To hear Judge Cynthia Boris tell it, the real disaster is that classics like Citizen Kane get more ink than this flick.
Our review of The Poseidon Adventure, published October 4th, 1999, is also available.
At midnight on New Year's Eve, the SS. Poseidon, enroute from New York to Athens, met with disaster and was lost. There were only a handful of survivors. This is their story.
From the very beginning, The Poseidon Adventure was a bit of a conundrum. It was a B-movie plot with an A-movie budget. It was loaded with big name stars, such as Gene Hackman, who had just won the Oscar for The French Connection. Yet participation in the movie was thought of as "slumming." Marketing was aimed at a young teen audience, despite the fact that the cast was more recognizable to the parents of teenaged kids. And no one (no one but producer Irwin Allen, that is) thought it would be a success. With an estimated $5,000,000 budget, the movie has grossed over $93,300,000 theatrically—and that's 1972 dollars, and doesn't include DVD sales. How does a forgettable movie become an unforgettable classic?
Facts of the Case
The S.S. Poseidon is on her final voyage heading for dry dock where the new owners plan to have her scrapped. The rep for the owner has no time to waste, so it's "full steam ahead, Captain…and the fact that the ship is a creaking, old, rust bucket be damned!" (Because it wouldn't be a disaster film if the disaster could have been avoided through common sense!) Oh look, is that a giant tidal wave coming our way? Why yes it is. Crash. Smash. Oops. Ship flips over. This is bad. Really bad.
Who will survive?
There's comic relief in the form of a bickering couple, cop Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his former hooker wife, Linda (Stella Stevens). There's a sincere single guy, James Martin (Red Buttons), a young and frightened ingénue, Nonnie (Carol Lynley), a helpful crew member, Acres (Roddy McDowall), an elderly Jewish couple Belle and Manny Rosen (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson), the "kids," Susan and Robin Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea) and the priests—aging traditionalist John (Arthur O'Connell) and the radical realist, Rev. Scott (Gene Hackman).
Trapped with several hundred other people in the ballroom when the ship flips, this small group of characters are the only ones who dare challenge God's divine plan by attempting to escape from Hell upside down. Rev. Scott (shouting fire and brimstone all the way) leads the group up a Christmas tree ladder toward the bottom of the ship. (Down is up, up is down; it takes some getting used to, but you'll get it.) No sooner do they clear the ballroom floor…I mean ceiling…when the room is flooded with a rush of seawater drowning everyone they left behind including Father John (and that's the last death I'm going to reveal).
Time to get cracking! The intrepid band sets out on a mission to reach the thin skin of the propeller shaft, the spot where rescuers are sure to be waiting. Along the way they deal with fire, narrow spaces, high places and the ever-increasing threat of rising water. They also battle the more human elements of fear, exhaustion, frustration, anger and love. It's an action packed journey that requires (and gets) larger than life characters, but I'll be darned if you don't feel wet, sweaty and exhausted by the end.
Who will survive? You can keep reading my review or stop right here but I'll never tell.
The Poseidon Adventure was not the first of its kind, but it was the movie that defined a genre. It was the standard by which all others were measured. It set off a chain reaction of fires, floods, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and animal attacks like you'd never seen before and probably never would have asked for. It was the rebirth of Irwin Allen. The man who had been the king of Sci-Fi TV (Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) had earned himself a bold new title—The Master of Disaster—and it was bestowed upon him with the utmost respect.
To Irwin Allen, actors were a necessary evil when it came to filmmaking. He loved his stars, and reused them often, but had no qualms about killing them for the pure shock value of seeing an A-lister bite the dust twenty minutes in. To Irwin a full resume was not automatically a ticket on the rescue helicopter, and that was something moviegoers weren't used to seeing.
What I find enormously intriguing about the casting of The Poseidon Adventure is the average age of its stars. For such a physical film that was reportedly (says director Ronald Neame on the commentary track) aimed at younger viewers, the stars are all a bit long in the tooth. Buttons, Winters and Borgnine were all in their fifties, and Albertson and O'Connell were both over sixty. With the exception of the two children in the cast, all of the actors had credits dating back to the fifties—and Roddy McDowell began his career in 1938! It makes me wonder if there isn't something metaphorical about the fact that the Poseidon was an old ship heading for dry dock and not a shiny new maiden voyage ship like the Titanic. Even the "priest" storyline in the movie is about the younger generation showing respect for those that paved the way. Think about it. The roster on this film reads differently today than it did back then (or imagine the same roster twenty years earlier). Today's viewers don't have the proper respect for this group. But just take a look at their resumes—combined, these nine actors have it all: Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes. They appeared in the crème de la crème of movies (Diary of Anne Frank, Bonnie and Clyde, They Shoot Horses Don't They) and most made the successful transition to television (Chico and the Man, Fantasy Island, McHale's Navy). These actors are a force to be reckoned with, and that is reason alone why you need to see this film.
