With visions of the Costa Concordia disaster eerily ringing true today, Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure seems an ominously prophetic cautionary tale of the perils that plague travellers at sea. In its day, The Poseidon Adventure was a one hundred million dollar smash hit, nominated for 9 Academy Awards. Today, the film’s special effects, its religious underpinnings and its superb ensemble acting continue to impressively hold up. Despite more recent attempts, it’s the original that endures and has remained a memorable touchstone with audiences young and old, who continue to be entertained by it in revival houses across America.
It’s been 21 years since the death of Irwin Allen. Yet, he remains today the undisputed master of this sort of glossy disaster epic. Beginning in 1969 Allen’s early career in TV included some of the most fantastical creations ever achieved on the small screen: Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, et al. But Allen was more than just a creative genius. He was an old fashioned showman in the best sense of the word – a man who ate, slept, lived and breathed to entertain. It is one of Hollywood’s great ironies that no one in the industry really saw Allen’s potential to make big movies. True enough – he had great ideas. However, ideas alone were a poor substitute for a proven track record in movie making.
But in 1972 Allen was sailing all his ships in the same direction with the acquisition of Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure; the story of perilous survival after a luxury liner has been capsized by a massive tidal wave. Yet the book’s popularity failed to garner excitement in Hollywood. By 1970, the industry was in a bad way. It had survived – barely – on a steady diet of low budget/small scale films that concentrated on melodrama rather than special effects. The old Hollywood was dead and it was widely assumed – or perhaps feared – that the day of the bigger than big, grandiose spectacles would never return.
Undaunted, Allen shopped his property around town, garnering a passing interest from director Ronald Neame, who was still riding the whirlwind from his box office smash, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). Allen also found a kindred spirit for The Poseidon Adventure in screenwriter extraordinaire Sterling Silliphant; an expert constructionalist with a superior knack for writing solid character parts. What appealed to Allen most of all about The Poseidon Adventure was its ‘Walter Mitty-esque’ quality; plunging ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances and then observing as they either succumbed to their predicament or rose to meet the challenge. Eventually, 20th Century-Fox accepted Allen’s own challenge to fund his five million dollar project.
Yet, The Poseidon Adventure was nearly not made at all. After two years of struggle and sacrifice, and considerable pre-production, the producer was summoned into Fox’s boardroom and told that they had decided to pull the plug on his film. It was too expensive and sure to be a commercial flop. Allen, who went away from this meeting to shed a few tears, regrouped almost immediately and approached a pair of independent backers to finance half the film’s final budget. He then confronted the execs at Fox with this coup.
In retrospect, The Poseidon Adventure seems such a natural for the big screen, but at the time of its production it bucked just about every creative trend popular in Hollywood. Allen secured permission to use the retired ocean liner R.M.S. Queen Mary to depict the S.S. Poseidon, and then proceeded to fill his cast roster with a who’s who of veteran actors and virtual unknowns. Neame, whose forte was the intimate drama – not big budget spectacle - was coaxed by Allen into accepting the directorial assignment with assurances that the real focus of the story would be on the survivors – not the special effects.
For all his creative verve, Irwin Allen was also a company man. He kept tight reigns on the film’s budget, encouraged prudence and caution on the set to procure the safety of his actors – most of whom did their own stunt work -, and strove tirelessly to ensure that the production wrapped on schedule. In point of fact, principle photography finished two days ahead of schedule.
Silliphant’s script opens large with a storm at sea. The S.S. Poseidon is being tossed about and pelted by gale force winds and rainwater on her final voyage before being relegated to the scrapyards. Aboard are 1200 souls including loud mouth Det. Lieutenant Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), his wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), hardware salesman James Martin (Red Buttons), retired couple, Belle (Shelley Winters) and Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson), brother and sister, Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) and Robin Shelby (Eric Shea), singer Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley) and Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman); a fiery preacher who believes in the strength of mankind to help God help themselves.
Fascinated with the great ship, Robin braves the storm and enters the bridge where the captain (Leslie Nielson) warns him he might have been swept away. The next day the seas have calmed. The ship’s Chaplain (Arthur O’Connell) asks Reverend Scott to lead everyone in a prayer. But Scott’s gutsy sermon does more to alienate rather than inspire. That evening is New Year’s Eve. But Linda Rogo is hesitant to join the party going on in the promenade room because she worries that the ship’s purser (Byron Webster) remembers her from her days as a prostitute. Unshaken, Mike coaxes his wife into attending.
Meanwhile, fellow passenger Terry (Ernie Orsatti) makes several failed attempts to flirt with Susan. However, her heart is struck by cupid’s arrow for Reverend Scott. Belle tells Mr. Martin that he must abandon his regiment of pills and vitamins and find himself a good woman to settle down. As the hour draws to midnight the passengers prepare to ring in the New Year. Tragically, the mood turns from pleasure to survival when the S.S. Poseidon is capsized by a tsunami tidal wave. In the aftermath, the ship’s porter Acres (Roddy McDowell) finds himself trapped in the linen area leading to the kitchen. Realizing that the only possible way out is through the ship’s hull Reverend Scott attempts to encourage his fellow passengers to follow him to safety.
