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MASTERS OF DISASTER – THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)

The Masters Of Disaster feature begins with Jonathon Dabell looking at The Poseidon Adventure (1972) starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and Red Buttons.

MASTERS OF DISASTER: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)
Based on a 1969 book by Paul Gallico (in which many of the characters were flawed and dislikeable types), The Poseidon Adventure is a mammoth disaster movie which follows the successful formula established in Airport (1970). That is to say: big-name cast, characters in grave peril, a crippled vehicle, and the morbidly enjoyable guessing game of working out who will live and who will die. In this case the “vehicle”, if it can be called that, is a luxury ocean liner capsized by a freak tidal wave. The characters attempt to make their way to the bottom of the vessel (now the top… it is upside-down, remember), encountering various dangers in their nightmarish upside-down world as they head desperately for the surface, with floodwaters rising incessantly, ominously, behind them.
The New Year's Eve party is turned on its head at the start of The Poseidon Adventure

The New Year’s Eve party is turned on its head at the start of The Poseidon Adventure

It is New Year’s Eve and the SS Poseidon is heading across the Mediterranean when an underwater earthquake unleashes a huge freak wave. The wave hits the ship side on, completely capsizing it. In the ship’s cavernous dining room, a New Year’s party is transformed from a scene of warmth and happiness to one of carnage and disarray.
Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman), a passionate priest struggling with his faith, realises that the ship is now upside down, meaning that in effect the underside is floating on the surface. He surmises that the best way to escape is to head for the bottom, navigating the upturned rooms and corridors one at a time until they reach the engine rooms. Many think his plan is suicidal and refuse to go; others figure that it is the only way to survive and agree to follow him.
A small group make their way to safety under the guidance of the Reverend. They include New York cop Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), his wife Linda (Stella Stevens), singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley), shy bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons), injured waiter Acres (Roddy McDowall), retired couple Manny (Jack Albertson) and Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters) and youngsters Robin (Eric Shea) and Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin), who were on their way to meet up with their parents in Europe before the disaster struck.
Various dangers await them as they make their way upwards. Some make it, others don’t… ultimately just a handful of the group reach the engine room, where they wait to see if there is any hope of rescue.
Anxious survivors face one obstacle after another as they climb through the decks.

Anxious survivors face one obstacle after another as they climb through the decks.

The Poseidon Adventure is majestically scored by John Williams, whose music treads skilfully between the ominous and the uplifting at different points in the story. The performances are pretty good overall. There’s great tension between the characters of Hackman and Borgnine, neatly played by the two actors (it seems strange that director Ronald Neame often said afterwards that he’d given both actors too much free rein and felt they’d chewed the scenery… in my opinion, they do a fine job, conveying their characters well). Winters is outstanding as the retired, overweight grandmother trying to survive long enough to see her newly born grandchild for the first time, while Stevens plays the loud-mouthed, vulgar wife of Borgnine with great aplomb. Rounding off the fine performances are Buttons and Albertson. The kids are a little weak, and McDowall has too little to do as the injured waiter, but overall it’s a well-acted entry.
Dramatically and emotionally, the film hits some strong moments. Just watching the brave survivors as they make their way up (down?) through the decks, encountering one problem after another and having to be resourceful to overcome each new obstacle, is inherently exciting. Art director and production designer William J. Creber deserves great credit for creating the upturned sets, places where everyday mundane objects suddenly become things of danger and adversity. Ronald Neame directs it all rather splendidly (he was specifically hand-picked by 20th Century Fox to helm the project, having had recent success with The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and Scrooge). The studio was in financial difficulty at the time and had considered pulling the plug on the project until producer Irwin Allen and a couple of wealthy friends agreed to provide half the $4.5 million dollar budget from their personal fortunes. In a happy outcome for everyone, the film went on to become the box office mega-hit of its year and, for many years, remained one of the most commercially successful films ever made.
A freak wave hits the SS Poseidon side-on, capsizing it.

A freak wave hits the SS Poseidon side-on, capsizing it.

That’s not to say there aren’t occasional flaws to be found in The Poseidon Adventure. There are moments where cliched dialogue and hackneyed narrative developments intrude upon proceedings. Also, years of subsequent disaster epics tailored to the same formula make parts of the film seem like a parody (this is more something that time has done to the film rather than anything which would have occurred to viewers back in ’72).
All in all, however, The Poseidon Adventure is a fine disaster entry, easily one of the strongest and most cannily assembled of the original 70s cycle in the sub-genre. Above all else, it makes viewers put themselves in the shoes of its protagonists, asking ourselves how we would react and cope – what would we do, what choices would we make, what risks would we take – if placed in the same harrowing situation. Many times have I imagined myself clambering through the upside-down wreckage; often have I wondered if I would be helpful and resourceful like the Red Buttons character, or more selfish and focused on self-preservation. When a film creates that kind of effect in the viewer, it’s achieved something special.
Theatrical poster for The Poseidon Adventure.

Theatrical poster for The Poseidon Adventure.

And The Poseidon Adventure is a special disaster film, even after all these years. One of the best.
MoM Rating – 9 out of 10
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2 comments on “MASTERS OF DISASTER – THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972)

  1. Nice Review! I grew up in what I like to call “The decade of the disaster films” since it seemed like they came at us all at once. Out of all of them, this is the one that felt like the characters were easier to relate and connect to, which made the film all the more exciting and suspenseful.

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  2. Great stuff Jonathan. This is one I remember from countless Bank Holiday TV screenings when I was a kid, and it seemed so fraught with danger and tension. The closest thing I can liken it to from recent times is those puzzle video games (Tomb Raider and the like) when you enter room after room and need to complete some perilous task in order to proceed, only here you knew that not everyone would. Great starry cast, with Hackman and Borgnine especially good, and I agree with your comment that the aping of it diluted its impact. A really good choice and a fine start for this series, mate.

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