The Poseidon Adventure

Look on up at the bottom
Ronald Neame
Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, Pamela Sue Martin
The Setup: 
Cruise ship turns upside-down. People try to escape.

I became pretty intrigued to see this by seeing the recent remake, sure, but also because I’ve been listening to “The Morning After” on a CD of songs from movies I compiled, and I wanted to see how it comes off in the film. I haven’t seen it since I was 15. Me and a former boyfriend tried to watch it once, but 20 minutes in he turned to me and said “I thought this was supposed to be GOOD.” “Oh no,” I replied, and we ended up turning it off.

Anyway, the first surprise was that Pamela Sue Martin [PSM] is in it! Of course I know her from her stint playing Nancy Drew on that show, which of course I watched religiously, having been obsessed with her books as well as those of The Hardy Boys. We also find out that Leslie Neilson is in one of his rare serious roles as the ship’s captain.

There is then a bunch of character-building stuff. First this guy Martin, who channels his loneliness in life into physical fitness, jogs [in the weirdest way ever] past Shelly Winters and her husband, who are on their way to Israel to see their grandson. We meet former detective Ernest Borgnine, who married a prostitute who is afraid to go down to the New Year’s Eve party downstairs because someone might recognize her as a prostitute, although it seems to me if she was worried about that, she shouldn’t be wearing this dress that showcases her boobs in see-through lace against the solid blue of the rest of her dress. PSM and the world’s most annoying younger brother are traveling together. And then there’s Gene Hackman.

Gene is a young priest who is known for his radical views, which are that God helps those who help themselves, as opposed to the older priest he is initially seen talking to, who holds the view that if something goes wrong you just sit around and pray. Incredible that they’d have this debate on the very day that it’s going to be sorely tested, isn’t it? But such is the fickle fingerfuck of fate. By the way, Hackman is on his way to Africa to “discover God in my own way.” This may have resonated more in the 70s, but from this distance he just seems like a narcissistic prick with a messianic complex, which only becomes more apparent.

But what of the evil, sniveling Ledarkos? He is the representative of the ship’s owner, and as such supposedly outranks the captain, and orders the captain to continue at full speed, not stopping to take on ballast, which is bad, bad news as the ship is currently top heavy [for some reason]. Curse man’s greed! Anyway, Captain Neilson turns to him and seethes: “Irresponsible bastard!” I don’t think we get to see Ledarkos die a gruesome death, which is surprising.

Our characters all introduced, we are free to bring in our disaster. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the willowy blond singer sings “The Morning After” in a different version than the official Maureen McGovern performance [and how can I get this version?], while we see that most of the men are wearing ridiculous joker-style hats. But just upstairs the captain is noticing a huge wave heading at them. It seems there was an underwater earthquake, and it has created a tsunami. Now, I was prepared to suspend my disbelief that such a wave would be created in the middle of the ocean [tsunamis pass unnoticed in the mid-ocean, only rising as the water becomes shallower and pushes the water up], but I was pleased to hear a throwaway line about how the water is “piling up in those shallows.” Nice! It all makes scientific sense now.

Back in the ballroom, we discover that a popular New Year’s Eve activity of the 70s was to join hands in groups of eight and sing Auld Lang Syne. It works on a psychological level, though, because all of the people are physically bonding and holding each other as the wave hits. I am happy to say that the disaster portion is still pretty effective! The floor starts to tilt, then tilt some more, and people and pianos start sliding. The movie does a good job of showing how disorienting this is, and the terror the people feel. It all has just the right level of surrealism, and it’s also clear what’s going on. I was sure that they’d made a huge set that they really rotated, but I listened to that portion of the commentary and it turns out that they did it using just a few angles of the set, which is more apparent upon re-viewing.

So now the ship is upside down. Hackman’s philosophy is put into action as he insists that they make their way up [down] and try to get out through the hull, against the orders of the purser or whoever. He and a group of about ten set out to look on up at the bottom.

Remember the world’s most annoying little brother? One of the things about him that is like nails on a chalkboard is the way he keeps calling PSM “Sis.” That has always annoyed me, just because it’s an irritating sound, but also… has anyone ever really called their sister that in real life? I mean, like outside of Hilights magazine? So he is incessantly saying things like [when he sees PSM is stuck on a table now on the former floor / current ceiling] “What are you doing up there, sis?” If I were Hackman, I’d say “that’s it! This kid stays down here and dies.” But I guess that’s why I’m not a priest.

