Directed by: Ronald Neame & Irwin Allen
Starring: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Stella Stevens, Leslie Nielsen.
Before The Towering Inferno, there was The Poseidon Adventure. This was producer Irwin Allen’s first foray into the disaster genre after mainly doing science fiction during the 60’s. He would continue to churn out enough disaster movies to earn him the nickname “Master of Disaster”.
It’s New Years Eve, and the old luxury liner S/S Poseidon is on her way from New York to Athens on what is her final voyage before heading to the scrapyard. It turns out her end will be more dramatic than anyone anticipated.
For the first half hour we’re introduced to the main characters. Our hero is the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a rebellious priest who believes people have to fight for themselves while God’s busy with more important matters. His less than traditional take on theology has resulted in his being banished to some remote outpost in Africa.
Among the passengers we meet the belligerent ex-cop Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife Linda (Stella Stevens); the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Rosen (Jack Albertson & Shelley Winters) on their way to visit family in Israel; a teenage girl and her inevitably obnoxious little brother en route to meet their parents; and the lonely haberdasher Mr. Martin, played by Red Buttons.
On the bridge, captain Harrison (Leslie Nielsen; yes, he used to be a proper actor once) tries to convince the man from the shipping company that they need to take on more ballast before going full speed as the ship is topheavy. The company man overrules the captain, as per usual in these situations. (I find it questionable if more ballast and lower speed would actually have prevented the following catastrophe, but hey – we need a Bad Guy, right?)
The New Year’s party is in full swing as disaster strikes in the form of a huge tsunami wave, caused by an underwater earthquake off the coast of Crete. Evasive manouvers accomplish nothing, and as the wave strikes it immediately kills captain Harrison and everyone on the bridge before turning the entire ship upside down. The revellers in the ballroom get tossed all over the place as floor and ceiling switch places.
The purser urges everyone to remain in place and wait to be rescued, but the renegade Reverend Scott insists everyone will have to climb up through the ship towards the keel in order to escape the rising water and perhaps find a way out. The only people who will listen to him are the ones mentioned above (who are also joined by an injured waiter and the singer from the band). They get out of the ballroom by climbing up the giant Christmas tree. As violent explosions shake the ship and water starts rushing into the ballroom the rest of the passengers realize Scott was right. In the panic the Christmas tree is toppled and the only escape route thereby removed. A pained Reverend Scott can only watch, and finally closes the doors on the drowning crowd.
The rest of the movie follows Scott and his group of survivors as they make their way up through the capsized ship and deal with various obstacles. As if the rapidly rising water and other dangers they encounter along the way weren’t enough to fray everybody’s nerves, Reverend Scott and Mike the Cop bicker constantly. They are the leaders of the group, but we find an equally great if slightly more unexpected hero in the rotund Mrs. Rosen who saves Scott from drowning, before herself suffering a heart attack (and being rewarded with a nice, long death scene).
The Poseidon Adventure is a well-made and quite entertaining disaster movie with a rather claustrophobic setting and some pretty suspenseful scenes. It delivers a really nice climax as Reverend Scott, after yet another tragic death in the group, rails against an uncaring God before sacrificing himself to save the other survivors. Perhaps the entire movie should be seen as an allegory about life in a Godless universe? No? Okay, that might be pushing it…
All in all, this is very worthwhile film. The effects work is decent with some nice shots of the ship at sea, and the general production design still stands up today. The pacing is good, and the script, co-written by Wendell Mayes and Stirling Silliphant, features the same mix of action and character drama that Silliphant and Allen went on to use, in refined form and to even greater effect, in The Towering Inferno.