The Spool / Anniversaries
The Poseidon Adventure at 50: The high watermark for disaster movies
Remembering the epic drama that combined spectacle with heartfelt moments.
Studio20th Century Fox,
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Remembering the epic drama that combined spectacle with heartfelt moments.

Catastrophe strikes about half an hour into The Poseidon Adventure, in a sequence that remains ingenious and exhilarating to this day. Slammed on New Year’s Eve by a tsunami caused by an underwater earthquake, the ocean liner SS Poseidon capsizes in swift, spectacular fashion. The bridge is first to go, instantly obliterated by the brunt of the wave, before death and destruction spread to the ballroom where the passengers have gathered to celebrate. Furniture slides and then tumbles, pianos plummet in an avalanche of ivory, pulverized glass commingles with confetti in an ominous flurry, partygoers are hurled like ragdolls and brutally crushed, with the last to fall clinging hopelessly to the floor (now the ceiling) before gravity inexorably claims them.

It’s a staggering set piece, shot and cut to cruel perfection by director Ronald Neame and editor Harold F. Kress to somehow feel at once both breathlessly sudden and agonizingly protracted, each additional tilt of the camera another nail in the coffin. And, like the rest of the surrounding movie, it still stands up beautifully, as gripping and horrifying today as it was the day it was made. Part of why that is, I suppose, is simply that monumental amounts of shit getting torn up is inherently cinematic—it might, in fact, be the most cinematic thing there is. It’s the stuff we love to see, safely experiencing total, opulent ruination from the comfort of our seats, animatedly debating afterwards how we’d handle each situation, how long we’d last, and other things of that nature.

Spawned 50 years ago by the 1970s disaster movie trend which saw absurdly stacked Hollywood ensembles scrambling for salvation through fire and rubble, The Poseidon Adventure in many ways still represents the enduring gold standard for the genre, a touchstone of lovingly orchestrated practical movie magic against which the rest of the annihilation-happy field should be measured. It’s both a little bit leaner and a little bit knottier than its kin, a streamlined machine that dares to dive just a fraction deeper than the rest.

That the movie feels like it’s slipped away somewhat from cultural memory, despite being the highest grossing movie of 1973 and being nominated for eight Academy Awards, shouldn’t really be too surprising. After all, this isn’t exactly the end of the world we’re talking about—what’s the big deal? In the realm of big screen calamity, magnitude matters. The genre would go bigger—much bigger—expanding outwards from relatively contained levels of bedlam, escalating things to a cosmic scale in order to satiate the public’s growing bloodlust. More death, more misery, more everything.

Poseidon Adventure
The Poseidon Adventure (20th Century Fox)

Those inciting pictures of the 1970s—Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno—seem almost trivial now with their humble scopes and piddling body counts, compared to something like 2012. You set a skyscraper ablaze? You flattened Los Angeles? Well, we blew up the entire planet with about ten different consecutive disasters. Indeed, even as early as the 1990s those first efforts were already being eclipsed, as the revival of the genre, spearheaded by Roland Emmerich (whose latest contribution, Moonfall, crashed into multiplexes just earlier this year), turned the celluloid-searing fire and ear-splitting noise up to eleven.

Still, the oldies are absolutely worth revisiting—perhaps not as instantaneously stimulating to our devolved lizard brains as their more aggressive, more bombastic progeny, but no less pleasurable. There’s a lasting robustness to the filmmaking, a classical deployment of the dependable basics that refuses to decay or diminish in its effectiveness. Neame’s camerawork in the opening act of The Poseidon Adventure serves as a harbinger of the topsy-turvy drama that will soon ensue, toppling and careening, suggesting a fatal loss of balance from the outset. Once the ship flips over, the movie becomes a tour through a series of hyper-detailed and innovative sets, each oozing with character, presenting different challenges to the survivors as they attempt to ascend to safety, negotiating their way up an inverted, infernal gauntlet strewn with corpses. The engine room in particular is a feat of production design—a drowning mess of crippled steel, scorched walls, severed wires, and erupting steam, all illuminated by the sinister radiance of burning oil.

A unique joy comes from watching all this old-school craft and analog trickery at play—a joy diluted by technological evolution. To watch the late Wolfgang Petersen’s 2006 remake Poseidon is to witness a lamentable regression, a triumph of weightlessness over tactility, most notably in the wave sequence itself, which, bereft of miniatures and inspiration, fails to stir up any sort of feeling whatsoever. Bad CGI only detracts so much from the experience, though—at a more elemental level, the remake simply doesn’t possess the same solid narrative thrust of the original, which moves at a consistently sinewy clip, following its mismatched band of ten survivors as they race against the rising water.

The structure feels classic, but not dated. If anything, the original movie, adapted from Paul Gallico’s novel of the same name, is refreshingly tight and propulsive in its storytelling, in stark contrast to the flabbiness of a lot of today’s more sprawling genre fare. Even back in its day, the film set itself apart from the competition through its sheer directness—Airport, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno all look hopelessly unwieldy by comparison, yoked mostly by profligate narrative threads. Meanwhile, The Poseidon Adventure chugs along with its onslaught of obstacles, efficiently accumulating a genuine sense of suspense from the uncertainty surrounding who in our group ultimately makes it and who meets their end.

A unique joy comes from watching all this old-school craft and analog trickery at play—a joy diluted by technological evolution.

They’re quite the superlative group, too, in terms of industry prestige, including five Oscar winners: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, and Jack Albertson, all find themselves scrambling through the ship’s perilous bowels, a desperate bunch struggling to gel together as a cohesive unit. Hackman’s Reverend Frank Scott, who preaches that God helps those who help themselves, takes his place at the helm, believing himself to be the only man mentally equipped to lead. Borgnine’s salt of the earth Detective Mike Rogo chafes at that belief, interrogating and eroding Scott’s authority at every opportunity.

Filling out the rest of the courageous collective are Rogo’s wife Linda (Stella Stevens), a former prostitute, elderly couple Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), teenager Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her younger brother Robin (Eric Shea), the ship’s singer Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), haberdasher James Martin (Red Buttons), and steward Acres (Roddy McDowall). Hackman and Borgnine are especially electric as the group’s two most belligerent egos, dueling it out in increasingly sweaty, febrile fashion, while the rest are reduced to mere spectators.

Neame, more of a director of actors than a visual stylist, finds himself in his element here, appreciating the value of focusing on the changing dynamics within the group, and how each individual’s history influences how they respond to challenges and stave off seemingly irresistible despair. That attention to disparate personalities and worldviews isn’t unique to The Poseidon Adventure, but rarely is it more patiently observed within the genre. Where other disaster movies are broad and perfunctory in their characterization, The Poseidon Adventure is specific.

There’s a notable emphasis on faith—faith in other people, and faith in your own resolve. Scott’s faith is seemingly unshakeable—not in any extrinsic divinity, but in his own instincts and will, even with the fatalities cascading around him. And what still keeps the movie so riveting is the thrill of watching that intrinsic divinity gradually reverberate throughout the group, converting self-doubters into self-believers. Like its heroes, The Poseidon Adventure possesses strength that goes deeper than its surface muscularity.

The Poseidon Adventure Trailer:

Studio20th Century Fox,