The stuff of nightmares

Preaching the gospel of self-help

Published: Feb 11 2015, 01:01:am

Thursday, January 4, 1973
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Written by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes. Based on the 1969 novel by Paul Gallico. Music by John Williams. Directed by Ronald Neame. Running time: 117 minutes. General entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some swearing.
"AT MIDNIGHT ON NEW YEAR'S Eve, the S.S. Poseidon was struck by a 90-foot tidal wave and capsized . . . "
    According to a recent British television documentary, being engulfed by rising water is one of the most common human dreams. At one time or another the idea has occurred to us all, and formed the basis for a chilling nightmare.
    Mine came when I learned of The Poseidon Adventure. Last month, before I had even seen the film, I spent a night aboard the doomed ocean liner. In my dream I saw that eight-storey-high wall of water come crashing down, smashing the frail craft like a beetle beneath a fist.
    Of such stuff are nightmares — and film thrillers — made. Author Paul Gallico got the idea for his story (the novel upon which the film is based) way back in 1937, during a particularly rough Atlantic crossing aboard the Queen Mary.
    He was in the amidships dining room when following waves struck the liner's stern, and she heeled over to port.
    "I glanced with horror out of the window," he wrote in a recent magazine article, "to see  that she seemed to be sliding along on her side a few feet from the surface of the water."
    For a few moments, Gallico was seized with the fear that the ship would be completely capsized. In 1969, he realized that moment of terror in the novel The Poseidon Adventure, his boule-de-suif, with people thrown together by chance and fighting for their lives.
    Such stories, reminiscent of Stagecoach and Airport, are ideal film fare, a fact that could hardly have been missed by Gallico, an occasional screenwriter himself. His book was a natural for all-star casting and, under Ronald Neame's direction, that's just what it got.
    The scene is the grand salon on New Year's Eve. The S.S. Poseidon, recently purchased for scrap by a Greek shipping magnate, is on her farewell voyage.
    Among the passengers dining at the captain's table are the Reverend Francis Scott (Gene Hackman), an unorthodox, activist minister being exiled to the African missions by his bishop. There too are the Rogos, Mike (Ernest Borgnine), a police detective, and his wife Linda (Stella Stevens), an ex-prostitute nervous about being recognized by a former client.
    At another table are the Rosens, Manny (Jack Albertson) and Belle (Shelly Winters), a middle-aged couple on their way to Israel for a first visit with their new grandson.
    Destined to come together when disaster strikes are James Martin (Red Buttons), a prim, orderly bachelor businessman, and Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), the singer in the rock group entertaining in the salon.
    Among those who will place their faith in Reverend Scott are the Shelby kids, 17-year-old Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) and 10-year-old Robin (Eric Shea), whose earlier curiosity about the internal structure of the ship makes him the ranking expert on the group's escape route. A crewman named Acres (Roddy McDowall) also offers advice.
    Scott is the central figure in the unfolding drama. His theology, a somewhat simplistic combination of Ayn Rand and the Protestant ethic, expresses itself in the cliche "God helps those who help themselves."
    He believes that he sees the way to salvation in the midst of the disaster, and immediately begins a crusade for converts.
    Throughout, it is a clash of wills as the man of faith and decisive action is confounded by the recognized authorities. More people believe the ship's purser (Byron Webster), when he says "stay put," than will follow Scott into the Poseidon's upended depths.
    Others follow the ship's doctor (Jan Arvan), in what Scott believes is the wrong direction. And, every step of the way, Scott's faith is tried by Rogo, the policeman who follows but violently dislikes being led.
    It's one hearty, hokey, Boy's Own Paper adventure, a melodrama in which the real star is the ocean liner itself. Played in the early scenes by the Queen Mary, a ship now permanently moored off Long Beach, California, the Poseidon was recreated in stunning upside-down detail on a Twentieth Century-Fox studio soundstage.
    The novelist's dedication to accuracy and the designers' attention to detail have produced some nightmarishly memorable scenes. In one, the escapers are forced to crawl through a claustrophobically tight air duct, with the rising waters close behind.
    In another, they must swim underwater through a debris-strewn passageway. Each trial is more exacting than the last, and not all of the characters survive.
    For all of Scott's religiosity, the Poseidon's faith is basic pantheism. Early in the film, Captain Harrison (Leslie Nielsen) describes her namesake, the Greek god of the sea, as an angry, vengeful deity. He may have sent his wave for her specifically, his way of saving a proud ship from the wrecking yard.
    Unburdened by subtlety or profound plotting, director Neame puts his costly cast through a sound physical workout (and allows some of them, notably Borgnine, to chew the carpet shamelessly). Fortunately, when a story idea is as gripping as The Poseidon Adventure, it almost doesn't matter.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: The Poseidon Adventure's producer, Irwin Allen, did not create the all-star disaster movie genre. That distinction belongs to Ross Hunter, who brought Canadian novelist Arthur Hailey's Airport to the screen in 1970. What Allen did was make it his own, earning the sobriquet "Master of Disaster" in the process. During the 1960s, he'd established himself as a "creator" of science-fiction series for television, producing shows such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-67) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). Following the success of The Poseidon Adventure, Allen concentrated on features and made-for-TV movies in the new genre. Of the more than 20 big-screen disaster epics released in the 1970s, Allen produced five, adding 1974's The Towering Inferno, The Swarm (1978), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and When Time Ran Out (1980) to his filmography. Just to keep busy, he also produced the TV features Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977) and Hanging by a Thread (1979).
    Other producers would continue the Airport franchise, adding Airport 1975 (1974), Airport '77 (1977) and The Concorde . . . . Airport '79 (1979). In terms of Canadian content, the prize goes to 1974's Earthquake, in which Lorne Greene and Genevieve Bujold were directed by Montreal-born Mark Robson.
    More than 30 years on, audiences had their choice of Poseidon Adventure remakes. In 2005, NBC-TV offered home viewers The Poseidon Adventure as a three-hour "event." In a nod to the original book's author, Peter Weller played ship's captain Paul Gallico. In 2006, theatre-goers were offered director Wofgang Petersen's Poseidon, with Andre Braugher on the bridge as Captain Michael Bradford.

See also: For more on the subject of Canadians commanding starships, visit my Star Captains Quiz.