01 June 2010

Movie Review: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Directed by Ronald Neame. Starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowall, Jack Albertson, Pamela Sue Martin, Leslie Nielsen.

If you saw the 2006 “kinda-sorta re-make” of The Poseidon Adventure, simply titled Poseidon… my sincere condolences. Man, didn’t that thing bite? If I ever make a list of the worst films of the 2000s that I actually saw (there are plenty of even worse films that I wisely skipped), Poseidon would make the list without even a moment’s hesitation. It was Zeus-awful, and Zeus probably sent his brother Poseidon a gift-basket to apologize for the total soiling of his name in association with that generic, auto-pilot, borderline racist piece of flotsam. It couldn't even use Kurt Russell correctly! How hard do you have to work to make Kurt Russell seem uncool?

As I suffered through Poseidon on DVD, thinking how much better drowning would be than watching it, I pondered journeying back to watch the original 1972 adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel. But I didn’t do it then—I was waterlogged and had enough. Even though the The Poseidon Adventure was a huge hit and had the greatest effect on the burgeoning 1970s disaster film cycle of an picture, it isn't known as a cinematic masterpiece. I felt no urgency to see it again.

But this weekend, I felt safe at last to go back to 1972 and watch the movie that briefly made producer Irwin Allen popular and created a fad for wreckage spectacle that lasted through the decade until the SF boom overtook it, and the gigantic flop of Allen’s The Swarm and When Time Ran Out… buried the genre until the capabilities of CGI resurrected it in the 1990s. The hilarity of Airplane! helped to play “Taps” over the genre’s coffin.

I have no idea how long has passed since I saw The Poseidon Adventure. I believe the last time I saw it in its entirety was during late elementary school when it showed on some network Saturday evening movie slot. I was at the age where the coolest part of the weekend was that I could stay up and watch TV and eat popcorn, with no thought that in a few years I want would to do anything else rather than stay at home on Saturday night. I recall thinking that the movie was fun, a touch scary, and that the ship turning over in a big wave looked fairly amazing.

Does it hold up today? No, not quite. It is a million times better than the Wolfgang Petersen re-make, but then so is bubonic plague. I was surprised how limited and small the movie appears compared to my memories and its reputation as a disaster epic. The genre was always shallow and soap opera-slanted, and nothing about The Poseidon Adventure rises above these modest standards, or even hits the craziness of The Towering Inferno. The cast is fun, although saddled with wooden lines and a general sense that the situation is far more important than they are. Except for Gene Hackman, and Gene Hackman is good in anything.

You know the basic story, but here it goes anyway:

The grand old ocean liner the S. S. Poseidon (loosely based on the Queen Mary, where the deck scenes of the movie were shot) is steaming back to port on its last voyage, destined for decommission and the scrap heap. Unfortunately, the representative of the Uncaring Corporation™ that now owns the ship pushes the captain to reach port as fast as possible. This prevents the Poseidon from taking on the extra ballast needed for safety in a heavy storm.

