So after making our way through the entire Airport series, the kiddo and I decided to move on to other disaster movies of the 1970s. We started by dipping our toes in the chilling waters of The Poseidon Adventure.
I love watching these things with the kiddo because of the perspective he brings to the table as a 10 year-old. The first thing he said to me as the opening credits were rolling was, “There really aren’t any stars in disaster movies, are there?” This led to me stopping the film and the two of us having a conversation about the concept of an ensemble cast and just how big the stars that appeared in these movies were at the time.
Speaking of stars, this thing is right in line with anything we saw from the Airport franchise: Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott, Ernest Borgnine as Detective Mike Rogo, Stella Stevens as Rogo’s ex-prostitute wife, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters as Manny and Belle Rosen, Red Buttons as health-nut bachelor James Martin, Carol Lynley as hippie singer Nonnie, Roddy McDowall as Acres the doomed waiter, Pamela Sue Martin as Susan Shelby traveling with her little brother to meet up with their parents abroad, and Leslie Nielsen as the ship’s captain.
The S.S. Poseidon is making its final voyage across the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean from New York City to Athens before being decommissioned. The boat’s new owners have put Mr. Linarcos in charge of things, and he orders the ship to go “full ahead” against Captain Harrison’s objections and even though the ship has not filled its ballast tanks.
An undersea New Year’s Eve earthquake triggers a rogue wave that the Poseidon is unable to evade. The wave crashes into the ship just after a mayday distress signal is sent, killing the captain and everyone on the bridge. Without the necessary ballast, the ship capsizes, forcing a ragtag band of survivors to make their way up towards the surface by climbing from the dining room to the propeller shaft at bottom of the boat.
Leading the charge for a small group of survivors is Reverend Scott. He tries to convince others along the way to follow him, but isn’t always successful. When he’s unable to persuade one particular survivor to join him, my kiddo asked me, “Who was the gray-haired guy he was talking to?” And when I reminded him it was the ship chaplain I got an “Oh, I liked him. Too bad he had to die,” in reply.
Thankfully, Acres and Robin, Susan’s little brother with a curiosity for the ship’s inner workings, are along to help navigate the motley bunch to safety. They make their way through the galley and various corridors to an access tunnel. They lose Acres when an explosion rocks the boat, but the group forges on. They come upon other survivors moving in the opposite direction. Scott is certain they are headed towards their doom and unsuccessfully tries to convince them otherwise.
Scott scouts ahead for the engine room, but by the time he goes back for the others, the corridor has flooded. He attempts to swim with a length of rope from the group to the engine room so they will have a trail to follow, but a door collapses on Scott trapping him. Fortunately, Belle is a former champion swimmer, and she goes in after Scott, freeing him and getting them both to the engine room. Unfortunately, Belle isn’t in the same shape she was when she swam competitively and suffers a heart attack almost immediately after reaching the engine room. My kiddo, an avid swimmer, insisted on trying to hold his breath along with Scott during his dive.
The group has to cross a catwalk to enter the propeller shaft room, and while crossing Rogo’s wife dies, prompting Rogo to go off on Scott one more time before a ruptured steam pipe blocks the group’s progress. After losing Acres, Belle, and Mrs. Rogo, Scott goes off on God, telling Him “We didn't ask you to fight for us, but damn it don't fight against us!” before jumping for the valve, shutting off the flow of steam, then sacrificing himself. The six remaining survivors make it into the propeller shaft room just as rescuers are banging on the hull above them. The rescuers blowtorch their way in to the survivors, who are immediately flown to safety.
The movie is fairy intense in spots and certainly keeps the viewer on edge regarding who will make it and who won’t – especially after Acres dies, and they start dropping like flies during the last 20 minutes or so. The kiddo was far more affected by Belle’s death than any of the others we’ve seen in these disaster movies so far. I took that as a sign that the characterizations here are well-executed. (It’s hard for me to be objective about these stars with all the baggage I bring to the table – Jack Albertson is forever Grandpa Joe and The Man to me.) But it’s the character dynamics that were most intriguing.
The Poseidon Adventure’s central conflict is alpha males Reverend Scott and Detective Rogo continually posturing for dominance of the group. While you never really believe that Rogo will take over, the hot-headed threat looms throughout. It starts with Mrs. Rogo harping on her husband in their cabin. (Kiddo: “I don’t like her. She’s sassy and mean.”) That carries over to their New Year’s Eve dinner at the Captain’s table, where Scott is also seated. There is clear tension between the married couple that leads directly to crazy-ass machismo bets and constant bickering between the two rivals after disaster strikes. The bottom line, though, is that Rogo bitches and Scott leads.