The Poseidon Adventure

Dir: Ronald Neame, 1972. Starring: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons. Action/Adventure.
The Poseidon Adventure

After the phenomenal success in 1970 of Airport (“Grand Hotel on a Airplane”), disaster films became all the rage of '70s pop cinema. The formula consisted of a melodramatic, soapy script with a handful of Oscar winners slumming, stuck in some kind of disastrous situation ranging from earthquakes to meteors. The best of the genre was The Poseidon Adventure, about a luxury liner that gets toppled by a tidal wave and the group of passengers trying to escape (by reaching the bottom of the boat). Besides excellent special effects and a great cast, what makes The Poseidon Adventure especially unusual is the underlying religious subtext; in some ways it’s also an allegory about the story of Jesus Christ and his followers.

On its final voyage across the Atlantic, passengers celebrate New Year's Eve on the SS Poseidon. We are introduced to a cross section of archetypes that will become the group we will stick with as they are all invited to sit at the captain’s dinner table (played with a straight face by Leslie Nielsen). A teenage girl (Pamela Sue Martin) and her obnoxious little brother (Eric Shea) travel without their parents; a brash New York cop (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-hooker wife (Stella Stevens), on their way to meet their grandson in Israel (via Greece?); a sweet, old retired Jewish couple (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) play to the appropriate clichés; a lonely, soft-spoken bachelor (Red Buttons); and, most importantly, an outspoken renegade priest, Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman). Eventually, after being forced to fall in love with the cast, a massive tidal wave strikes the ship, flipping the boat upside down; a great scene of destructive mayhem follows, with some amazing stunt work.

When a porter (Roddy McDowall) is stuck up top, Scott uses a giant Christmas tree to reach him; he persuades his group to follow him, not to wait for help, but to fight for themselves. They are joined by the boat band’s lead singer (Carol Lynley), who sang the same song over and over, “The Morning After” (an Oscar-winning song, actually sung by Maureen McGovern). The rest of the surviving passengers doubt Scott’s sermon that they should head to the bottom of the boat, disobeying his wrath they are swept up by a great flood and most surely killed.

I’m no biblical scholar, but religious symbolism is all over the film. As each actor gets their dramatic moment before they are knocked off they tell the others to stick with Scott, he will lead you to the promised land. Eventually Hackman gets his moment to emote, yelling at God to spare his earthly peers ("What more do you want from us?"), before he hangs from a pipe in a crucifix moment and dies to save the others. By the end even his Judas (Borgnine) has stopped bickering and come around to believe in Scott’s message.

This is a neat and tidy film, directed by a classy English director, Ronald Neame (director of the outstanding The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, among an impressive body of work). Unlike so many of the disaster films to follow, The Poseidon Adventure is character-driven and respects its characters as more than just cattle to be knocked off. The whole cast delivers and though Hackman and Borgnine get most of the script's best meat, there’s enough left over for Shelley Winters to gnaw on, stealing the film with her heroic swimming scene and complaints about her huge weight. The one time beauty queen turned character actress shows why she was continually one of the best of her generation (Winters’ amazing career, spanning from A Place In The Sun to Next Stop, Greenwich Village, rivals any of her peer's filmographies).

The genre may have reached its apex when, strangely, the mediocre The Towering Inferno scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination, but as more and more disaster sprang in clunkers like When Time Ran Out and The Swarm, the genre died out (resurfacing decades later with even bigger disasters in films like Independence Day and Twister). Even a horrible, pointless sequel (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure) and a forgettable remake (Poseidon) haven’t diminished the quality of The Poseidon Adventure. While other films of the genre already feel dated (including the recent remake), thanks to the performances, the mild respect to the characters, and still impressive effects, The Poseidon Adventure stays afloat.


The Poseidon Adventure won an Oscar for Best Original Song and was given a Special Achievement Award for visual effects. It was also nominated for an additional seven Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Shelley Winters), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 3, 2011 3:57pm
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