The Poseidon Adventure at Age 50: Gene Hackman Brings Dignity to Disaster

IIn an interview with Vanity Fair, Ben Stiller talked about working on The Royal Tenenbaums with Gene Hackman and finally waking up, two days before filming ended, to tell a chilling Hackman how much he liked The Poseidon Adventure and how it changed his experience. life and made him want to be a filmmaker. As Stiller recalled, Hackman gruffly replied, “Oh yeah, a money business.”

The stock exchange didn’t go as well as Stiller had hoped, but he was firm in his conclusion: “Even if it was a financial job for Hackman, it was the best financial job I’ve ever seen.”

Both men are right. In the great arc of Hackman’s career, The Poseidon Adventure isn’t a work of art like The French Connection or The Conversation, but a clichéd production by Irwin Allen, later to be followed by another massive disaster movie, The Towering Inferno. It’s a plodding piece, with Ernest Borgnine screaming at the top of his lungs, Shelly Winters swan diving into floodwaters and a nosy little boy knowing that the engine room on a capsized ocean liner has a steel hull only one-inch thick.

However, Hackman is legitimately unusual. For a prolific actor — he’ll appear in more than 100 films in his career — there’s usually a temptation to “phone in” junk projects, but as a troubled preacher who leads 10 passengers to the bottom of the ship, Hackman commits himself entirely to the role you couldn’t imagine. He won’t really care about it. He was a master pro: In a team full of flesh and deceit, Hackman creates a character whose will to live—and save the lives of others in the process—is a matter of religious devotion, a job-like burden against a spiteful or indifferent God. He strives to make the film worthy of his performance.

Fifty years later, The Poseidon Adventure remains an irresistible relic from the pre-blockbuster era, before Steven Spielberg came along and proved that productions of this magnitude don’t have to feel squeezy. But Allen and director Ronald Neame turn a simple fight for survival into an action show that nonetheless goes above and beyond to develop its characters and make their survival (and their sacrifices) meaningful to the audience. They make sure they get paid too, just like Hackman.

Based on a novel by Paul Gallico — which would later be adapted two more times, most notably into a 2006 flop from director Das Boot Wolfgang Petersen — the film is set on the SS Poseidon, an old luxury liner making one last voyage from New York City to Athens. And like a policeman on his last day before retiring, the ship is about to explode. When an undersea earthquake near Crete causes a tsunami, the captain (Leslie Nielsen) tries to steer clear of the 100-foot wave, but the ship registers so badly from the impact that it capsizes completely. The surviving passengers have been assembled in the Promenade Room for the New Year’s Eve party, and are on top of the now sunken ship, which means they are at the bottom.

As Reverend Frank Scott, a minister who argues that people should help themselves rather than rely on God to do so, Hackman spends the film turning skeptics into disciples, no small feat. While the ship’s representative advises everyone to stay put and wait for help, Frank believes the only chance for survival is to climb the six levels “up” to the bottom, but few are convinced of this. The ten who join him include a cop (Borgnine) and his wife (Stella Stevens), pensioners (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) on their way to meet their infant grandson in Israel, a singer (Carol Linley) in the house band, an injured bartender (Roddy McDowell), and a haberdashery. Contains vitamin (red buttons).

Except for the occasional interruption of an overturned ship hurtling underwater from the explosion, the effects in The Poseidon Adventure are mostly confined to the Dutch tilt, shots of slumped furniture hanging upside down, and staccato splashes of water as a flood penetrates the lower (upper) levels. Mostly, Hackman tries to rally the others to stick to the plan and lead them through galleys and channels full of flames that may or may not be too narrow for the plus-sized Winters. (The scene where Winters gets a chance to show off her award-winning swimming skills is a great part of the redemption.) In sober terms, that they could not live in their evening gowns.

For the film to open with Nielsen issuing stern warnings about the ship’s fasteners holding up in stormy conditions, The Poseidon Adventure feels like a parody of Nielsen’s helm! Eight years later, especially when a boy appears acting like Joey, the freckled kid questioning Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Hackman only continues to provide the urgency and gravitas that prevent the film from sinking deeper into self-parody. Reverend Frank refuses to resign early in the afterlife, and his constant efforts to rally his weary and questionable followers are a preview of what he would later end up as coach of a Hoosiers’ country basketball team. Few shows have done more to honor a film that cares less about dignity.

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