Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) - Ernest Borgnine Rules

Hell, Upside Down

The Poseidon Adventure 1972  poster
"The Poseidon Adventure" (1972).

"The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) is a classic Irwin Allen disaster flick, perhaps the most famous disaster film of them all. 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. It cemented the entire "disaster" genre begun with "Airport" in 1970, and was its climax.

The Poseidon Adventure 1972 Queen Mary
The cast in front of the Queen Mary, where exterior shooting took place.

The "Poseidon Adventure" cast is stellar - and that solidified another trend that lasted throughout the decade, large, varied ensemble casts that included venerable talent sprinkled with the newer generations. You had a prime mix of old, reliable headliner warhorses of years past (Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall) - rising stars (Pamela Sue Martin, Gene Hackman, Eric Shea) - and recognizable, talented but often underrated stars in mid-career (Stella Stevens, Leslie Nielson, Fred Sadoff, Carol Lynley, and Robert Hastings of "McHale's Navy"). Gene Hackman won his Academy Award for "The French Connection" during production - the rest of the cast gave him a cake. Famously, there were five Academy Award winners in the cast, as Irwin Allen purposely sought out "names" - names that he could get cheap, that is.

Roddy McDowall, who was constantly working on one project or another throughout his long career, took on the role of helpful waiter Acres. Incidentally... virtually everyone on the Internet, and I do mean everyone, mis-spells his last name with an "e." Check it out for yourself.

Included were a precocious kid (Shea), an old man (Albertson), a British ship's steward (McDowall), a radical priest (Hackman), a lady of questionable virtue (Stevens) recently married to a tough Chicago cop (Borgnine). 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. It was an ingenious way to bring in some "big names" of the past who were extremely talented, but could no longer carry a picture on their own, and provide some memories alongside the new kids on the block.

The Poseidon Adventure 1972
The rush for the ladder is on 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 - co-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).

The Poseidon Adventure 1972 Gene Hackman Shelley Winters
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 very poor choices as well. The full panoply of human emotion is on display, just as you would see in a genuine disaster.

Stella Stevens The Poseidon Adventure 1972
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? (That didn't actually happen). Anyway, that's too delicious to be true. Interestingly, this film gives different answers to some of the above questions than Paul Gallico's 1969 book on which the film was based. While Gallico emphasizes the randomness of it all when disaster hits, the film makes clear that there is a morning after - but only if you can find the way to see it.

Ernest Borgnine The Poseidon Adventure 1972
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 in mid-1973 without hearing the Oscar-winning theme song "The Morning After" (sung superbly by Renee Armand in the film and Maureen McGovern on the subsequent single release). Carol Lynley apparently says that she did record the song, but they decided to dub her anyway. Actually, there is a very minor controversy over whose version actually was used in the film (the song is sung twice), but the accepted story is that Armand dubbed for Lynley.

"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 The Poseidon Adventure 1972
Leslie Nielsen playing it straight as the doomed captain in "The Poseidon Adventure."

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 Shelley Winters The Poseidon Adventure 1972
This shot sets up the film's climactic scene.

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, Borgnine's 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. When he screams "My Linda!" at the preacher, though, is what really reaches people. At the Oscars the following year, I really couldn't understand why Borgnine hadn't even been nominated. Still just a kid, I couldn't fathom it - he clearly dominated the film and basically stole it out from under Gene Hackman.

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, almost a betrayal of the film industry. Unfortunately, Hackman (who also deserved a nomination and did win a BAFTA for Best Actor) was the hot star at the time, not Borgnine, who had been hanging around playing the same sorts of heavies in oaters like Raquel Welch's "Hannie Caulder" (1971) for too long to be taken seriously. A wiser Academy would have given Borgnine 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 humble opinion, Borgnine delivers the single best portrayal of an ordinary cop using his basic skills to cope with an off-the-job disaster in film history.

Ship underwater The Poseidon Adventure 1972
The special effects are spectacular - nobody else in Hollywood would have had the confidence to try to get away with this shot.

Gene Hackman, as Reverend Scott, 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. Hackman hyperventilates throughout and appears tense and conflicted even when he's at rest, 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 and staying believable or at least not camping it up too much (ahem, Stella Stevens). By the way, whatever happened to Pamela Sue Martin after "Dynasty"?

The Poseidon Adventure 1972 ship's ballroom
"Next time you put something on like I told you to put on!"

"The Poseidon Adventure" is the Big Kahuna of the disaster flicks, better than Irwin Allen's later "Towering Inferno" and the Airport series. The theme song, "The Morning After" (written by studio composers Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn and performed by Maureen McGovern) dominated the charts, hitting No. 1 for two weeks in August 1973. 

The Poseidon Adventure 1972 Maureen McGovern The Morning After
Maureen McGovern had a huge hit in 1973 with "The Morning After" (Wikepedia). However... in the film, the song is mouthed by Carol Lynley... and sung by vocal double Renee Armand. Maureen McGovern's version actually has nothing to do with "The Poseidon Adventure," but her name is forever associated with the film. McGovern was working as a secretary at the time and recorded her version after the film was released. That's how it rolls in Hollywood, folks.

John Williams - yes, that John Williams - also was nominated for the background score. "The Poseidon Adventure" clearly is one of the top ten films of the 1970s, and easily surpasses it sequel and remake in quality. 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, some live and some die... makes for a great film.

original Poseidon Adventure 1972 film poster


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