sunday night. Pamela quit the series over creative differences, and went on to play Fallon Carrington Colby in "Dynasty". She was killed off in a car crash but then revived in the form of Emma Samms on "The Colbys", a late 80's "Dynasty" spin off. Pamela was always in style, and in 1972, hot pants were the big thing (or little things, actually). In her film debut, Pamela has the reddest, hottest ones in town, which come with a convenient snap off train, in case you need to climb up a metal Christmas tree to save your life (this will come in handy later on).

Leslie Nielsen had already been acting in films for twenty years before he was cast as the dead serious captain of the doomed SS Poseidon, and would go on to become even more famous spoofing himself and the genre in 1980's "Airplane" and it's many sequels, marking the beginning of a new genre in film, the parody of the disaster movie. The Poseidon, named after the God of the Sea, is on its final voyage, and several days behind schedule. The greedy owner is pressuring the captain to have less than desirable ballast and to push faster than safety allows. As a result, the ship is top heavy.

Just as the party-goers are finishing up with "Auld Lang Syne", a 90 foot tidal wave hits the boat and washes poor Leslie Nielsen and all the other officers right off the deck, capsizing the vessel. It's the best part of the movie. The massive ballroom starts tipping and all the partiers start to slip and slide. Lots of screaming and glass breaking ensues, to much dramatic effect. The grand piano slides across the room and crushes a handful of guests. The huge metal Christmas tree (so popular in 1972) tips over and takes out several more passengers. The boat eventually flips completely upside down, so the tables are hanging on the ceiling and the chandeliers (and all the passengers, most of them mangled and/or weeping) are on the floor.

They decide that the only way out is through the bottom of the boat (the hull), where the steel is only one inch thick (only?) so they slowly work their way past the charred corpses and fiery broken gas valves, up through the perilous remains of the ship, which is all the while slowly filling up with water. If you have claustrophobia (like me), that is the worst part. The passengers have to climb through small metal corridors and hatches that would make me pass out on flat dry land, let alone sideways and upside down with water filling up from the other end.

The sets in the bowels of the ship reminded me of the tram ride at Universal Studios, specifically the Backdraft adventure, and the Earthquake adventure. Or a Marilyn Manson video, with drippy, corroded sheet metal and oddly angled steel pipes. Lots of hissing steam and ominous looking flames, and every now and then (mostly at inopportune moments) the whole thing shakes or tips, and bad turns to worse.

Shelley Winters had been acting since 1943, and had won an Oscar for the "Diary of Anne Frank" in 1959, She won a Golden Globe and another Oscar here, gaining 35 pounds and teasing her hair to within an inch of its life, for her portrayal of Belle Rosen in "The Poseidon Adventure". In the movie's most notorious scene, she uses her high school swim team training to get the survivors through a perilous underwater predicament, during which her dress floats up to reveal her plus size posterior. I was reminded that Kathy Bates won an Oscar revealing only slightly more of herself in the jacuzzi with Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt" (2002). (Mental note: fat + naked = Oscar? There's still hope!)

Gene Hackman, at the climax of the film, has a crisis of faith that reminds me of Mel Gibson as Reverend Graham Hess in the most excellent M. Night Shyamalan film, "Signs" (2002), which is not about what you think it's about. Or, at least, it's about more than what you think it's about. Anyway, Hackman, facing a particularly trying obstacle, starts shouting, "What more do you want from us. Leave us alone. How much more bloodshed do you need. You want another life? Then take mine." It's an outburst of the universal question of why a righteous God allows such hardship to exist.

The film was a success both financially and artistically; nominated for eight Academy Awards, and winning for Best Song ("The Morning After", sung by future Broadway maven Maureen McGovern, but lip-synched in the film by Carol Lynley) plus an honorary award for visual effects. John Williams was nominated for his tense score, amongst many he has done including "Fiddler on the Roof", "Valley of the Dolls", "Jaws", "Star Wars", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Jurassic Park".

After the success of this movie, Irwin Allen went on to produce "The Towering Inferno" (1974), and "The Swarm" (1978), as well as a less successful sequel, "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979), but the genre spawned such adventure classics as "Earthquake" (1974), and continues to this day with "Twister" (1996), "Dante's Peak" (1997), "Volcano" (1997), "Deep Impact" (1998) and "The Core" (2003).

Rod Reynolds ©2004 The Art Dept Los Angeles

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