The second reason to see this movie? Its sheer magnitude. It's a huge movie in every sense of the word. The sets are incredible. They're detailed. They're interesting, and they're used in ways you've never imagined. The dangers are even huger. Fire, explosions, and water, water, water. Whenever I watch this movie I think about how I would have managed if I'd been cast in this flick—and the simple answer is, I wouldn't have. I never would have been able to do what these actors do: the swimming, the climbing, the emotional outlay. And a good portion of it is real (Irwin Allen not trusting actors to act, again). Unlike most movies, this one was filmed in order so the actors would be as worn out and ragged as their characters by the end. Director Neame reports that the cast took turns having their prima donna moments (except for little Eric Shea and pro Ernest Borgnine), but who can blame them. I'm sure they didn't realize what they'd signed on for when they agreed to do this flick.
Now, let's look at the DVD itself. Holy, heck! I couldn't have been more pleased. First off, kudos to Fox for not thinking they could improve on the amazing poster art for this movie. The wonderfully detailed poster makes a nice slipcover (and embossed too!) for the plastic case (which repeats the design). Inside are two discs with more great graphics, a small but descriptive behind the scenes fold out (with one particularly great special effects shot) and lobby cards! Seriously, I saw the envelope tucked in there and I thought it was full of ads like you get with Columbia House DVDs. But no! It's a miniature set of reproduction lobby cards. How cool is that? The video and sound quality on this special edition are also beyond reproach
You want special features? Man, you got 'em. Two commentary tracks, one by director Ronald Neame and one by actors Pamela Sue Martin, Stella Stevens and Carol Lynley. Both are fun and informative. Neame has a penchant for picking apart his own work (see how easily the girl's skirts came off…should have fixed that…) which I found terribly amusing. The girls have even more fun reminiscing about the rigors and the joys of working the movie.
There are nine all-new featurettes: "The Cast Looks Back," "Falling Up with Ernie," "The Heart of Disaster: Stirling Silliphant," "The Heroes of The Poseidon," "The Morning After Story," "The R.M.S. Queen Mary," "Sinking Corridor," "Generations of Fans," and "Turning Over the Ship." They're all worth watching, some more than others. They're short pieces, but they all feature current interviews with actors and crew each giving their own personal take on this classic film. Though the featurette is not new, the disc also contains the "AMC Backstory: The Poseidon Adventure." AMC understands movies. I enjoyed this 25-minute feature when it aired on the network and it's good to see it included here.
If you're a visual learner you'll appreciate the following special features: "Film-to-Storyboard Comparisons," "Still Galleries: Marketing / Publicity / Behind-the-Scenes," and and interactive article from "American Cinematographer." Vintage material abounds with the original 1972 featurette , The Poseidon Adventure Teaser, The Poseidon Adventure Trailer, and The Towering Inferno Trailer. And here's an odd bit of trivia. Back in the early 1970's you could see these features and trailers playing at Marineland, a Sea World-type park in Los Angeles. They were shown in a special room that included props and miniatures from Irwin Allen's TV shows and movies including a full scale Lost in Space robot. Why, you ask, would a marine theme park dedicate a room to Irwin? Easy. He was an investor in the park. When I visited in 1974, I sat in that room for hours watching the clips over and over and over while my family enjoyed the park. Pure heaven.
Finally, there are the features that sounded better on paper than in reality. For example, "The Interactive Featurette: Follow The Escape:" When you turn on this feature, a capsized ship graphic appears on the screen whenever the effect is available. Activate the effect and you get a map of the ship inspired by those mall "You Are Here" maps. It shows where in the ship the characters are currently located. It shows the path they took and how many of them are still alive. I had fun clicking on it the first few times, but after that it was pretty much a bore. Clever, but fairly useless in the big picture.
How much more can I rave? Don't get me started, because I could go on and on and on. I've heard people say the acting is schlock, that the story is overly dramatic, and the genre is naturally corny. Phooey on them that say that. The Poseidon Adventure is a master piece of filmmaking and I'd put those actors up against the new cast anytime. I guess it's kind of like spotting a pristine pink 57 Chevy. Sure, it's a gas guzzler. It steers like a parade float. No air conditioning, no power brakes, no air bags—but it's a classic. It's a symbol of its time. It's a work of art. Fox's issuance of The Poseidon Adventure (Special Edition)? This is the way you treat a classic.
The court finds The Poseidon Adventure (Special Edition) to be a guilty pleasure.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by director Ronald Neame
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