Upside Down On Fire!
Produced by Irwin Allen – the godfather of disaster movies – imagine how his ears must have pricked up when he heard the pitch for THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE: “Ocean liner capsizes from a tidal wave and floats upside down as a few passengers struggle their way to the bottom of the ship in the hope of finding a way out through the hull.” Simple. Yet magnificent originality. Like nothing we’ve been trapped in before. And no cheap imitators have yet done it better.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE kneads away at our primal fears: just how long can you hold your breath underwater while swimming through blackened corridors and lifting objects and struggling with hatches? Just how steadily can you crawl across a narrow beam spanning a 100-foot drop into fiery water below? Just how fast can you scramble up a ladder to escape gushing, rising water in a crawlspace? All that, and we’re not even oriented correctly – down is up: the floor is the ceiling, the ceiling is the floor. THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is filled with suspense, action, human strength overcoming human frailty – and shouting; lots and lots of shouting.
You will never hear more dialogue shouted full voice between characters for such an extended span of screentime. Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman, in an alpha dog struggle to lead the survivors.
New Year’s Eve, a tsunami capsizes the HMS Poseidon in the open sea in a fantastically-staged tipping-over scene. As it floats upside down, most of the passengers elect to stay in the main ballroom to wait for help, while a small group led by irreverent Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) decide their best bet is to struggle to the boat’s bottom hull to try to find egress. (Note: Leslie Nielsen was the ship’s captain – but he had nothing to do with it going over! Really. Nowadays, one of his idiot characters would easily find a way to inadvertently tip over an ocean liner, but back in the early ’70s, he was respected enough as a dramatic actor for director Ronald Neame to cast him as the upright captain!)
Of the survivors who beat a path to freedom, there is ex-cop Sergeant Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), his wife Linda (Stella Stevens), Manny and Mrs. Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), the insipid yet hot singer in the band (Carol Lynley: “There’s got to be a morning after…”), a Lonely Guy who crushes on her (Red Buttons), the unlucky waiter (Roddy McDowall), and two kids on the run from The Partridge Family.
Shouting ensues, as Reverend Scott (one of those “cool” young priests who rolls up his sleeves and gets stuff done like an atheist) and the belligerent Rogo (a beat cop who married his wife “to keep her off the streets”) disagree on every decision, never saying one word to each other under 100 dB. As the ship slowly sinks, taking on gushing water in compartments that they must escape, with explosions driving them in unwanted directions, Scott and Rogo begrudgingly find some kind of fragile peace to keep the survivors moving toward the hope of a hull breach.
Funny thing is: no one ever addresses the fact that both these men come from professions that are renowned for men trying to compensate for inadequacies – a priest and a cop! – and therefore repress a lot of self-directed anger. No wonder they’re always shouting!
On their way through the labyrinth of upside-down corridors, the Partridge Family kid goes missing; he suddenly comes running out of a bathroom yelling, “Sorry sis, I had to go to the bathroom!” Now hold on just a goddam minute: did you piss UPWARDS into the can? Or did you piss on the bathroom roof? Either way, numbskull, the corridors are awash with seawater – why did you bother going to the actual upside down bathroom to ‘go to the bathroom’?
Stella Stevens (who gads about mostly in states of undress, ending up soaking wet for the bulk of the trek, in nothing but some sheer panties covered by only her husband’s shirt) was told by Irwin Allen not to read the book (by Paul Gallico) because her character was unlikeable, and he wanted her to be likeable in his movie. Oh, I think she was likeable, and I’m wondering whether it had anything to do with wearing nothing but a man’s shirt over steaming white panties…
POSEIDON ADVENTURE would win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Long before James Cameron used CGI to tip his TITANIC, Irwin Allen would show us the grandeur of practical upside-down magic.
The ship itself is the main character, and as much as Rogo and Scott rail at each other, it is the ship that is the true villain, unthinking, unheeding of their fortunes. As the band performed The Morning After (which would also win an Oscar), so too does that theme shadow our survivors – but they must first fight through extreme darkness and dramatic tragedies before the morning light.
And the question remains: Are we sure it wasn’t Leslie Nielsen’s fault?