Hell Under Water | The Poseidon Adventure Turns 45

Watch enough disaster films and it becomes easy enough to spot the rules. The story will sketch the cast of disparate characters before anything dramatic happens. The disaster must be foreshadowed. The disaster can be either natural, man-made or a combination of the two. The cast must overcome obstacles to survive. There has to be a dramatic sacrifice for the greater good.

After all, not everyone can make it out of a disaster film alive.

The first part of the 1970s saw a string of big-budget disaster films released by Hollywood studios including Airport, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. These are not great works of cinema. Instead, these were all-star distractions, some of which became cult classics.

Released in 1972, The Poseidon Adventure was adapted from a novel by Paul Gallico. The title suggests an exciting series of events. It is for the audience. However, the film’s characters must climb through the decks of a capsized ship to escape. In many ways, The Poseidon Adventure is Titanic without the romance and the subsequent debacle about who could have fitted on the door. 


So, have the last 45 years been kind to The Poseidon Adventure?

The plot focuses on the ocean liner Poseidon. It’s New Year’s Eve. The ship is sailing from New York to Athens where it will be decommissioned. Like the police officer on the day before their retirement, this is one of the first hints of oncoming problems.

The main characters are introduced in quick succession. There’s Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) who is being sent to Africa as punishment for challenging the Church’s processes. He’s a renegade who argues with the ship’s chaplain about the power of prayer. Then there’s New York detective Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife Linda on their first holiday since their marriage. They are loud individuals and their interactions are played for comedic effect. Manny and Belle Rosen are an older couple travelling to Israel to meet their grandson for the first time. Robin, a small boy obsessed with the workings of the ship, is travelling with his older sister Susan. Finally, there’s businessman Martin, singer Nonnie and waiter Acres. 

Poseidon Adventure Cast - HeadStuff.org
Poseidon Adventure Cast – Source

Of course, one foreshadowing is never enough. The Poseidon’s new owners demand the ship reaches its destination as quickly as possible unmoved by the possibility that the passengers could be endangered. The captain (a brief cameo by Leslie Nielsen) knows the ship needs more ballast. However, he ignores his better judgement and gives the order to continue at high speed. The decision won’t end well for anyone on the Poseidon.

As the passengers and the officers celebrate New Year’s Eve, an earthquake triggers a tsunami. The captain fails to save the ship. As the passengers ring in the New Year unaware, other bells start to wail. But, it’s too late. The tsunami hits the ship which then capsizes. People, chairs and pianos tumble across the screen. A series of mistakes has transformed a natural event into a terrifying scenario.

A group led by Reverend Scott decide to climb up towards the engine room. The ship’s officers want to wait for the rescue. Those who stay behind face certain death by drowning. But, those who choose to leave have a chance to live. For the most part, the film does not linger over the manner of death. Instead, it focuses on the characters’ reactions without showing the audience much of what they are seeing. As a result, the final sacrifices required at the story’s climax are quite affecting.

It is the set design, the costumes and the hairstyles that date The Poseidon Adventure more than the special effects. The costumes and the sets get grubbier as the film progresses. This quickly conjures the sense that the story takes place after a terrible event.

The Poseidon Adventure - HeadStuff.org

What also dates The Poseidon Adventure is its problematic representations of female characters. All the women are depicted as nervy individuals who respond to setbacks with hysterics. They must be coaxed forward by their male companions. In fact, the female characters are never onscreen without a male chaperone. The sole older woman, Belle Rosen, constantly describes herself as an overweight burden. Yet, she plays a pivotal role in the film’s climax and then pays an extraordinary price for her efforts. 

Is it possible to enjoy a film and still find parts of it problematic? We could argue that this film is a product of a different era. Is that a sufficient defence? Well, no. Its age does not protect it from critical analysis. While I have a great deal of affection for this film, I can’t ignore its flaws.

And the film’s legacy? A sequel was released in 1979 starring Michael Caine, Sally Fields and Telly Savalas. In Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, two rival salvage crews board the still floating ship in search of old, treasure and survivors. This film was a critical and commercial failure.

The Poseidon Adventure - HeadStuff.org

The first film obtained cult status and has been parodied in The Simpsons and Father Ted. More recently, the 2000s gave us two re-makes of the film. Both compare poorly with the original.

The first was a 2005 TV movie starring Steve Guttenberg, Rutger Hauer, Alex Kingston and Adam Baldwin. Here, the Poseidon capsizes because of an act of terrorism. One subplot considers how a traumatic experience can reunite a family hurt by the husband’s infidelity. Spoiler: the husband suffers no lasting consequences for his actions while his ex-partner faces severe punishment.

Poseidon followed in 2006. This re-make was directed by Wolfgang Petersen (The NeverEnding Story) with Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum and Richard Dreyfus among the cast. This version jettisons everything from the original film except the journey through the ship and its name. The result is a confusing mix of infuriating clichés that lacks the personality of the original.     

Overall, the years have not been too cruel to the original Poseidon Adventure. Forget the remakes and watch the classic. The film will probably be on over the Christmas anyway. It’ll be a good distraction from the cares of the festive period.

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