THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, 1972
A luxury but ageing ocean liner, en route from New York to Athens on her final Christmas. New Year cruise of the Mediterranean, encounters a monstrous tsunami wave and capsizes. At the same time, and whooping it in the shop’s vast and air-tight dining salon, are most of the ships rich passengers who are tossed around into a dark, upside down world of dead bodies and spilled champagne. Renegade Reverend Hackman tears up the bible and nautical rule book to lead a disparate group of survivors upwards toward the engine room, where they hope rescue awaits them.
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Much laughed at when first released due to its ridiculous set-up and clichéd dialogue, Allen’s labour of love turned out to be the top money-spinning move of the year (knocking The Godfather into submission at the box office) and turning a much needed profit for Twentieth Century Fox after a poor previous decade.
Indeed, a checklist of disaster drama daftness would have all the boxes ticked: treacly song to ensure comic send-up years later, bickering characters with soapy private-lives, lavish sets that are blown-up/sunk/shaken with gleeful relish and a cast of stars blown-up/drowned/thrown about with equal, merry abandon.
But with the benefit of hind-sight, there is much more to enjoy in this venture and the film seems to have had the last laugh.
Firstly, it contains better performances than is usual for a disaster drama, possibly due to a well-picked cast or having Neame taking up the megaphone duties.
Hackman, a newly confirmed star after The French Connection, was entrusted with a leading role in a major studio product and rewards us with an impassioned and intense (for a disaster drama) turn as the priest who has lost his faith, but must galvanise others with quasi-religious salvation by travelling into the bowels of the sinking ship in order to save themselves.
He is well supported by the blissfully salty and amusing cast of dimly remembered character stars of the past, including gruff Borgnine as a cop, Stevens is on brassy best form as his ex-hooker wife and Oscar-nominated Winters is a delight in a fondly remembered role as an elderly and obese Jewish passenger.
Secondly, the script is peppered with a good dose of humour and the religious slant is neatly maintained without swamping the thrill of escape. Even so, despite the pens of two Oscar-winning scriptwriters scribbling away, neither manages to avoid the pit-falls of disaster movie-making of routine, “Oh my God” exclamation dialogue, silly moments (Nielsen, in the sort of role he would later parody in Airplane! wishes a subordinate Happy New Year after spotting the wave that will fell them and Borgnine tells smart-ass kid Shea that the ship is not “a toy boat in a bath tub”, when the model miniatures in Fox’s massive studio tank are obviously that) and a general dull feeling when people’s personal dramas are revealed.
Thirdly, the special effects, though only primitive by today’s standards, are oddly still effective and excitingly staged - the crew built the main set of the salon on a platform that could tilt with rotating cameras completing the illusion of catastrophe.
Remade, rather pointlessly, as just 'Poseidon' in 2006, this film scores higher as it manages to convey the grimy, sweaty, messy horror of a disaster at sea that was Paul Gallico’s source novel. Neame’s sure hand also ensures that, where Wolfgang Petersen’s new film lacked emotion, this film at least has a heart.
There were Oscars for the song ‘The Morning After’ and the effects and a further nomination for Williams’ score.