It’s still there in my list of favorite movies; right up there with Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc; Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon; Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring; Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire; Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront; Grigory Chukray’s Ballad of a Soldier; and most recently Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent.
Although the original film version of The Poseidon Adventure, was the top-grossing movie of 1973, most reviewers didn’t regard it as anything that special: just an above average example of the then-popular disaster-movie genre with an exceptional cast. They included previous Academy Award Oscar winners Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, and Red Buttons. It was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two second-tier awards, one for Best Original Song, ‘The Morning After,’ the other for Special Effects. Hackman won the British Academy Film award for Best Actor in a Starring Role, and Winters won the Globe aware for Best Supporting Actress. Summarizing 25 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes gives The Poseidon Adventure a modestly good score of 6.94 out of 10.
I’m not even going to go there, other than to say 20th Century Fox, the producers, and director Ronald Neame could have done a better job of first realizing, and then focusing more on what I regard as the story’s powerful, allegorical message of hope.
Based on a 1969 novel by Paul William Gallico, I can only suspect “adventure” was added to the book and movie title to attract a mass audience. Fair enough, especially if, as a result more people get the message consciously or subconsciously; and remember it now meaningfully, as I do, in a world turned upside-down.
Here in a nutshell is what The Poseidon Adventure is about: The Poseidon is an aging ocean liner on its last voyage before heading to the scrap yard. It is New Year’s Eve, and the clock is about to strike Midnight. There has been an earthquake deep in the waters of the Mediterranean Ocean. A huge Tsunami wave strikes the ship, causing it to capsize. Sensational scenes of chaos and death ensue in the great banquet hall where New Year’s celebrations are in full swing when the everything is suddenly turned upside down. There appears to be no way out as explosions rock the ship, leaving only a small portion of the hull above water. However, learning from another passenger that the thinnest part of the hull is at the propeller shaft beyond the engine room, Reverend Frank Scott instinctively sees hope. He begins to urge people around him not to give up and soon has a small group willing to join him in a journey through the bowels of the stricken ship. He calls on others to join his little group and climb a tall Christmas Tree raised up to a door in the now upside-down banquet hall. Most survivors gather around the ship’s purser, the officer in charge of money and material needs. Others try to climb the tree after all, but under the weight of too many people, and with the explosions continuing, the tree falls.
Rev. Scott, played by Hackman, and his group begin their journey. They include a Jewish couple from New York on their way to Israel to see their newborn grandson; a police detective and his wife, a former prostitute who he loves dearly; the ships singer; a young brother and sister going to meet their parents on holiday in Greece; and a mild-mannered, life-long bachelor obsessed about his physical health.
With Rev. Scott’s help and advise they overcome many obstacles. At one point, he gets into trouble swimming underwater in a flooded area to find the best way forward. He is saved by the middle-aged Jewish woman, played by Winters, who just happens to have been a competitive swimmer. But as a result, she has a heart attack and dies.
They come upon an area where the way forward seems impossible. Down below is a deep chasm of burning oil. Before them, just out of reach, is a valve spewing burning-hot steam. The detective’s beloved wife slips and falls to her death. The broken-hearted detective, played by Borgnine, angrily blames Rev. Scott. He in turn vents his anger at God.
“How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many lives?” the admittedly unorthodox minister asks God. “You want another life? Take me,” he cries, before jumping over the burning chasm to grab hold of the burning-hot valve.
Gradually, slowly, with painful effort he turns the valve off. But his strength is fading.
“You can make it,” he calls out to the survivors of his group. “Keep going,” he says.
He turns to the detective, still grieving the loss of his beloved wife. “Get them through,” Rev. Scott says, falling to his death
And so the detective does, until they finally reach the point where the propeller shaft goes through the thinnest part of the hull; but they have no tools. What can they do? They hear a sound outside, the roar of a helicopter engine, and boots walking above them. They begin to bang on the hull. Those above hear it. Soon, an acetylene torch is cutting through the metal. A hole big enough for people to get through is opened. Hands reach down to pull them up.
Then we see the helicopter taking off again into the sky with the only survivors of the Poseidon aboard.
That’s hardly a ‘nutshell,’ I guess.
So be it. Just as well: it doesn’t leave much room for too many words of discussion, analysis, and argument about the meaning of it all. Some might say there is none; others of a certain evangelical religious bent might see a transcendental message, the helicopter being a metaphor for the long-awaited fulfillment of ‘end time’ prophecies
If he were alive today, I might ask Paul Gallico what meaning he meant; but from what I’ve read about him I have a hunch the very prolific author/journalist would laugh uproariously.
I won’t judge or question. I will only I say what I still see: a message of profound hope: hope for life, and for those who weep and struggle in these seemingly hopeless times to keep up their spirits, but who ultimately renew their love and their faith in life, and do not give up.