The ship’s cantankerous doctor (Jan Arvan) argues that everyone must remain calm and wait for help to arrive. But help from where? The captain and everyone else above them are now dead beneath them. Scott convinces only a handful to climb the toppled steel Christmas tree to relative safety in the linen area before a series of boiler explosions rupture the walls to the promenade room, flooding it and killing the rest who have stayed behind. Now the Rogos, Shelbys, Rosens, Reverend Scott, Acres, Nonnie and Mr. Martin are all in a perilous race against time to escape the rising Atlantic. At every turn these few survivors are faced with their own mortality. Acres plunges to his death inside a boiler shaft after another explosion rock the ship.
The crew passage floods before the survivors can get to it. But Reverend Scott elects to swim through the debris with a rope he will tie to bring the others to safety. Regrettably, he becomes trapped underwater beneath a steel wall, forcing Mrs. Rosen – a onetime swimming champion – to dive in after him. The strain proves too great for Belle. She dies of a heart attack after saving them both.
The last act of The Poseidon Adventure is oddly exhilarating; I say, oddly, because it exacts two final victims from the dwindling number of survivors; Mrs. Rogo – who plummets to her death from a steel beam, and Reverend Scott – who bitterly renounces his faith in God before sacrificing himself so that the remaining few might live. Mike gets the children and Manny Rosen through to the ship’s hull where they are rescued by Coast Guard salvagers who pierce through the thin steel with their blow torches. Yet, with this hopeful finale comes the bitter realization that the survivors are leaving behind their treasured loved ones.
Originally, The Poseidon Adventure was to have concluded with an impressive long shot of the massive overturned hull as the Coast Guard helicopter whisks the survivors away to safety. The shot, staged with miniatures on the Fox back lot tank, looked horrible, forcing Allen to scrap these plans in order to bring the film in on time and under budget.
Viewed today, only Paul Zastupenevich’s costume design seems to have dated. The rest of the film remains remarkably fresh and alive, including Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s inspirational Oscar winning song, The Morning After. The song is lip synced by Carol Lynley in the film just before disaster strikes, but was later memorably warbled by Maureen McGovern as a hit single.
The Poseidon Adventure is thrilling entertainment. There just are not enough superlatives to endorse the movie as great art, proving all along that Irwin Allen knew his business better than arguably those who had hesitantly green lit his project after much reluctance.
I’m really at a loss to explain Fox Home Video’s current approach to the hi-def marketplace. The scarier prospect for consumers is that I don’t think anyone running their home video division is faring any better in the decision-making process.
Their Blu-ray output has been divided between titles made available in retail stores; those like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Zorba The Greek’ released under the Fox banner but as on line exclusives only available through Screen Archives; still others like The Egyptian, Desiree and Journey to the Center of the Earth, made available as limited editions through Twilight Time, and finally, Wal-Mart exclusives like The Big Trail, The Barbarian and the Geisha, and The Poseidon Adventure that are harder to come by than finding gold bullion in one’s front yard.
I’m a Canuck, so acquiring The Poseidon Adventure on Blu-ray for me meant that I had to drive over the border to the United States (because Canadian Wal-Mart stores incongruously refuse to partake in Wal-Mart Exclusives and Wal-Mart U.S.A. will not ship to Canada). So I had to go to a store that is thirty-five minutes away from my home, pay in excess of $8.00 round trip to enter and leave the United States and ‘order’ the title (no, it’s not available in stores!!!). Then I had to wait for a week until the title came in, then drive back across the border to pick it up before declaring it for taxes on the Canadian side and driving 35 minutes back home.
Now, does that sound exclusive or just plain Vanilla ridiculous to you? My vote is for the latter, particularly since Fox Home Video has long bitched in public forums on line that there simply is ‘no audience’ for their classic movies on Blu-ray. So to Fox Home Video I say this. There will continue to be ‘no audience’ for your classic output in 1080p so long as you make the consumer jump through incredibly silly hoops like this one to obtain your titles.
Get a clue. Release blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure to the public at large on both sides of the border. Make it available in many different stores – not just Wal-Mart! I can pretty much assure you that the dollars will come. But DO NOT poo-poo the average consumer who did not go through my ordeal to acquire your movies. I have to admit that my devotion to possess this title was a tad on the fanatical side. Other’s might not have my zeal or interest to go to such lengths.
But I digress. Fox has done a simply marvellous job on this 1080p transfer. Colors are robust. The image darkens up, as expected, but is velvety smooth while revealing ample amounts of fine detail throughout. This is a superior effort from Fox (and believe me, I’ve seen the studio put out some real stinkers like The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Much Ado About Nothing) in abysmally sub-par transfers.
The 4.0 audio appears to be a faithful reproduction of the 4 track stereo that original accompanied the film and predates the Dolby Digital ‘remastering’ we’ve had to contend with on previous editions of The Poseidon Adventure on home video. There are subtle sonic differences to appreciate herein, more nuanced dialogue and some really exhilarating use of the sound field during the flooding sequences that I don’t remember being quite so robust on my Dolby DVD. The one insult I find unacceptable is that Fox hasn’t given us any extras. No commentary, no isolated score, not even the featurettes that accompanied their ‘Special Edition’ DVD. For shame!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)