On New Year’s Eve, while most of the passengers gather in the Grand Ballroom, a massive wave from an undersea earthquake topples the ship upside-down, killing everyone in the upper decks (including poor captain Leslie Nielsen). Reverend Scott, an unorthodox priest on his way to an assignment in Africa, urges the survivors in the topsy-turvy ballroom to follow him on a quest “up” into the lower decks of the ship to find a possible exit to the surface before the water rises and drowns them all. Only nine people take up his offer and start the Up-is-Down voyage to the End Credits.
Here is the Gang of Ten, Prophet Hackman and his flock. Not all will survive. Place your bets (those of you who haven't already seen the movie, of course):
  1. Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott. Gene Hackman is Good in Anything. (Patent Pending.)
  2. Ernest Borgnine as Lt. Mike Rogo the Tough City Cop. A.k.a. “The Guy Who Objects to Everything the Hero Suggests.” And, of course, he’s wrong every time. Borgnine overplays more than anybody in the cast, but Ernest Borgnine is the sort of actor whom you demand overact.
  3. Stella Stevens as Linda Rogo the Ex-Prostitute. Her job is to complain about her husband’s complaining. Stevens plays her part fairly one-note, and she’s easily the most irritating person in the cast. I really have to wonder what this couple is like when they aren’t on a pleasure cruise.
  4. Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen, Half of the Nice Old Couple. Also, unfortunately, the “Fat Broad,” as the script never passes up a chance for her to make fun of her own weight or to make it a burden to the other characters. The media picked up on this, and jokes about how it was Winters who capsized the ship were stand-up staples on late-night TV of the time. Winters did snare an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work as the closet champion swimmer of the survivors, but it’s nowhere near as good as many of her other dramatic roles. Winters does manages a sweet charm as an old woman who just wants to get to Israel to see her granddaughter for the first time. (Uh, oh, not a good omen.)
  5. Jack Albertson as Manny Rosen, the Other Half of the Nice Old Couple. A fairly thankless role, since the film places the emphasis on Winters in this husband-and-wife relationship. Albertson does enough to make them a believable sweet old couple.
  6. Red Buttons as James Martin the Adorable Single Old Man. And it’s a good thing that this “haberdasher” (did anybody still use that job description in the 1970s?) is adorable, since his protective attitude toward the beautiful younger woman Nonnie would otherwise seem creepy. Buttons is impossible to dislike, so I can believe that the way he glues himself to Nonnie is nothing more than fatherly concern. With almost any other actor, the character would be a dirty old man.
  7. Carol Lynley as Nonnie Parry the Young Singer. A.k.a. “Attractive Girl Who Screams a Lot.” An accurate description, but it doesn’t indicate that Lynley gives what I think is the best performance in the cast. Her reaction of paralyzed fright and near catatonia, some stemming from her brother’s death in the initial wave-hit, is the most realistic one I can imagine for the situation. The downside of this excellent portrayal of paralysis is that it occasionally brings the progress to a complete halt until Red Buttons can coax her to take the next few steps before folding in on herself again.
  8. Roddy McDowall as Acres the Steward. Acres, along with Reverend Scott, is the sole character not paired off with a member of the opposite sex (Scott sort of has a fatherly connection to Shelby, but she’s principally paired with her brother Robin). This isn’t good news in the survivalist sense. McDowall brings his usual sweet charm, but he doesn't have much to do once he’s served his initial purpose of guiding the group from the midsection toward the nether regions, where his knowledge ends.
  9. Pamela Sue Martin as Susan Shelby the Teenager. Both Shelby children are on the Poseidon voyage to meet with their parents. There’s no question what the eighteen-year-old Martin is doing in this film: she’s there for the teenage boys, to whom the film was aggressively marketed. She’s practically deadweight, however, because the character doesn’t do anything significant except wear wet short shorts to please a certain demographic. She has a crush on Reverend Scott, but that’s just so Hackman can make some more speeches.
  10. Eric Shea as Robin Shelby the Little Kid Who Knows Everything. He’s an identifier for the younger children who see the movie yet aren’t quite ready for Pamela Sue Martin’s short shorts. Robin has studied the layout of the ship because he’s a kid and can’t gamble at the Poseidon’s casino yet and needs something to do. Once Acres has taken the group as far as he can lead, it’s Robin who gives Reverend Scott all the pointers, constantly prompting Lt. Rogo to have a fit about taking advice from “some kid.” Shea never did much after this. As far as know-it-all movie kids go, he isn’t that bad.
  11. Karl Malden as… Wait, Karl Malden isn’t in this movie. Seems like he should be.
I have no idea if this is intentional, either on the part of screenwriter Sterling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes or novelist Gallico, but the movie appears to use a Messianic New Testament allegory as part of the plot. The Reverend Scott calls on people to follow his plan, his “path,” climbing up toward the heavens by crawling through the lower depths (the “Hell” of the ship). Those who do not take up his immediate offering in the ballroom all die, even as they change their minds at the last minute and reach out for his offered hand. Later, his own followers are tempted to take a seemingly easy way, but it is a deception and only following him will allow them to reach safety. In the conclusion, he sacrifices himself so the others may live after coming through a fire.
As I said, I don't know if this is a reading the filmmakers intended—but it leaped out at me when I watched the film this time. I don't believe that The Poseidon Adventure is preaching at the audience in the fashion of C. S. Lewis and “The Chronicles of Narnia”; I’d feel pretty annoyed if that were the case, but since I don't feel any irritation with The Poseidon Adeventure, I can’t imagine this allegorizing is supposed to be aimed seriously at viewers. I believe that, just as Biblical allegories inform The Day the Earth Stood Still and Superman, the writers simply thought this made a good archetypal template for a story. It does add an interesting angle to Hackman’s character.

What surprised me the most about watching The Poseidon Adventure again after all these years is how small it actually feels. This was once a big, effect-filled Hollywood epic, but I was stunned at how few grand vistas the film contains once the ship-flip occurs. And even that isn't as spectacular as I remember it. Irwin Allen's next big disaster movie hit, Towering Inferno two years later, would have far grander scope and superior visual effects. The Poseidon Adventure doesn't even conclude with a wide shot of the overturned ship in the water as the survivors make their escape, only a tight shot on an obvious mock-up of the rear engines. This is weird, considering how much effort went into the superb twenty-four foot model of the Poseidon shown in the opening and during the capsizing.

Even the upside-down sets are mildly disappointing. The ballroom is the only major set-piece of this type. The barbershop and a men’s bathroom provide some interesting disorientation, but the other sets don’t look much different upside down than they do right-side up, and this spoils the potential “Alice in Wonderland” frisson of people passing through a world that has gone topsy-turvy.

John Williams scored the film, moving him into his brief stint as the disaster film composer—until he turned into the new Erich Wolfgang Korngold when Spielberg and Lucas snatched him up. Williams’s score is sparse like most scores of the early 1970s, and not as memorable as some of his later classics. The Main Title is appropriately somber and epic at once; the other outstanding musical moment is the almost elegiac piece the accompanies the last survivors as they struggle across scaffolding to the last exit.

The song “The Morning After (Theme from The Poseidon Adventure),” which Nonnie sings in the ballroom and practices in an earlier scene, turned into a chart success when Maureen McGovern covered it. Think of it as an early version of “My Heart Will Go On (Theme from Titanic).” Sinking ships bring out the sappy ballads, I guess. I’ll take “The Morning After” over that other one any day, however.

Many people hold The Poseidon Adventure in high regard, probably because of its importance in ‘70s genre and nostalgic value. It’s a “template” film, and worth watching for that, but it isn’t the fabulous entertainment it once was.

Enjoy John Williams’s Main Title music: