Rewatching The Poseidon Adventure

There has been some debate on the Intertubes about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. I don’t see much of an issue with that – seems very much a Christmas movie. However, I wonder if, like many British people, I have a skewed perspective from a notion of Christmas being a time when TV would show BIG ENORMOUS MOVIE as a centrepiece of Christmas TV. I doubt I ever saw The Poseidon Adventure at Christmas for various reasons but it was the film that kept occurring to me as somehow vaguely Christmassy. This will be long…[updated with pictures]

So after a long day of Christmas preparations in the Australian heat, and with nothing available to rent on the magic box that we all hadn’t watched before except Suicide Squad, we decided to emulate 1970s BIG MOVIE ON TV AT CHRISTMAS EXPERIENCE. Now the Towering Inferno is way too long, so The Poseidon Adventure it was.

I hadn’t watched this film since I was a kid and what had stuck with me was the survivors making their way through the bowels of the ship being chased by the rising water. It was a weird steam punkish sci-fi feel. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Ressurection gets very little love as an SF film but it evokes that same feel as a kind of Poseidon Adventure with aliens in space and Winona Ryder robots.

The more obvious SF connection is the producer: Irwin Allen. Allen morphed from TV producer of family-friendly network SF shows such as Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, to the producer of star-studded 1970s disaster movies – of which The Poseidon Adventure was the first. (One added SF connection: music by John Williams.)

First disappointment: no Slim Pickens. Why did I think Slim Pickens was in this film? Also, why wasn’t Slim Pickens in this film? Ahhh. A brief diversion to IMDB tells me that Slim Pickens was in the sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. Now I’m wondering whether my positive memories of the film are actually cross-infections from the more bonkers sequel (Telly Savalas versus Michale Caine – they fight over the secret cargo of plutonium in the ship with help from Sally Fields).

Second disappointment: the long disaster movie set up in which we meet the various characters who will fight for survival goes on and on and on. Also, the dialogue is very bad. Now there are no shortage of movies with bad dialogue but this was a film that WON two Oscars and was nominated for several others. It cost a lot of money and it made a lot of money. This first act of the film is supposed to be 90% character driven but the lines are either pompous or unintentionally hilarious.

The success of The Poseidon Adventure led to the even bigger, longer and more star-studded Towering Inferno. So, it is fair to say that it was in one sense peak movie making of the early 1970s and yet it feels so crude and unsophisticated. It sounds and looks more like bad TV. Yet people went to see this movie in huge numbers. Wikipedia informs me that

Boxoffice magazine reported The Poseidon Adventure was the #1 Box Office Champ of 1973. By the end of 1974, it ranked among the six most successful features in film history, along with Gone with the Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), Love Story (1970), Airport (1970), and The Sound of Music (1965).

Of those films, note only Airport is in the same mould. The seeds of this genre’s own destruction as the apex predator of the movie food chain can be found on the bridge of The Poseidon in the form of the captain of the ship: Leslie Neilsen. Neilsen’s role in the Zucker brother’s disaster comedy Airplane! was not central but his career arc after was based on his brilliantly deadpan performances applied to comedy.

It is difficult not to smile as Neilsen delivers the same style as he argues fruitlessly with the film’s only bad guy – the company representative who forces him to drive the ship too fast and without sufficient ballast. Yet, it is Ernest Borgnine’s dialogue with his character’s wife that is more unintentionally hilarious: he is an ageing cop and she is a former sex-worker whom he saved by repeatedly arresting her as a sign of affection.

Ah! It is actually New Year’s Eve! I’d forgotten that! And there is a big Christmas tree in the dining/ball room! So that’s why I associate it with Christmas! Everything is feeling more familiar now. I wonder if, when I was a kid, I just didn’t watch the first bit movie?

Time for a tsunami! A giant wave (don’t ask) hits the ship, turning it upside down. Cue scenes of men in tuxedos falling from tables and women in ball gowns sliding down walls. Chaos! Mayhem! Flying canapes! (I assume – didn’t actually spot them) Dead hippy band members!

Things I hadn’t noticed before: this is a movie about religious fundamentalism. At times it is even Biblical in scope and we are about to hit some heavy theological metaphors.

Gene Hackman is some sort of preacher – for what kind of church we don’t know but it seems to be something unconventional enough for Gene Hackman to preach a version of Christianity that owes more Ayn Rand than Jesus. Hackman is on this cruise because his church are sick of him and have sent him to Africa (I think) to annoy people there. (Maybe god intervenes with a tidal wave to stop Hackman before he can do even more damage in the Third World – head cannon theodicy for this movie).

With the world turned upside down (and we’ll get to social class in a minute) Hackman takes charge. In what could have been a Brexit metaphor he publically argues with the ship’s purser over what to do next. The purser says (sensibly IMHO) that everybody should stay put for the time being. That’s good advice I think in the circumstances – it doesn’t look immediately dangerous and the passengers will be easier to find. Hackman wants everybody to get out of there and climb out. This involves using the Christmas tree as an impromptu ladder.

Only a small number of survivors follow Hackman – coincidentally the characters we’ve already been introduced to. There then follows an odd sequence. Hackman goes back to talk to a priest. The priest (presumably Catholic) is tending to an injured passenger. Hackman and the priest debate their respective choices, with Hackman trying to convince the priest to leave. The priest offers a convincing moral case for not doing so. Hackman offers his faith in salvation -literally, i.e. Hackman is certain that the only way to survive is to climb up the Christmas tree and ascend. It is almost literally a faith versus good works argument.

An important issue around hot pants arises around this point but I’ll get back to it.

After Hackman’s followers climb up the tree from the ballroom, there is an explosion. Hackman returns to the door/ledge above the ballroom. The faithless followers of the purser (him and his no good common sense and rationality!) are subject to a sudden Biblical deluge. Oh, some try to climb up the tree but their greed and haste leads to the tree toppling over – despite Hackman’s warnings. I assume the Catholic priest drowns also. (A member of the household points out that if the people in the ballroom tread water, they’ll float up to the doorway and escape. Nope, this is some sort of Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah’s Arc, plagues of Egypt thing going down. Treading water won’t save you from the wrath of the deity)

There are all sorts of other things we can pile on here. Worshiping false gods? Poseidon is the name of the boat. Tempted by Earthly pleasures? The survivors escape from the ballroom – a place of singing and dancing and eating to excess. They are also engaged in a *secular* festivity – New Year’s Eve. On the path of righteous oddly-objectivist faith can save you!

Anyway, back to hotpants. Four women elect to go with Hackman: Borgnine’s wife Linda Rogo (played by Stella Stevens), older teenager Susan Shelby (played by Pamela Sue Martin), Nonnie the singer in the hippy band (Carol Lynley) [who doesn’t choose to go so much as she is to distressed by the death of her brother – she is just bundled along by creepy Red Buttons] and Shelly Winters. Shelly Winters is the true star of this film and rightly won an Oscar – but that’s another tangent.

To climb the Christmas tree Susan and Linda have to remove their ball dresses. Linda gets to wear her husband’s shirt for modesty (?) whereas Susan has a ball dress that CONVERTS into hotpants. Nonnie is already wearing hotpants because she is in a band of hippies. Only Shelly Winters is not required to adjust her clothing. The women don’t end up dressed in overtly sexualised way as such but there is a male-gaze thing going on and a sense of taboos being broken. For added metaphor Linda the former sex worker ends up wearing her husband’s shirt in a way that I assume is supposed to parallel his attempts to make her ‘respectable’. OK, it’s a cheesy 1970s movie, so you expect some weird sexual politics but you don’t expect a bottom fixation nor an attempt to try and square the circle of sexist attitudes that demand both modesty and sexuality in how women dress. Oh, and when Shelly Winters climbs the tree Gene Hackman shoves her bottom when she gets stuck. Like I said: The Poseidon Adventure has a bottom fixation.

Back to Shelly Winters. Winters plays a Jewish grandmother who, with her husband, is travelling to Israel to meet her grandchild for the first time. She is the only character in the film. I’m not sure what the other people are – escapees from a cheap TV soap opera? Winters somehow either got the only plausible dialogue in the film or was simply such a great actress that she could make her lines work. Throughout she is plausible and likeable. She is frightened and alarmed at some points and stoical and no-nonsense at others. She is the only character who gets more than one note to sing throughout. Also, her character is married to Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Things progress as they must. The survivors struggle past obstacles. They keep forgetting to shut water-tight doors behind them (seriously people!) and are chased by water through the ship.

Social class. The film really only has two characters of implied higher status. The ship’s Captain (in the sense of an authority figure) and the representative of the company that owns the ship. We don’t see either of them die but it is safe to assume they are very dead.

The rag-tag group of survivors are ambiguously middle or lower middle class. Hackman is a preacher. Red Buttons owns a shop, the Rosens (Winters and Grandpa Joe) are retired shopkeepers. Nonnie is a singer. There is the token annoying kid and his older sister about whose background we know nothing. Borgnine is a cop and his wife is an ex-sex worker now married to a cop. Acres is a steward played by Roddy McDowall doing some sort of accent. The accent becomes so difficult for McDowall to maintain that he chooses to plunge to his death down a giant flooded shaft.

I can see germs here of Die Hard. The seasonal party, the contrast between the apparent wealth (people dressed up) and the working guy who has to strip down to his singlet and crawl through the hidden parts of a building/ship. The more obvious differences is the ethnic diversity of the cast which is complex and varied in Die Hard and non-existent in The Poseidon Adventure. Additionally, Die Hard knows that it has to balance action and drama with a degree of comedy – that shouldn’t be an amazing insight given that Shakespeare put knock-knock jokes in Macbeth but you won’t find any intentional laughs on the Poseidon.

Did I mention the Red Buttons/Nonnie story line is really creepy? It is creepy. Yeah, he is helping a distraught woman but the film seems to be focussed on him getting a meaningful romantic relationship out of that.

Hackman’s flock then encounter the ship’s doctor. He is leading a larger group of survivors to the front of the ship. He has sound reasons for doing so – he knows from the explosions that the engine room is gone and in flames. To head to the propellor shaft end of the ship would be suicide.

Hackman knows better because faith. So we have a science v faith conflict and Hackman’s group heads the other way. Borgnine has a St Peter/Judas/Doubting Thomas role – part of Hackman’s flock, indeed effectively second in command but constantly at odds with Hackman.

So if this is a big religious metaphor for an evangelical conception of faith above all else, guess who dies next? Yup poor Shelly Winters dies but does so as nobly as possible. She saves Hackman from drowning but then dies from a heart attack. Before she dies she shows Hackman her Chai symbol pendant, which probably means there is a kabbalistic/alchemical reading of the movie as well (fire, water, air but no earth?). [Grandpa Joe gets to live because while he presumably is also Jewish, he isn’t symbolically Jewish unlike Shelly Winters and/or because it’s actually just a random bunch of stuff that happened and I’m reading to many weird metaphors into this.] It neatly fits the tension between the claimed pro-Judaism of evangelical Christianity with its view of Judaism as being heretical and superseded.

Following the same evangelical logic of who can gain redemption, Linda also dies before the end as the survivors have to pass through the fiery hell of the engine room. There Hackman also has to die to give everybody else life, hanging from a big wheel thing instead of from a cross.