By the way, we also find out around this time that the poster for the new remake of this movie was taken wholesale from an image from this version. But we’ll cover the new remake in depth later.

Anyway, so now it’s all a giant perilous jungle gym, and as such I thought the second half became a great deal less interesting. One thing that has been noticeable from the start is that Hackman is VERY hands-on with the ladies. At one point he’s consoling some woman while gently kissing her forehead, and he’s always hugging and touching and feeling and groping, all in the name of divine comfort. You’ll also notice that he sends the children up the Christmas-tree-as-ladder first, although no one knows for sure that it won’t collapse. At least he has some priorities straight, although unfortunately the brat makes it up there safe and sound.

Said brat later tells Shelly, as he’s helping to pull her up somewhere, “It’s all right Mrs. Rosen, I helped my dad haul in a 600-pound [fish] off Hawaii.” Uh, EXCUSE ME? Rude? He later makes it worse by apologizing for this comment, saying he didn’t mean that SHE was like a 600-pound fish. Isn’t there some flaming pool somewhere we can dump this kid in?

Anyway, Hackman and Borgnine bicker endlessly throughout, with Borgnine coming off as a moron and Hackman coming off as a power-mad prick. Everything has to be Hackman’s way, and he continues to be rude to Borgnine even though it’s obvious that it’s really annoying Borgnine. Hi there Father, a little ‘please’ wouldn’t slow you down too much. After someone dies, and he has excoriated Borgnine for it even though he hasn’t bothered to ask what happened, he says “I told you I’m gonna get everyone out of here alive and goddammit I’m going to do it!” So what, this is all some personal trophy for you about your great ingenuity? The guy’s an out-of-control narcissist, and I guess the survivors are just lucky his obsession this time is with saving them.

Blah blah blah it goes on until it’s over. I found the first half a lot more interesting than the second, although I must confess that a certain high school underwater swimming champion’s death did bring a little tear to my eye.

The recent remake Poseidon, which seemed shitty and pointless at the time, seems still more shitty and pointless compared to this version. God, WHAT is wrong with them? Seeing that version made me appreciate all the time they take in setting up the characters here. We know what they are on their way toward and what is going on in their personal lives, then watch it all thrown into upheaval. The new version cuts all that out and gets to the disaster within 15 minutes. Since you don’t have a stake in any of the characters [which is not to mention how repulsive a great many of the characters are in the new one], you’re really just watching them climb the world’s biggest jungle gym. The wave and capsizing here also are much more effective in the older version, part of which I conclude from the fact that I can’t recall a single thing from the capsizing in the new version, aside from the scenes I saw a thousand times in the trailers. The other thing that becomes really clear is that in this version there is a sense of community and the survivors really support each other, whereas in the new one the people seem much more out for themselves. The stowaway [in the new one] doesn’t care that she might get the guy who brought her aboard fired, Dreyfuss shakes a Latino off his foot, sending him to his death, just stuff like that that is simply too vulgar [and we ARE talking about the Poseidon Adventure here] for this version. And then there’s Hackman’s whole deal about God helping people, which is a rather obvious theme, but at least it’s a theme.

So overall, fun but not as fulfilling as I’d hoped it would be [The Towering Inferno managed to pretty much remake this entire movie, although adding 45 minutes to its 2 hour running time], but it does gain a lot of points when compared with the pointless remake. With many movies you say “It could have been worse.” In this case, we have concrete proof.

Should you watch it: 

Sure. And if you’ve never seen it, definitely.

THE TOWERING INFERNO is pretty much the same movie, just longer and in a building. It even has a more-of-the-same theme song in “We May Never Love Like This Again.”
POSEIDON is the recent remake of this which is pretty much just crap.
BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is a shitty sequel with Michael Caine and Telly Savalas, and pretty fun if you like crap.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE [TV REMAKE] I haven’t seen, but is rumored to suck hard.


I have seen neither movie (and plan to see neither now for sure!) but reading your hilarious review brought me to tears laughing. Yes, nothing better than bad movies so bad they're GOOD. I did see Earthquake once (with Charlston Heston, Ava Gardner etc) which run in the same vein in the same era, and it was equally laughable. These 70s "catastrophic" movies took such great actors, and wasted them so wantonly! Thank you for injecting such wonderful wit to your evaluation of these adorable clunkers.

Thanks, buddy!