One of my best and oldest friends has a thing for disaster movies from the 1970s. I love it when people have really specific partialities, and I asked him to try to define what it is that he likes so much about this genre. He listed the following characteristics:
- The Aesthetics: That certain pastel naïvité that clings to the 70s style, contrasted by horrifying scenes of grave peril.
- The Evil Capitalist: The fact that there’s always one evil merchant type who tells Noble Craftsman to go against his principle and endanger people’s lives because there’s money to be made here, dammit!!
- The Exposition: The way the characters always need to be established extremely quickly (background, goals in life, vices), so that you’ll be rooting for them/sad to see them go.
When he put it this way I completely understood what he was talking about, so I asked him over for a Disaster Movie Night, during which we would watch the original Poseidon Adventure from 1972.
“Hell, Upside Down”
The tagline of the movie is “Hell, Upside Down”, and this is a pretty accurate description of what goes on in The Poseidon Adventure. A traditional shipwreck movie at first glance, the movie tells the story of an aged luxury liner that is hit by the enormous wave of a tsunami. However, the story – literally – has a twist, in that the ship is turned upside down by the wave, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves by climbing upwards through the floors of the ship.
A simple, yet really kind of ingenious move by the director. It creates an extra obstacle for the main characters to overcome, aside from the usual flooded rooms and exploding shafts, and it also makes for some great visuals. There’s something so fascinating about seeing a room upside down and the set designers obviously had a field day creating the interiors which all look impressive – but also dangerous enough that you don’t envy the protagonists on their journey upwards through the hull. A great attention to detail is evident, and the characters seem to be constantly surrounded by ledges on which to hit their heads, soaked cables by which to be electrocuted, etc. etc. Also, the upside down set gives the art director’s a perfect excuse to light the actors from below in most of the scenes, which is always a scary effect.
Justice is also done to The Aesthetics, especially in the tsunami scene, in which the noisy shots of the happy, platform-shoed, polyester-wearing passangers celebrating New Year’s Eve are contrasted via crosscuts by the terrifying silent images of the abnormal emerging wave.
Of course all this would have little effect, if you didn’t care about the characters. But mostly, you do care. The exposition creates the characters if not exactly elegantly, then at least effortlessly, and some of the backstories are quite good. The main characters are:
Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a renegade minister with a modern, positive take on Christianity headed to a position in a new country in Africa; Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winter), A Jewish middle-aged couple travelling to Israel to see their two-year-old grandson for the first time; Susan and Robin Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea), a pretty young woman and her younger brother travelling to meet their parents, Mike and Linda Rogo (Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens), a police officer and his former prostitue wife who is struggling to free herself of her sordid reputation and past; James Martin (Red Buttons) a shy bachelor, and Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), the singer of the ship’s pop band.
Shelley Winter was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as the goodnatured and courageous Belle, and she really is moving, although I wish they would shut up about her weight already. Here’s a rough rehash of Mrs Rosen’s dialogue throughout the movie:
- Poseidon survivor: “Hey, Mrs Rosen! Climb up this Christmas decoration to safety!”
- Belle Rosen: “Oh, but I’m fat! It will break!”
- Poseidon survivor: “Hey, Mrs Rosen! Let us pull you up these upside-down stairs!”
- Belle Rosen: “But wait, I’m fat! Do you think you’ll manage?”
- Belle Rosen: “I will now save you all through a display of unselfish prowess!
- Poseidon survivor: “Oh, but will you be ok? You’re fat, you know!
- Belle Rosen: “Oh, I’ll be make it despite my fatness! Fat, fat, fat! Did I mention obesity? I have it!”
And so on. I mean, I appreciate a little forshadowing, but jeez, we get it: Her weight is going to be an issue at some point during the story. Now move the hell on. Oh, and by the way, Chekhov called. He wants a sh*tload of guns back.
Robin is a kid of only about 12 years, and his character feels a bit forced. I can see the potential of having a child in the cast of a disaster movie – playing off the audience’s maternal/paternal instincts and such – but with his courage beyond his years and his precocious lines he seems to have been added mostly to appeal to a younger audience, and this subtracts somewhat from the believability of the movie.