There is a great shot of Borgnine’s face in the aftermath of his wife’s death where, surrounded by fire, he looks like the devil himself. [Not the one below but close]

So, you are sceptical of the whole heaven metaphor thing? OK, OK. Hackman is now dead. The flock are in a room at the very bottom (now top) of the boat where the hull is thinnest. Rescuers then cut a hole through the hull and a shaft of light falls on the survivors. Short of a choir of angels singing, it couldn’t be more steeped in religious film motifs of salvation.

A helicopter then lifts them up to the heavens.

The End.

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9 comments

  1. Nigel Quinlan

    Great read, Camestros. I found The Poseidon Adventure unrewatchable, despite a coupe of efforts, but I remember watching Die Hard and The Towering Inferno back-to-back once, and concluding that Die Hard is basically Towering Inferno remade with terrorists instead of fire.

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  2. Mark

    My memory of this is even hazier than of Towering Inferno.
    These tentpole disaster movies always seem to be set up with arrogance and/or greed on the part of someone who doesn’t listen to the sensible professional (wasn’t there a doomsaying architect in Towering Inferno?)

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      • Lurkertype

        What’s really odd about The Towering Inferno is that there were two skyscraper on fire movies being developed from different books by different studios at the same time, and instead of doing them both (like they do nowadays), they sensibly combined them and got one giant movie full-o-stars that made big bucks instead of two with fewer stars and one that’d fail. Studios should do that now.

        Also there was a miniseries, Goliath Awaits, with Christopher Lee, which was basically a combo of Poseidon Adventure and Bioshock, after one and before the other, with less Jesus, Objectivism, and genetic engineering. Enough people remembered it to snark about Bioshock being “Goliath Awaits: The Video Game”. I think they shot some on the Queen Mary as well. Because it’s right there in LA and it’s so pretty. Mulder and Scully got to be on it once too.

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  3. Cora

    Great analysis, Camestros.

    I have a weird relationship to 1970s disaster movies. German TV was dead boring in the 1980s, so the occasional big disaster movie, usually broadcast around the holidays and hopefully on a day where there were no relatives to entertain, so you could actually watch it, was a highlight. However, these movies also deeply disturbed me, because from my POV as a kid/teen, they had the habit of killing off all the big stars (future stars of 1970s/80s TV in early roles, e.g. Pamela Sue Martin would later wind up in Dynasty and Stella Stevens would continue playing a sex workers in several TV shows, whereas the Towering Inferno manages to kill Robert Wagner, Susan Sullivan and Richard Chamberlain), while old people I neither knew nor cared about (i.e. big Hollywood stars from before my time) usually survived, though one of them, often an elderly woman, occasionally died. Shelley Winters gets to be the sacrificial victim here, Jennifer Jones in The Towering Inferno, Ava Gardner in Earthquake.

    I also quickly noticed that pretty much every 1970s disaster movie included a nun or priest character to the point that it seemed to me as if a nun or priest on board of a plane, cruise ship or any other means of transport was a predictor for disaster. Consequently, I was pretty nervous when I found myself on the same plane as a nun once. Of course, The Poseidon Adventure layers on the religious implications pretty thickly, but all of these movies have them. And the people who die are usually the “immoral” ones, i.e. the greedy developer played by Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno or a greedy industrialist whose greed causes the disaster in one of the later Airport movies.(the first one is actually pretty good) or sexually “impure” characters, usually women. See Stella Stevens in The Poseidon Adventure, or Robert Wagner and Susan Sullivan roasted in The Towering Inferno for having an extramarital affair. After a while, the pattern became so predictable that you could easily tell who would live or die. Coincidentally, a 2007 German made for TV disaster movie completely reversed this pattern and let several of the “immoral” people live, while some of the “good” people died.

    The reason The Poseidon Adventure has a certain steampunky/dieselpunky feel is because it was shot aboard the original Queen Mary and shows some of its surviving 1930s Art Deco interior. Technically – and I come from a long line of people working in the maritime industry – this is one of the better maritime disaster movies, though not as good as “The Last Voyage” (which benefits from having the film crew destroy the real ocean liner Ile de France) and “Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen” (Night fell on Gotenhafen) about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, which is on YouTube for anybody interested. The 1996 Titanic BTW is not very good from a technical POV. My Dad can watch The Poseidon Adventure, though he occasionally laughs, but Titanic completely breaks his suspension of disbelief.

