Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Films of 1972: The Poseidon Adventure

Based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel of the same name, Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is one of those disaster movies from the seventies that even today proves nearly impossible to resist.  

It’s not just human curiosity that makes this film appealing, with audiences inevitably wondering how, in the same situation, they might fare.

On the contrary, there’s actually a strong spiritual component at work in this thriller directed by Ronald Neame.

Indeed, the movie offers a full-throated, abundantly muscular version of Christian faith that many viewers will find appealing now, in 2016, and must have proven highly appealing at the time of the film's original release, in the aftermath of Time Magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover story.

The filmmakers knew what they were onto, I believe, and so the film’s promotional materials read, pointedly. “Hell, Upside Down!”

That tag-line very nicely sums up the movie’s thematic through-line. 

Specifically, a widely-disdained man-of god -- a Moses or Jesus figure -- played by Gene Hackman leads a group of would-be survivors through an industrial Hell on Earth: the capsized ocean-liner S.S. Poseidon. 

The path to safety and indeed, salvation, is veritably Dante-sque in its grueling, horrific dimensions, consisting of floods, fires, and other challenges for the faithful to overcome. Again and again, Reverend Scott’s tenets of faith are asserted, challenged, and vindicated as he rallies the spirits and courage of his wayward flock.

This approach is quite different, for certain, from the specifics of the novel.

In the literary version of this tale, Scott possesses some rough edges, and takes his own life. Additionally, the character played by Pamela Sue Martin in the film is, in the book, raped by a fellow survivor. The filmmakers have removed this controversial material so that Scott and his “flock” are easier to identify with and root for, perhaps.

And that’s the thing worth lauding about The Poseidon Adventure (1972). 

In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how much Ernest Borgnine over-acts, or if the special effects have aged poorly (and mostly, they haven’t).  

Despite any such superficial drawbacks, the film enthralls the viewer because we desire to see the characters live up to their leader’s words. We hope to see them take responsibility for their own lives; for their own survival. 

When they do so, their victory is not merely one of physical endurance. It is one of spiritual strength.

“Resolve to fight for yourself and others.”

At sea, the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon is struck by a tsunami, and it cap-sizes. The captain (Leslie Nielsen) and bridge officers are killed instantly, leaving survivors of the disaster to fend for themselves.

In the ship’s main hall, a ballroom where a New Year’s Eve party was in full swing, the Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) attempts to convince the others that they must leave the hall and head for the upside-down vessel’s aft propeller section. There the metal hull is at its thinnest, and rescue is therefore possible.

Many don’t heed his message, but some do. 

Climbing a Christmas tree and escaping the ballroom with the reverend are a young woman, Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother, Robin (Eric Shea), and an older Jewish couple, the Rosens (Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson). 

Also going with Scott’s group are an argumentative police officer, Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), as well as a single man, Mr. Martin (Red Bttons) and a traumatized singer, Nonnie (Carol Lynley).

The group escapes the hall just as water floods it, killing those who stayed behind. 

But the survivors can’t look back, and must soon navigate a passageway called “Broadway,” a kitchen riddled with fire, a submerged compartment, and the obstacles of a burning engine room.

“Nobody’s gonna help us except ourselves.”

Early in The Poseidon Adventure, Gene Hackman’s outsider reverend (who is bound for exile in the third world for his non-dogmatic views of Christianity) delivers a powerful sermon on the ship's deck.  

He declares that God cares about humanity, but sees humanity on a different scale than we can understand. God is looking at man over the generations, over a huge span of time, and can’t worry about each one of us, says Scott.

Instead, Scott informs his flock -- and the audience -- when we “pray to God” we should “pray to that part of God within” all of us. 

God wants winners, not quitters,” he says. Scott then suggests that his listeners “resolve to fight” for themselves and "for others."

Scott’s philosophy comes in handy during the crisis, but on a much more significant level, also informs the rest of the film.  It is not actually in Scripture that “God helps those who help themselves,” but The Poseidon Adventure puts forward that philosophy, on steroids, as a guide-post for the faithful in harrowing and uncertain times.

Again, one must consider historical and cultural context when thinking about a film’s meaning. In the early 1970s, the pop culture was agonizing over the issue of God and faith. The 1966 Time Magazine with the “Is God Dead?” cover appeared in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), for example. 

The Poseidon Adventure’s response to such questioning, is, essentially, to say, stop being a crybaby about God and go pull your own weight. 

God’s got other things to do besides saving your scared ass. He made you in his image, so find that part of God inside you...and survive.  Quit being a victim.

Now, I am not advocating any viewpoint or belief system here (least of all regarding belief in God), merely noting that The Poseidon Adventure reflects its time, and accordingly puts forward a philosophy or way of commenting on that epoch.

Think about that time just a little more: December, 1972. American pillars like faith in government were beginning to fall, in part because of the Watergate Scandal. The first convictions in that crime came just weeks after The Poseidon Adventure’s theatrical release. 

Also, America was sharply divided by issues such as the Vietnam War, which it appeared to be losing...badly. The old ways of seeing and living just weren’t working anymore. In short, We all seemed to be trapped on a capsized ship, one that was sinking fast.  

The Poseidon Adventure’s answer  to that dilemma was simple but ultimately empowering on a personal level: When things are falling apart, look to yourself. Summon the best part of yourself to respond.

In the film, Scott’s superior in the Church, also on the Poseidon, laments that Scott “speaks only for the strong,” but I think he’s off-base in that assertion. I believe that the message of Scott’s sermon is that we all  carry the spark of the divine within us, and can access it when we try.  We are all strong, and we must summon that strength if we wish to survive. Again, I’m not advocating for or against anything, including religious belief, merely noting what I saw and heard consistently expressed in this movie.

