The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

the poseidon adventure

After writing all of the following out, I realized I had previously written a review of this film. I even edited it and made it public rather recently, and then promptly forgot I had done so. Rather than deleting what I’ve written here, I’ve decided to go ahead and post it. If you read the original review (which you can do here) you’ll notice my thoughts haven’t changed all that much.

I have a very distinct memory of watching this movie for the first time. My mother must have had some errands to run so she dropped me off at Grandma and Papa’s house. Flipping through the channels I landed on The Poseidon Adventure and was immediately entranced. I don’t remember how old I was, I must have been a young teen for I was old enough to appreciate the pretty actresses in their short shorts. But mostly I was there for the exciting adventure of it all.

I remember my mother returning to pick me up before the movie was over. She was a good mother, so instead of making me leave, she either stayed to finish it with me or returned later and took me home.

I’ve seen it a few times since that initial viewing and it never lives up to that original memory. I must have come to it part way through, on that first time watch because I’m always surprised at how long it takes to get to the crash. I’m also always surprised to see Leslie Nielson as the ship’s captain in a completely humorless role.

The basic plot involves an old cruise ship is completely overturned during a massive tsunami. A band of survivors must make their way up to the bottom of the ship where they hope to escape through the ship’s hull.

They are led by Reverand Scott (Gene Hackman) who has some radical ideas about God. He’s of the libertarian school of theology where you don’t pray to God for help, but rather He helps those who help themselves. There’s Ernest Borgnine as a hard-nosed New York City cop and his former prostitute wife (Stella Stevens), and Red Buttons as a love-lorn bachelor. Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters play an old married couple on their way to Jerusalem to see their new grandbaby, and Roddy McDowall is a waiter on board the ship. Two youngsters (Pamela Sue Martin and Robin Shelby) and the ship’s singer (Carol Lynley) round out our group of heroes.

Everyone is given very brief introductions with basic characterizations at the beginning of the film and they stick pretty closely to those types throughout the film but never really become fully fleshed-out people. Hackman’s preacher takes immediate charge demanding that everyone follow his lead to safety even though he really has no idea what he’s doing. Most of the named characters fall in line immediately, except for Borgnine’s cop, who constantly bickers and argues with him.

There are a lot of other characters, mostly extras, that don’t follow the preacher’s commands and naturally they all die horrible deaths. Most of the film has our heroes trying to escape from various perils – explosions, water sloshing in from the sea, fires, etc, etc, etc,. The big gag is that everything is upside down. Strangely the film doesn’t actually use this all that often. There is a funny scene in a bathroom with all the toilets in the ceiling and when the boat first overturns everyone is in a big ballroom and many people have to hold onto tables to keep from tumbling down to the ceiling. Red Buttons gets a kick out of the barbershop with its seat upside down, etc. But a big ship doesn’t lend itself to a lot of furniture or light fixtures that would make the gag even sillier. Mostly it is bit metal corridors and rooms full of pipes.

It does feel very much of its time now and again. The gang has to climb a giant Christmas tree in order to escape the ballroom and Hackman’s character tells the teenager and the former prostitute that they have to take off their gowns because they are too tight fitting to be able to climb easily in them. That might be true, but it is very cringe to hear a preacher telling these ladies to disrobe. Luckily the teenager has shorts on underneath, but the other lady has to put on her husband’s button-up shirt leaving her quite exposed. And the camera does seem to enjoy shooting them at low angles from behind. Interestingly the preacher doesn’t tell Shelley Winters (who was pretty heavyset at the time) to remove her gown. Everybody does get some big laughs in making fun of her size which seems particularly mean from this viewing.

It is still a fun film. The adventure is exciting and while the characters are played broadly you still feel for their predicament. The actors are mostly really good which allows them to feel more fleshed out than the script really allows for. It never quite lives up to my memory of watching it for the first time all those years ago, but then again, what does?

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

the poseidon adventure

This was written way back in 2004. It was one of the first movie reviews I ever wrote.  I wrote in an earlier post that some of my old reviews were embarrassing to read now.  This is what I was talking about. But as I also said I’ll be posting these warts and all and I’ve got to stand by them.  But please, be kind.  Mat in 2022.

As a child, I mostly watched whatever kid-friendly movie was showing at the local cineplex. We got our first Betamax when I was maybe 12 or so and we’d rent all kinds of movies.  Some of them were genuine classics like To Kill a Mockingbird which instilled in me a sense that beauty and art can be found in a film. Others were like The Poseidon Adventure which while not particularly masterful films still showed me that there were many other films out there than what I was used to watching.  These films eventually opened up to me the world of cinema.

I first saw the Poseidon Adventure at Grandma and Papa’s house. I had been dropped off by my mother for an afternoon while she went shopping or some other mundane task. After flipping channels for a while I came across this great sinking ship and fell mystified into a grand epic adventure. To this day I recall my mother coming home during the final 20 minutes or so and me making her stay because I just had to see the ending. She had seen the film, but praised it as a classic adventure and allowed me to see the end. Periodically I have caught bits and pieces of the movie again on cable and always pause to watch a scene or two. I bought it in a bargain bin a few months back and joyfully added it to my collection. Last night Amy and I decided to watch it.

Watching it on DVD I realize this was the first time I have ever actually seen the very beginning of the movie. As a child, I caught the picture 10-20 minutes into it, and all subsequent viewings have all been by catching it part way through on television. I am afraid the movie as a whole doesn’t hold up all that well to my childhood memory. Oh, it’s a big, grand adventure, but like the ship of the movie, it starts to sink under its own enormousness.

It has a basic 70’s disaster movie plot. The big ocean cruise liner is hit by an enormous wave and is turned upside down, killing nearly everyone. A few survivors are followed as they make their way up (or rather down) the ship to it’s hull, and try to escape. It is way over the top and it almost seems as if the director Ronald Neame told his actors to ham it up in every scene. Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine just howl at each other for much of the film’s runtime.

The script follows very basic rules. It rolls like something you would see in a basic screenwriter’s class. You start with an establishing shot and follow it with a basic introduction of your main characters while making sure their essential character motivation is directly handed to the audience in their first few minutes of screen time. Then you set your plot into action. Its disaster is even set into action by a classic evil corporate leader. Leslie Nielson plays the good captain who is hounded by a goon sent from the ship’s corporate owner to ensure it ports for its final time on the right date. The corporate goon orders Nielson’s captain to increase speed though Nielson argues this will surely cause the old ship to sink. The corporate goon, of course, wins and sets up the disaster. On a side note, it is unintentionally funny to watch Nielson in a serious role when everyone knows his slew of later, goofier roles in movies such as the Naked Gun and Airplane.

This film acts like it invented implausibly. Gene Hackman’s preacher moves acts, and orders others around like he’s the ship’s captain though he has no previous knowledge of how the ship’s design, or conceivably the physics of a cruise liner. Yet his motivation for acting like this was set up earlier. Before the ship sinks we get a sermon from this unorthodox preacher who believes in helping oneself instead of relying on Divine intervention. Likewise, all the other characters follow along in their previously established types, never budging from this set character mold and certainly not evolving in any meaningful way.

All of this is not to say the film isn’t enjoyable. It is not high art after all. It knows full well its purpose is to entertain the audience and nothing more. It does this quite well. Though its plot is strained it moves along at a quick pace and maintains a claustrophobic tension throughout. I have not seen many of the other disaster movies of the era so I cannot place the Poseidon Adventure accordingly among their ranks. But as an action/adventure flick, you could do worse.