    Monster waves like the one that hit the Poseidon really do exist BTW (and they’re not tsunamis), though they haven’t been documented very often and little is known about them, because most ship hit by them don’t survive, they just vanish without a trace. One example is the freighter MS München which sank in 1978, likely due to monster waves, and was never found. I remember the München disaster very well, because my Dad was one of the engineers who designed her.

    Could an ocean liner capsize so completely like the Poseidon does? Hmm, it’s difficult to say, since hardly any ship that encountered a monster wave survived to tell the tale. However, air bubbles frequently do form in sunken or capsized vessels and allow people trapped in them to survive for a while. The underbelly of the Poseidon including the crew quarters, which passengers rarely see, looks pretty realistic compared to the crew quarters of actual cruise liners I have seen (Titanic’s, on the other hand, are way too brightly lit, particularly for 1912). Though the random fires in the engine room and the kitchen are typical Galaxy Quest type obstacles. The idea to escape via the wave shaft actually isn’t all that bad, though staying put would normally be just as good an idea because if you’re lucky enough to be inside an air bubble you should stay there. What annoys me is that a complete amateur like Gene Hackman’s priest character knows exactly what to do, while professionals like the Poseidon’s crewmembers are inveitably wrong. Not that there aren’t incompetent vessel crews on occasion, see the Costa Concordia and Herald of Free Enterprise disasters, but I don’t find it very believable that every single crewmember is incompetent, but a random passenger with zero technical knowledge knows just what to do. Also, how does Gene Hackman even know what a wave shaft is and where to find it? Because that’s not something a civilian normally knows. And while it would be easy enough to locate the wave shaft with the help of a general arrangement plan of the vessel, passengers normally don’t have access to one.

    Coincidentally, a few years ago, I tried to watch The Towering Inferno shortly after watching a neighbour house burn down. Not a good idea at all and I haven’t been able to watch it since.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      //Also, how does Gene Hackman even know what a wave shaft is and where to find it? //

      Thanks for the extra background.

      I think it is Roddy McDowall who tells Hackman about the shaft. Also it is the boy who explains about some other bits.

      Oddly I don’t think I’ve seen the Last Voyage. I ended up doing extra reading as a consequence of this post and various articles about the Poseidon Adventure pointed to The Last Voyage as precursor. I’m going to have to track it down now.

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      • Cora

        Yes, Roddy McDowell’s character would at least have known the wave shaft exists and where to find it. As for how the boy knows anything about that, maybe he has some technical interest. The movie still would have made more sense, if the Gene Hackman character had been a member of the crew, an officer or engineer, or maybe just a regular engineer who happened to be on that trip for some reason.

        The Last Voyage is very good and also gives you several glimpses at the Art Deco splendour of the Ile de France, once considered one of the most beutiful ocean liners of them all along with her sadly destroyed sister ship Normandie. It’s also better in the diversity department, since one of the main characters who works tirelessly to save a (white) woman trapped in the wreckage of her cabin before the rising water kills her is a black man.

        “Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen” is freely available on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RenSjozaryM Only in German and without subtitles, alas. It’s well worth watching, especially if you can find an English version. Titanic borrowed quite mercilessly from this film. The actual sinking (via Soviet torpedo) happens from the 1:22:00 mark on, though the plot moves aboard the crammed refugee ship, which highlights the claustrophobia of the situation, from the 1 hour mark on. The sinkings of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the Goya, the Steuben and the Cap Arcona (three refugee ships and a prison ship/floating concentration camp) towards the end of WWII are the among biggest maritime disasters of all time with more than 20000 dead.

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