Friday, June 20, 2014

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Who’s In It: Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), Ernest Borgnine (Escape from New York), Shelley Winters (The Night of the Hunter), Red Buttons (Pete’s Dragon), and Pamela Sue Martin (The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries)

What It’s About: An ocean liner flips over when hit by a tidal wave, forcing a small group of passengers to make their way up towards the bottom of the ship where they hope to find rescue.

How It Is: I watched this as a kid and hated it. I don’t know if it was my first disaster movie or what, but I had a hard time watching a large cast of characters get whittled down to a handful. Not that my memory of it is at all faithful, because I could have sworn that certain characters lived when I’ve just seen that they didn’t.

More than simply refreshing my memory though, I’m glad I gave it another shot as an adult because it’s a heck of a movie. A lot of people die, but it’s not the disaster porn that modern filmmakers like Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and Zack Snyder are famous for. The deaths in Poseidon Adventure are meaningful, from the biggest of its stars to the most nameless background character. There’s not a ton of sobbing and wailing over every single character of course, but the movie made me feel the weight of all the death. It means something that these people are perishing, which makes it even more important to see some of them survive.

Most of the main characters have something that kept me invested in their continued existence. Ernest Borgnine's grouchy cop is probably my least favorite, but even then I couldn't help but love his devotion to his wife, a former prostitute played by Stella Stevens. She has less to do, but still contributes to the weirdly sweet relationship. Easier to like are the brother and sister played by Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea. They're unaccompanied minors who do a lot of bickering before the disaster, but immediately drop that to take care of each other.

Also very sweet are Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson as an older couple on their way to see their grandchild for the first time. I'm always a fan of the affable Albertson and this is one of my favorite Winters roles. She's constantly concerned that her weight is going to be a problem in the escape, but she's so courageously game to try that I fell quickly in love with her.

Red Buttons is equally lovely as a supposed bachelor who's never found time for love, but takes a young singer (Carol Lynley) under his protection. I say "supposed" because though he never admits it explicitly, he's got a line that implies he knows what it means to lose someone close to him. That could be a parent or sibling, but I like to think that he's a widower who finds it easier to pretend he's never been married than to talk about his deceased wife. Either way, it's wonderful that his relationship with the singer never turns creepy. I never got the sense that he's helping her because he's attracted to her. He just seems to genuinely care about her and goes to great lengths to make sure she's okay.

The most fascinating character though is Gene Hackman's unorthodox priest. The movie reveals early that Hackman's a believer in the adage, "God helps those who help themselves." That's not a Biblical quote and I'm not even convinced it's supportable theology, but the film never actually claims that it is. Hackman makes an excellent point about taking action versus expecting God to do everything for you, but there's a powerful scene that calls his point of view into question.

After the wave hits, most of the passengers elect to stay in the ballroom and hope for rescue. Hackman's convinced that it's a doomed proposition and desperately wants his old friend the chaplain to come with him. He gives his usual speech about taking action, but the chaplain points out that Hackman's gospel only helps those who are already strong. The chaplain sees his role as ministering to the weak, which strikes me as the definition of strength. As much as Hackman preaches about strength and action, he comes at it from a place of fear and his adventure up into the bowels of the ship brings that out in a potent way. The chaplain on the other hand stays in the ballroom not because he's afraid, but because he knows that he's needed there. The film never explicitly judges either man (and to be perfectly fair, Hackman does save some people who would've been doomed without him), but offers them in contrast to each other and it's a beautiful, provocative juxtaposition.

The Poseidon Adventure isn't quite making me want to dig out The Towering Inferno and Airport to re-evaluate '70s disaster movies as a genre, but it's a much deeper - pun intended - movie than I expected. Makes me want to watch its sequel and remakes for comparison.

Rating: Four out of five soggy Nancy Drews.

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