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The Poseidon Adventure (Special Edition) (1972)

Action & Adventure movie directed by Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame

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The Disaster Epic Turned Upside Down

  • May 12, 2006
How often have you run into someone who feels that a film adaptation of a novel is never as good as the novel itself? It certainly can be annoying, especially if all you want to do is lose yourself in visual splendor. But I'm afraid I have to side with the literary aficionados in the case of "The Poseidon Adventure," a well intentioned disaster flick that delivers plenty of action but skimps on deep, meaningful emotion, a quality that made Paul Gallico's original novel such a fascinating read. What little human drama that remains is shallow and brief, almost to the point of being completely unnecessary. It's basically an abridged version of the text, stripped of all complexity in order to present a bare bones action adventure. I suppose in that sense, this film does deserve some credit; action films are entertaining, and the fact that the filmmakers understood that showed that they knew how to appeal to a wider audience. And I have to admit: the scenes of destruction were fun to watch.

But that doesn't change the fact that this is an incredibly superficial film, great to look at but at times difficult to stay connected with. The transition from book to screen resulted in several watered down elements, not the least of which was character portrayals. I felt that the novel had an almost fable-like quality, presenting the kind of characters found in fairy tales and nursery rhymes: one-dimensional yet important in plot advancement. While they represented a wide range of caricature-type personalities that conflicted, they each served a purpose that almost supernaturally gets the passengers to try and reach the hull of the S.S. Poseidon. They all followed the leadership of Reverend Frank Scott despite emotional turmoil, distrust, hidden feelings of love and rejection, and at times, full blown hatred. It was as if they were somehow drawn to Scott despite the fact that most of the group was unwilling to follow him.

But most of that has been disregarded for the film adaptation. Now the characters are much less interesting, especially in the way that they all come together so willingly and set aside feelings of hostility in order to work towards their goal. That may be an incredibly odd and heartless thing to say, but I can't help but feel that the story was meant to embody the characteristics of a legend, something you don't necessarily believe but you do understand. The legend as Gallico saw it pitted a group of men and women against all the odds in a capsized ocean liner, each one assigned a personality type that never faltered. It poses some questions. How can anyone expect to make a perilous journey with an antisocial, resentful former actress? How about with a hard-nosed New York cop who remains suspicious, angry, and enabling of his abusive wife? Or maybe a brave yet unhealthy old woman who never seems to think she can accomplish anything because of her excessive weight? I could go on, but you get the point. These are all caricatures in the original novel, defined right from the start and unchanging even in the midst of disaster.

In this Irwin Allen production, we have Gene Hackman as Reverend Scott, who takes it upon himself to lead a group of Poseidon survivors to safety after a freak title wave literally turns their lives upside down on New Years Eve. Most people are skeptical and unflinching, but some do follow him: Lieutenant Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), a New York cop; his wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), an angry woman who's afraid the past will catch up with her; Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) and his wife, Belle (Shelly Winters); Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her know-it-all younger brother, Robin (Eric Shea); the lonely James Martin (Red Buttons); the frightened young singer, Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley); and the crewman Acres (Roddy McDowall). They trek across the ship, working their way up towards the keel and back to the propeller shaft in the hopes that they can be rescued. Along the way they experience death, obstructions, and limited physical capabilities. They're being tested, pretty much to the point of questioning whether or not their efforts have been for nothing.

Fans of the novel will immediately notice the story changes: Sue and Robin's parents have been eliminated, as have The Beamer, Pamela, Hubert Muller, Mrs. Kinsale, and Kemal; Linda's hostility is almost exclusively directed at her husband instead of humanity in general; Rogo's bigotry, ignorance, and anger was dropped in favor of a more flexible demeanor; and Martin replaces Hubert Muller as the one with the caring, protective instincts for Nonnie (which are much more subdued). There are also other differences, ones that prevent me from going into detail due to spoiling the plot. I'll say this much; some of the deaths occur at different times while other lives are spared altogether, and the ending is completely different.

Despite this review seeming like a negative rant, the truth is that "The Poseidon Adventure" is not an especially bad movie. But it definitely is missing a lot of the emotional qualities that made Gallico's novel a great read. Maybe I was just too taken with it; anyone who reads a novel first will almost surely moan and complain about the foibles of its film adaptation, especially if the novel was well-written (I'm sure the films generated from Stephen King's works undergo just as much scrutiny, maybe more so). Or maybe I'm too dense to appreciate nearly two hours of nautical peril. But whatever the case, this didn't quite do it for me. If those of you reading this think that I've completely missed the point, then I'm sorry to have disappointed you. Next time I'll try harder.

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Chris Pandolfi ()
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Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Hands down, this is the best movie (and was one of the first) to come out of the seemingly endless cycle of disaster movies that dominated box offices during the 1970s. It could even be argued thatTitanicowes some of its success to the precedent set by this 1972 blockbuster starring Gene Hackman as a priest who leads a small group of survivors to safety from the bowels of a capsized luxury liner. From its stellar cast to its cheesy, Oscar-winning theme song,The Morning After, the movie has all the ingredients of a popular classic, beginning with a New Year's Eve celebration aboard the ill-fatedPoseidonand ending as a pop allegory when the Hackman character becomes a Christ-like martyr. Filmed on spectacular sets where everything down is up and the ship's thick hull points in the direction of salvation, this is "a waterloggedGrand Hotel" (in the words ofNew Yorkerfilm critic Pauline Kael) that is as entertaining as it is unabashedly brainless.The Poseidon Adventureis filled with performances that rise above the limits of the screenplay. It's also the only movie--unless you count her underwater corpse inNight of the Hunter--that lets Shelley Winters strut her stuff as an aquatic heroine. Who could ask for anything more?--Jeff Shannon
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DVD Release Date: May 9, 2006
Runtime: 117 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
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