Martin Scorsese’s recent controversial comments and editorial about the sad state of today’s movie industry, highlighted by the focus on contemporary films that lack serious narrative themes, rich characters or significance, with the dominance of the brainless Marvel Studios films that feature special effects sensations like amusement park rides, made me think of a particular genre of the past and of Scorsese’s early years—the disaster film.
In the early 1970s audiences flocked to films like “Airport,” “The Towering Inferno,” “The Swarm,” “Meteor,” “The Hindenburg,” or the more ridiculous “Earthquake” that featured a special sound effects system called “Sensurround” and decade ending “When Time Ran Out,” a star-studded spectacle about a volcano eruption.
Each big budget melodramatic film featured all-star casts, frequently lead by Charlton Heston, a bunch of recent Oscar winners or ancient stars of the yesteryear, (like, Gloria Swanson or Myrna Loy), in various roles of desperate people coping to survive disasters of all sorts. Most of these films had stunning special effects that made you almost believe these events were really happening. Most of these also spawned numerous sequels during the decade, too.
Possibly the best of this bunch though was Twentieth Century Fox and producer Irwin Allen’s 1972 “The Poseidon Adventure.” British director Ronald Neame guided a cast featuring recent Oscar winner Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters Roddy McDowell and many others.
At first glance the melodrama may not look like much. But this tale of the New Year’s Eve final voyage of the S. S. Poseidon heading to Greece, a luxurious cruise ship that suddenly gets hit by a freak tidal wave and completely overturned, packs a lot of crackerjack excitement and thrills for its two hours. More importantly Neame crafts the story where you really care about his characters and their needs to survive. Scripted by Stirling Silliphant, and based on a Paul Galico’s 1969 novel, this film became the top grossing film of 1973, according to Box Office magazine.
Within the first twenty minutes or so we are introduced to the main cast. The cantankerous New York detective Mike and wife, Linda Rogo, (played by Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens). The lovely old Mr. and Mrs. Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) are on a trip to Israel to visit their new grandson. They are friendly with Mr. James Martin (Red Buttons) a lonely bachelor. Then there’s Rev. Scott (Hackman) the disillusioned preacher, who has been reassigned by his bishop to some obscure African city to find a new way to preach god’s word. He wants people to simply stop asking God for help, and to become more proactive with the powers God provides. He soon becomes the persuasive leader of the ship’s survivors.
The ship’s Captain Harrison (Leslie Nielsen, in his most completely serious role) is very concerned about weather conditions and complains to the representative of the ship’s owners that the ship’s cargo is too top heavy. When the ship gets emergency word of a sub-sea earthquake near the coast of Crete it is most likely to cause more troubles. Then at the stroke of midnight, just as the passengers are singing “Auld Lang Syne,” a wall of water strikes the ship turning in completely upside down. Then the survivors must climb their way up to the bottom of the boat to await rescue.
I often wondered why Gene Hackman, the recent best actor Oscar winner for his tough cop Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection,” would choose such a role as Reverend Frank Scott. In Allan Hunter’s 1987 biography of Hackman the Oscar winner noted, “I read the script twice…”The change of character in a role is the challenge I look for. I was interested in “The Poseidon Adventure” as a project, rather than a character. I wanted the experience and the tradition of a major studio. I wanted to achieve some kind of combination of honesty and theatricality. ..What I like is fusing a real moment with a theatrical flip. If you can convince people what you are doing is real and it’s also bigger than life, that’s exciting.”
And it’s thanks to Hackman and the performances of past Oscar winners–Winters, Borgnine and Buttons that make their characters so compelling, and this film so special. And need I forget, an early career John Williams score that keeps an audience on edge.
“The Poseidon Adventure” was nominated for nine Academy Awards, mostly all technical, but also one for best supporting actress, Ms. Winters. It won Oscars for best special effects and best original song “The Morning After.”
You only would wish that James Cameron followed more of Neame’s guidelines when he made his soap opera epic “Titanic” and made his characters more compelling. I regard “The Poseidon Adventure” a film of guilty pleasure—it’s simply lots of fun to watch over and over.