There are a few movies I remember being surprised at as a child. These were movies that I saw on television or Beta/VHS that were made before my time and not meant as children's stories. Some of them were genuine classics like To Kill a Mockingbird that instilled in me a sense that beauty and art can be found in a film. Others were like the Poseidon Adventure that while not particularly masterful films still showed me that there were many other films out there besides the "family" films being churned out at the local cineplex. These films eventually opened up to me the world of cinema.
I first saw the Poseidon Adventure at Grandma and Papa's house. I had been dropped off by my mother for an afternoon while she went shopping or some other mundane task. After flipping channels awhile I came across this great sinking ship and fell mystified into a grand epic adventure. To this day I recall my mother coming home during the final 20 minutes or so and me making her stay because I just had to see the ending. She had seen the film, but praised it as a classic adventure and allowed me to see the end. Periodically I have caught bits and pieces of the movie again on cable and always pause to watch a scene or two. I bought it in a bargain bin a few months back and joyfully added it to my collection. Last night Amy and I decided to watch it.
Watching it on DVD I realize this was the first time I have ever actually seen the very beginning of the movie. As a child I caught the picture 10-20 minutes into and all subsequent viewings have all been by catching it part way through on television. I am afraid the movie as a whole doesn't hold up all that well to my childhood memory. Oh, it's a big, grand adventure, but like the ship of the movie, it starts to sink under its own enormousness.
It has a basic 70's disaster movie plot. Big ocean cruise liner is hit by enormous wave and is turned upside down, killing nearly everyone. A few survivors are followed as they make their way up (down?) the ship and try to escape. It is way over the top and it almost seems as if the director Ronald Neame told his actors to ham it up in every scene. Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine do their best howling at each other in every other scene.
The script follows very basic rules. It rolls like something you would see in a basic screenwriter's class. You start with an establishing shot, follow it with a basic introduction of your main characters while making sure their essential character motivation is directly handed to the audience in their first few minutes of screen time. Then you set your plot into action. It's disaster is even set into action by an evil corporate leader. Leslie Nielson plays the good captain who is hounded by a goon sent from the ships corporate owner to ensure it ports for its final time on the right date. The corporate goon orders Nielson's captain to increase speed though Nielson argues this will surely cause the old ship to sink. The corporate goon, of course, wins and sets up the disaster. On a sidenote it is unintentionally funny to watch Nielson in a serious role when everyone knows his slew of later, goofier roles in movies such as the Naked Gun and Airplane.
This film acts like it invented implausibly. Gene Hackman reverend moves, acts, and orders others around like he's the ship's captain though he has no previous knowledge of how the ship's design, or conceivably the physics of a cruise liner. Yet his motivation for acting like this was set up earlier. Before the ship sinks we get a sermon from this unorthodox preacher who believes in helping onesfelf instead of relying on Divine intervention. Likewise all the other characters follow along in their previously established types, never budging from this set character mold and certainly not evolving in any meaningful way.
All of this is not to say the film isn't enjoyable. It is not high art after all. It knows full well it's purpose is to entertain the audience and nothing more. It does this quite well. Though its plot is strained it moves along with a quick pace and maintains a claustrophobic tension throughout. I have not seen many of the other disaster movies of the era so I cannot place the Poseidon Adventure accordingly amongst their ranks. But as an action/adventure flick you could do worse.