The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Director: Ronald Neame/Irwin Allen

Starring: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Duvall, Roddy MacDowell, Stella Stevens, Red Buttons

Music: John Williams

Cinematography: Harold E.Stine

Novel: Paul Gallico

Screenplay: Wendell Mayes, Stirling Silliphant

Fact: Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt

Lie: Before choosing his stage name, he was briefly called Red Buttocks

Time: 117 minutes

 In one line: cruise ship is flipped upside down by a tidal wave


Passenger liner the SS Poseidon is on its last voyage from New York to Athens. A sea-quake unleashes a tidal wave which overturns the ship. A small group of passengers attempt to make their way to the hull of the ship where they hope to be saved.


The Poseidon Adventure is the archetypal 70s disaster movie - a mixed group ('mixed' as in ages and gender, but there are no overtly gay characters, and there are no black or Asian faces to be seen) band together. Some live, some die. You know the score.

I’d have no complaints if someone came up to and said: “The Poseidon Adventure is a completely shit film; you’re so wrong you’re almost CSE Grade 5*, and I bet you ate dog food – real pov stuff like Chappie, rather than good stuff like Pedigree Chum - for your Christmas dinner."

Well, I would complain, come to think of it – I’m a vegetarian, for a start - but that’s to ignore the raison d’aitre for this site – namely to find the good in any film – no, make that to find the good in anything* - that may have enriched your life, if only…. just for a moment…………(as john Foxx once sang so beautifully).

The Poseidon Adventure is the archetypal and best of the 70s disaster movies. Although quite silly at times, a largely very talented cast (Hackman, Stevens and Borgnine in particular) breathe life into their characters and make you care for them in a manner that’s absent from producer Allen’s follow up, the fairly awful (but still quite exciting) The Towering Inferno.  

I remember seeing this with my dad and little sister on Liverpool ’s giant Odeon One cinema. Although the effects may be laughable today, the sight of the giant tidal wave filling the screen was just fantastic for a nine year old boy, and it reminds me of Steven Spielberg saying that he felt sorry for any kid who had grown up with CGI and hadn’t known the feeling of seeing a Ray Harryhausen monster animation for the first time. You can pull the statement apart however you wish, but the essential truth is clear: a sense of wonder is all relative. The effects on 2020's Star Trek: Discovery are incredible, but do they affect me as much as when I first saw the revolving colour cube in The Corbomite Manoeuvre in colour for the first time? I don't think so.

What I also remember from that evening was a little mouse climbing up the back illuminated cinema curtains – the cinema wasn’t scruffy by any means – in fact it was quite plush, but the sight of a formally dressed old-fashioned cinema manager trying to prod the squeaky little bastard down with a brush pole is something (like Leland’s once-seen woman in Citizen Kane) that I think about every day. Well not absolutely every day, but certainly most days in the week; and if not most days then now and again. Come to think of it (which obviously I don’t), I probably don’t think about it at all and this is the first time I’ve thought about it since the day it happened.

Anyway, the film. It’s difficult to see Leslie Nielsen playing it straight in his early scenes as the Poseidon’s captain, but get past that and there’s some good stuff amongst the dreck. Borgnine plays a New York cop who’s married ex-‘hooker’ - the underrated Stella Stevens.

The interplay between Borgnine and Stevens is actually quite good and (for its genre) fairly well written and quite risqué. TPA was a family film which was second only to The Godfather in that year’s box office listings. Their conversation is littered with references to the realities of Stevens’ character’s profession and there’s a good line concerning the mechanics of suppository use.

Hackman plays the Christ figure, the Reverend Frank Scott, a preacher who is angry about the conservatism of his superiors and in the process of being Craggy Islanded to a remote un-named African country.

The most famous scene is when the outsize Mrs Rosen (Shelley Winters) swims part of the submerged galley to save the Reverend Scott who has been pinned to the wall by a piece of sheet metal. Besides giving Bette Midler her one decent (micro decent) routine, the denouement of Shelley's life-saving act really shocked me at the time.

But I'm over it now.

Of the main leads, the now-retired Stevens and Hackman are still with us, and it was pleasing to see Ernie Borgnine working well into his nineties , and - just like David Bowie -  providing voice-over duties (as Mermaid Man) in various Spongebob films.

So, The Poseidon Adventure: lots of good bits, lots of terrible bits, and a fairly respectable....


*CSE - the Poundland CCSE/GCSE of the 60s and 70s. Example of (genuine) Maths question: 'Take your ruler and draw a line 5cm long' 

**Finding the good in anything at all (especially in the 1970s); clackers for example – that moment of impact just before they shattered into a million shards and caused all sorts of appalling ocular and testicular injuries.