But I’ll bear with Robin, because his sister Susan is friggin’ awesome. I’ve loved Pamela Sue Martin ever since I saw her as the original Fallon Carrington on Dynasty. She was only 19 when she made this movie, but even then she had that certain star quality to her, and she nails her scenes. She kicks ass, pure and simple, and why she never became a huge Hollywood icon is beyond me.
Just look at her. So awesome, even when balancing on the floor of an overturning ship
Her character has a crush on Gene Hackman’s physically fit minister character Frank who plays the role of the obligatory leader among the survivors. There was something about ministers in the ’70s that made them ideal as Hollywood Leading Men in a way that you just wouldn’t see today. Is it the soft, spiritual approach to the world? Or maybe the ministers’ tendency to sport those super trendy turtlenecks? Or both?
You were entitled to a certain air of smugness if you wore a tight turtleneck in the 1970s.
Frank Ross is probably the campiest of all the characters, but I acknowledge the need for a hero in this kind of story. He’s Jack Shepherd, to put it in post-Millenium popcultural terms.
Not sure if I would have picked wacky Ernest Borgnine for the mostly serious part of Mike Rogo, but Mike’s and Susan’s backstory is the most intriguing and moving of them all, I think. I like that their story is rooted in something other than their travelling from one destination to another, and the obstacles that their love for each other have already overcome before they boarded the ship (because of Linda’s prostitute past) makes you root for them all the more. They deserve to make it out alive together, one feels.
The most dispensable characters are Nonny and James. James is supposed to be a comic relief of sorts, but doesn’t deliver, and Nonny plays the trademark Screaming Blonde, except we already have one pretty Damsel in Distress on the set (Pamela Sue Martin’s perfectly adequately screaming Susan), so what gives?
Moses and the Israelites
I know I said that thing about the ’1970s and Minister Heroes, but to be fair there’s another reason why Gene Hackman is a preacher: There’s an obvious Christian theme running through the story. Moses is casually namedropped as part of the exposition, and Frank Ross clearly functions as a kind of Moses figure with his faith in optimisim and taking action as opposed to the passive, fatalist believer who puts his fate in the hands of God. The ones who make it aboard the Poseidon are (roughly) the ones that follow Ross from the dark bottom of the hull and into the morning light and the salvation waiting for them above.
There’s also an Evil Capitalist early on in the movie, who urges the Noble Craftsman of a captain (Leslie Nielsen in an unlikely part) to steady on despite the captain’s worries for the passanger’s safety. But the Christianity theme is the more dominant one in this particular 1970s disaster movie. ‘There will always be Evil Capitalists dragging us all down,’ the movie seems to say, ‘But will you be ready to try to save yourself when it happens?’. This also lends some weight to Linda’s Mary Magdalene storyline – it’s all about fighting for a second chance at life.
A message you can take or leave, of course. I thought it was ok.
The Morning After
Don’t let the word “adventure” in the title fool you – the movie is pretty gruesome. A lot of people die, often in horrifying ways, and the movie isn’t afraid to kill off characters that have become near and dear to the viewer. When the credits finally rolled, my friend and I were both pretty shook up, when really we’d been expecting to have a good laugh at some 1970s cheese. The music did its fair share here: the Poseidon Adventure score was delivered by grand old man John Williams and features some really remarkable piano music during the scary scenes in the murky, wrecked, upside-down rooms of the luxury liner. The sound is best described as that of heavy objects being dropped on to the keys of a piano, or perhaps as the sound of a pianist slowly dying while he struggles to hit the keys. The effect is incredibly eerie, and the score is the best horror music I’ve heard in a long time.
Like Titanic (1997), The Poseidon Adventure also presented a smash hit song, “The Morning After” by Maureen McGovern, which won the movie its second Oscar Award (the first being a Special Achievement Award for visual effects). The song is pretty much the essence of ’70s easy listening, but I appreciate that unlike “My Heart Will Go On”, it sounds exactly like the kind of song that would actually be played aboard the kind of ship on which the movie takes place.