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On its last voyage en route to Athens from New York, the SS Poseidon encounters a gigantic
wave that overturns the ship, and leaves a miscellaneous group of passengers struggling
First the bad news - Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is full of overacting, stereotyped characters, cheesy 1970s' décor and allegorical content, and at times is hard to sit through with a straight face. The good news is that it is still hugely entertaining, remembered fondly by many viewers over two decades after it was first released, when it gained two Academy Awards (music and special effects). On its own terms, it is a film which remains highly successful, the sort of Hollywood product at which it is easy to sneer but compulsively watchable once started.
Allen's surefooted career began with another Oscar (that for the 1953 documentary The Sea Around Us), before he graduated onto the more profitable world of fantasy. The Lost World (1960), was followed by Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (1961) and Five Weeks In A Balloon (1962). He really found his stride with a series of now-cult TV shows like Lost In Space, Time Tunnel, Land Of The Giants, and so on. The Poseidon Adventure, which marked his return to the big screen, is credited by some as marking the start of the disaster-film boom, a slew of titles such as turkeys like Allen's own The Swarm (1978) and co-director Neame's Meteor (1979), as well as what is now seen as the finest achievement of the genre, The Towering Inferno (1974). Arguably Allen also helped kill off the cycle he helped start, as those who have sat through the appalling Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979), in which a bored Michael Caine reworks the original, can testify.
Chief among the cast here is Gene Hackman, who plays the non-nonsense Reverend Scott. His own brand of muscular Christianity has caused him to be exiled by the church. Terming himself "angry, rebellious, critical and a renegade" Scott has no time for the meek of his flock, as is evident from his very first line in the film "Get down on your knees and pray God for help? Garbage!" He wants "winners, not quitters!" and, outside of disaster, it is the driven nature of his religious conviction that propels much of the film's narrative. As events will prove, Scott's self-help philosophy is just what is needed, although Hackman is occasionally guilty of chewing the scenery to show it, bringing little of the acting class he exhibited in the recent French Connection (1971). Along with the roll-necked reverend are a range of characters introduced quickly in scenes reminiscent of TV's later The Love Boat: a gruff and bitter cop named Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), travelling with his wife the former prostitute Linda (Stella Stevens), an elderly Jewish couple the Rosens (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), a teenage girl and her young brother (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea, a juvenile role parodied memorably in Airplane!), pop singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley), and Acres, a conveniently knowledgeable crewman (Roddy MacDowell). There's also Martin, perhaps the most interesting supporting character, one who "has been a bachelor too long" - but who nevertheless strikes up a pathetic relationship with the shell-shocked Nonnie. In a film without a token black face to represent other minorities, and whilst Martin fondly considers marriage, he is instantly recognisable as a coded gay - a role which, in different times, would surely have been made more explicit.
Allen's films are noticeable in that they often include strong religious or quasi-religious allegories. Thus the plagues of Egypt hover over The Swarm, shades of the Tower of Babel rise up in The Towering Inferno, and the film Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea asserts the truth of prophecy and revelation. Poseidon is the most explicit of this group, offering a sort of Pilgrim's Progress, complete with its own version of earthly travails or hell, even including a final ascension of the chosen ones to heaven. For Allen, the disaster genre came complete with worldly ordeals to be borne with the possibility of final salvation, a narrative frame repeated from project to project. Convinced by providence, one can never imagine him making a film with an open-ended conclusion (such as Hitchcock gave The Birds, 1963).
The Poseidon is more than just a boat; it is a ship of some 1400 souls, a human world turned upside down. Transformed from a luxury liner to an environment full of torment, flames and death, though which the principals have to make stark moral choices, it is this landscape that makes the film so compulsive. Beginning with a climb up a gigantic Christmas tree as the first step to saving themselves, the main movement of the film ends with light beaming in through the opening of the ship's 'sky', down onto Rogo's now-believing, ecstatic face. Between times the assorted characters battling to survive have chosen between the words of the Purser (who urges survivors to stay put) or the Reverend Scott's plan to work their way towards the bottom of the inverted ship. A case of God over mammon perhaps, for those who remain behind are quickly punished in a flood of almost biblical proportions. Scott has clearly found the right path, although it is hard for us to forgive his slowly closing the door on those drowning souls he abandons. At the end of the film this controversial cleric appears to abjure God entirely ("leave us alone!") in a death scene strongly suggestive of crucifixion and hellfire.
As others have rightly observed, where other directors like William Castle "used gimmicks implanted in theatres to increase the cheesy fun of his pictures... Allen made the movies themselves the gimmick." This is noticeably true of The Poseidon Adventure, and the recreation of the stricken vessel is still impressive today. (The scene in the vertical shaft, where Acres meets his end, might easily have inspired a similar one in Alien: Resurrection, 1997.) Amidst the flooding deck ways Allen even manages a couple of truly surreal moments, as when the boy investigates the topsy-turvy barbershop, or the mysteries of the ship's urinals. Generally the Oscar for special effects still seems well earned, although there's surely a glaring mistake in the representation of the 90-foot wave bearing down on the ship, which appears to be breaking before impact! Cultists will enjoy the sight of serious Leslie Nielsen as the captain of the doomed liner, while some will regret that more is not seen of ex-Playboy playmate Stella Stevens, whose flimsy clothes remain stubbornly intact and opaque throughout each ordeal. Borgnine is, well, Borgnine and provides a suitable down-to-earth foil to Hackman's driving optimism. Shelley Winters, who put on pounds of weight for the film and gained an Oscar nomination for her pains, is less impressive, although playing half of the self-absorbed Jewish couple was an uninspiring part.
On DVD, the film could have been packaged better; a featurette, cast biographies and the trailer is short measure for a film which must have had an interesting production history and for which so many of the principals survive. But the image quality is excellent. Frequently available at a ridiculously low price, if it floats your boat as many times as it has mine, this can be recommended.