Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) - Ernest Borgnine Rules

original Poseidon Adventure 1972 film poster

"The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) is a classic disaster flick.  People who don't want to suspend their disbelief call it all sorts of names - cheesy, generic, simplistic - but it remains one of the great films of all time.

leading actors posed outside the Queen Mary, where exterior filming took place
The cast in front of the Queen Mary, where exterior shooting took place

The cast is stellar.  You had a prime mix of old, reliable warhorses - Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson - and rising young stars - Pamela Sue Martin, Gene Hackman - and talented but underrated stars in mid-career - Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens. Included were a precocious kid, an old man, a British steward, a radical priest.  It was terrific, topical casting, and what made it work was the fact that this varied group was probably close to what you might find at random in reality aboard a cruise ship.

water rushing in and almost drowning Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and the others
The rush for the ladder as the water surges

Rather than have the character sit around and talk about how to solve their problems - see the many "Airport" films for that - directors Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame (1911-2010) put the passengers right in the middle of sudden, terrifying catastrophes.  Allen later did the same thing in "The Towering Inferno," but, fine as that movie is, the technique has more impact here.  You get a real sense of claustrophobia and terror, along with the occasional sight gag due to the peculiar orientation of the ship and the inherent absurdity of the whole situation. While everybody appears to be playing it straight, there is the occasional extremely subtle touch to indicate that everyone in fact is playing it just a bit for laughs ("Next time you put on something like I told you to put on," Borgnine's cop yells at his wife after yet another disaster, finishing off an earlier argument with triumphant relish).

Gene Hackman helping Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure
This death hits the Preacher hard

You have everything in this film - excitement, danger, sex (Stella Stevens and Pamela Sue Martin were hot!), heroics, timidity.  You get courage from unexpected sources at times, and timidity as well.  The full panoply of human emotion is on display, just as you would see in a genuine disaster.

Stella Stevens climbing out of a maelstrom in The Poseidon Adventure
Stella Stevens escaping danger

Who rises to the occasion?  Who fails?  Who lives and dies can't be predicted at the outset.  Is it better to be aggressive in this situation, or sit tight and wait for help?  There is real drama here, and if you don't know the story in advance, you might be surprised at some of the outcomes.  You do get very solid answers to these questions, just as you could get them historically by studying up on the Titanic (there are several direct allusions to that real-life disaster, including, of course, this film's title and a sarcastic remark by Borgnine's character that they would have to start singing "Nearer My God to Thee" if things didn't improve). You did know the urban legend that a  D.W. Griffith 1911 film  called "The Poseidon Adventure" was being shown on the Titanic as it hit the iceberg - right?  Anyway, that's too delicious to be true.  Interestingly, this film gives different answers to some of the above questions than does Paul Gallico's 1969 book on which the film was based, underscoring the randomness of it all when disaster hits.

Ernest Borgnine surprised look in The Poseidon Adventure
Ernie should have won the Oscar for that look alone....

I confess to having had an aversion to "Poseidon" when it came out. The whole "disaster" genre just overwhelmed the film industry like a (pardon the expression) tidal wave. Anybody who lived through the onslaught of teen flicks in the late '90s knows the feeling. You couldn't turn on the radio without hearing the Oscar-winning theme song "There's Got to be a Morning After" (sung superbly by Maureen McGovern). "Poseidon" had so much success, in fact, both artistically and commercially, that it opened the floodgates (again, pardon the pun).  What  followed, unfortunately, was a raft of increasingly weak effects-laden bombs (exemplified by "Earthquake") that all required at least half a dozen washed-up film stars to strenuously act like "just plain folks" and had stupid, "ordinary folks doing weird things" sub-plots. Truly, I was prejudiced against this film, and thought it trashy and corny, along with being over-marketed to the point I felt compelled to like it, which never is a good thing.  The characters seemed stereotyped in a back-handed way, acting strenuously with or against type:: heroic grandma; obstructive cop; down-to-earth radical preacher; rigid captain.
Leslie Nielsen as the captain of The Poseidon Adventure
Leslie Nielsen playing it straight

Well, I was wrong.  Over time, I have to come to appreciate the phenomenal strengths of "Poseidon." It has fantastic character development, at least compared to later disaster films, and a perfect score throughout (not just the theme song, which really is a classic). The effects hold up (compare again, say, "Earthquake"), except for out-of-synch interior and exterior shots when the wave strikes (more an editing problem there). The characters, too, have grown on me. It is kind of refreshing now to see the bratty kid, the traumatized singer, all the obviously misguided naysayers following their fears to their doom. As you grow older, you see that these are common types you will encounter on your way through life.

Ernest Borgnine crying over a dead Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure
"You had a lot of guts, lady.  A lot of guts."

The best performance award, though, goes to... Ernest Borgnine. Yes, he takes his hits in many reviews, and never received appropriate recognition for this role. Where others see hammy over-acting, I see a marvelously energetic performance that perfectly antagonizes the somewhat flaky preacher. Ranging from put-upon to doubting to angry to resigned to determined, the cop character runs the emotional gamut. He provides the conflict and muscle that the story badly needs, along with badly needed subtle humor in his raging banter with Stella Stevens. "You had a lot of guts, lady... a lot of guts" is the best-delivered line in the film and, really, one of the best of Borgnine's epic career. At the Oscars the following year, I really couldn't understand why he hadn't even been nominated.  Now, I realize that however much he deserved it, Borgnine was tarred by having taken the "McHale's Navy" (1962) role (being on TV was seen as a major step down in those days).  Also, Hackman was the hot actor at the time, not Ernie, who had been hanging around playing the same heavies in oaters like Raquel Welch's "Hannie Caulder" (1971) for too long to be taken seriously.  A wiser Academy would have given him the statue, or at least nominated him, but it was not to be.  The preacher may be clever and determined, but the cop is the guy I understand and want on my side when the chips are down.  In my opinion, it is the single best portrayal of an ordinary cop using his basic skills to cope with a non-legal disaster in film history.

Ship underwater, lights blazing, explosions in The Poseidon Adventure
The special effects are spectacular

Gene Hackman, as the preacher, unfortunately is the one who never quite comes to grips with his own character. I realize this is heresy for fans of the film, but looking at it dispassionately after 40+ years, you see how difficult the role was for him. He hyper-ventilates and appears tense and conflicted throughout, especially compared to his character's supposed ice-cold realism. He still does a fine, fine job, but it is an awkward role that he never fully inhabits (playing an arrogant, argumentative preacher who has to convince people that he knows what he's doing on a sinking ship couldn't have been easy). Shelley Winters stands out in very sentimental role for which she was Nominated, and I always liked the understated Roddy McDowall character (whose character, I believe, was drawn from a real crewman on the Titanic who kept his nerve throughout). The rest of the cast is fun, everyone getting to do their bits. By the way, whatever happened to Pamela Sue Martin after "Dynasty"?
leads of The Poseidon Adventure in the ship's ballroom
"Next time you put something on like I told you to put on!"

This is the Big Kahuna of the disaster flicks, better than "Towering Inferno" and the Airport series. One of the top ten films of the 1970s. See it if you want escapism or an understanding of that turbulent time and its Vietnam/Watergate-era downbeat attitude seasoned liberally with hope of better times. Fighting against the odds, moral dilemmas, sudden disasters... makes for a great film.


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