The entire film can be read, at least metaphorically, as a religious journey. Scott states his philosophy, and some follow it...while others (to their detriment) don't. 

He leads them out of the hall or ballroom, specifically by climbing up a Christmas tree. Certainly, that is a symbolically-important choice.  In 2004, for example Pope John Paul noted that the Christmas tree exalts “the value of life” and related it to Scripture, and the tree of life in Genesis 2:9.  

Note that a key aspect of Scott’s philosophy, as repeated, in hushed tones throughout The Poseidon Adventure is that “life matters very much.”  Life, specifically, involves climbing that Christmas tree and escaping the hall. It is literally a tree of life for those who choose to see it as such.

Moreover, the Christmas tree in the film is topped by a star of sorts, if memory serves, and symbolically speaking, such a Christmas star is supposed to represent the one viewed by the Three Wise Men at the time of Jesus’s birth. Likewise in the film, above and beyond the star is, literally, salvation: an escape from the hell of the bowels of the ship.

Scott’s belief system, that “nobody’s going to save us except ourselves,” is transmitted to the others, including Belle Rosen (Winters). She gives up her life fighting to survive. Had she not chosen to swim into a submerged compartment, Scott would have died then and there, pinned under a sheet of metal, and the others would not have escaped the ship.  Belle Rosen -- whose name means beautiful flower -- "blooms" as a person, and puts into practice the belief of her spiritual leader.  She fights for "others," like her husband, Manny. She has resolved to fight for them, no matter the cost.

Next, of course, in this spiritual reading of the film, we must consider Scott himself. He is either a Moses figure, leading the survivors out of Hell to a promised land, or a Christ figure.  

I tend to prefer the Christ analogy, because -- spoiler alert -- he dies living his principles.  

Above the burning ruins of Poseidon’s Engine Room -- literally a lake of fire in spots -- Scott gives up his life so that others might live. He dies, essentially, for our sins, as Jesus did. Burning steam is being voided into the chamber, and Scott hangs precariously from the valve to close it, and make the way passable.

Although we don’t explicitly get a traditional crucifixion pose here, it is important to note that visually, Scott hangs isolated before the others, dying before their eyes, as he makes his sacrifice.

He dies living out his philosophy, fighting every inch of the way to survive, to fight not just for himself, but “for others.”

The Poseidon Adventure's final scene is particularly Dante-sque, as it sees the survivors escape the Hell of the Engine Room and step out onto the surface, into sunlight and safety.  This moment represents a catharsis, a cleansing. True, it’s not Easter Sunday when these individuals escape (like it was for Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy), but it is a day of renewal and re-birth nonetheless: New Year’s Day.

As readers are aware, I admire tremendously those movies that work on two tracks of meaning simultaneously. 

One can absolutely enjoy The Poseidon Adventure as a straight-up disaster film with some remarkable stunts.

But one can also view the film as a statement of philosophy; as a meaningful comment on spirituality and what it means at this particular junction in history.  Although the film is often criticized for over-acting and some cheesy dialogue, it also manages to craft some beautiful and unforgettable compositions.

For instance, there’s the moment early in The Poseidon Adventure when the hall is flooded, and those without faith in Scott's leadership panic and drown. There is nothing Scott can do to help them once the sea rushes in. 

Downcast, he closes the doors to the hall -- which the doomed will never reach -- his visage disappearing into shadow and darkness. The others have been locked out of Heaven, in a sense, because of their inability to believe in Scott’s philosophy of muscular faith. Visually, this shot  makes us understand how Scott must “close the doors” on those who can’t help themselves, and continue his trek for freedom (and the salvation it brings).

Another moment that lingers in the memory involves Mrs. Rogo’s death. She’s a former prostitute and a crass sort of gal.  She dies just moments before salvation, by falling into the lake of fire. 

This occurs, I believe, because she never came to believe in Scott’s dogma of looking out for herself and others.  She only got to the first part of that equation. In one especially ugly moment, she comments on Mrs. Rosen’s “fat ass,” and getting stuck behind it.  

Her punishment for abandoning her fellow survivors is death by fire. It’s true Mrs. Rosen dies too, but she dies at a moment of courage and nobility, saving others instead of deriding them. I suppose the important question involves how one meets his or her fate, right?

On the surface, The Poseidon Adventure is about a disaster at sea, of course, and those who do and don’t survive that disaster.  That’s to be expected.  

The rewarding quality about this film is that it talks about survival not merely as an end, but, finally, a statement of philosophy and faith. 

There are a lot of good disaster movies out there, but I don't know of many that are as coherent and consistent as The Poseidon Adventure is in terms of messaging and symbolism.

Hell, Upside Down,” is the challenge you face, and if you desire to escape it, you have to do it standing on your own two feet.  


  1. This was one of my favorite movies as a kid. In an era before home video, I remember going to see it in the theatre several times before it finally finished its run. Although I was too young to articulate the spiritual themes of the film, they definitely resonated with me and Gene Hackman became my favorite actor. I can recall swinging from a high branch on the tree in my front yard, reenacting the climatic scene. I'm sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, screaming my head off as I plunged to my imaginary fiery death on the front lawn.

  2. Awesome review and great reading of the movie!

    One of the first films I ever saw in a theater and it had quite an effect on me. I remember buying the song "The Morning After' on 45 and spinning it nonstop. I listen to the John William's soundtrack every now and then and have been meaning to revisit this film.