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The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon Adventure(1972)

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In the spring of 1937, New York sports writer turned novelist Paul Gallico was returning from England to the United States via the Cunard flagship The Queen Mary when a rogue wave knocked the 1,018 foot luxury liner hard to port, overturning tables and smashing dinnerware in the ship's main restaurant as the view from the portholes showed the angry surface of the rolling mid-Atlantic where moments before there had been open sky. The Queen Mary righted itself in time and no lives were lost but the moment haunted Gallico, who thirty years (and nearly forty published books) later spun it into his 1969 novel The Poseidon Adventure. The high seas saga of a transatlantic cruise ship capsized by a tsunami, its surviving passengers forced to endure a trial-by-fire as they navigate the flipped ship from ballroom to engine room in search of daylight and fresh air, caused few ripples in the literary world (the self-deprecating Gallico famously averred "I'm a rotten novelist... I just like to tell stories.") but quick to see the cinematic possibilities was producer-director Irwin Allen. Creator of the hit TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) and Lost in Space (1963-1968), Allen was on the hunt for a vehicle to mark his return to features and thought the Gallico novel might be the ticket.

Having struck a three picture deal with AVCO Embassy, Allen persuaded the independent company to purchase the rights to The Poseidon Adventure. While AVCO deliberated on the prospect of mounting what would be, for them, an unusually expensive undertaking, Allen shopped the project at 20th Century-Fox. A regime change at AVCO took The Poseidon Adventure off the table there while Fox proved more receptive, albeit with reservations. As Allen laid out the proposed production via meticulous storyboards, Fox executives grew squirrely, hurting as they were from a string of expensive failures and wondering if their money might be better spent attempting to capture the cost-effective magic of The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Offering to raise half the $5 million shooting budget himself, Allen secured the support of former Monogram Pictures president Steve Broidy and cinema owner Sherill C. Corwin, who promised to match Fox's contribution, ultimately prompting the studio to give the green light. Prior to the start of principal photography in April 1972, Allen's differential casting choices included George C. Scott (to play the protagonist, a troubled minister), Petulia Clark (in the role of an entertainer who joins the survivors), and Esther Williams (offered the role of a Holocaust survivor whose swimming abilities come in handy in the clinch). Placed in charge of the production was Gordon Douglas, director of the science fiction classic Them! (1954), and fresh from three films starring Frank Sinatra.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) that got under way in mid-1972 was an entirely different film, with Gene Hackman assuming the role of the faith-strapped clergyman, Shelley Winters given the part offered originally to Esther Williams, and Carol Lynley brought in to play the singer. Cast as a meek haberdasher who proves uncharacteristically steely when the chips are down was Red Buttons (a last minute replacement for Gene Wilder) while Allen's supporting cast ran to Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall, Leslie Nielson, Arthur O'Connell, and young actors Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea. Early into shooting, Gordon Douglas was replaced (reasons vary, depending on the sources) by Ronald Neame, flown in from England at the behest of newly-appointed studio head Gordon Stulberg. Though the relationship between Neame and Allen was at first icy, the pair soon found their groove and filming resumed, with The Poseidon Adventure wrapping on schedule and within its budgetary parameters - largely because a more extensive closing shot revealing the capsized vessel surrounded by rescue ships was scrapped in favor of a cost-effective low angle of an ascending helicopter.

"Hell Upside Down" is how promotional art for The Poseidon Adventure enticed moviegoers in the weeks before Christmas 1972 - the phrase loomed so large on posters that the catchphrase was often mistaken for the film's title. Though the stellar cast of Hollywood players (among them, five Academy Award winners) was a lure for the curious, it was The Poseidon Adventure's then state of the art special effects that beget water cooler moments and playground buzz nationwide. The film's ship sets, constructed on Fox soundstage 6, were built inside a gimble that allowed the actors to experience the rolling of the ship at first hand. (Most of the stars did their own stunts as well, with Allen shooting in sequence as the characters and actors playing them became increasingly more disheveled, bedraggled, and oil-smeared.) Though the impressive capsizing sequence involved a scale model of the Poseidon (crafted from blueprints of the Queen Mary, which played the doomed vessel in establishing shots), the film's money shot - of a doomed passenger falling from the upended floor of the ballroom through an ornate skylight - was accomplished practically, and in real time, courtesy of stuntman Ernie Orsatti. With Fox executives still grumbling about the investment, The Poseidon Adventure was given a gala premiere at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre, where Groucho Marx not only turned up but played Santa Claus to boot.

Before the year was out, The Poseidon Adventure proved to be a wise investment for 20th Century-Fox. Made for less than $5 million, the film grossed more than $160 million. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, The Poseidon Adventure took home one Oscar for Original Song ("The Morning After," which became a Billboard Top 100 hit) and another special achievement award for visual effects. At the time of its network television premiere on ABC in October 1974, The Poseidon Adventure earned a 39.0 household share, which made it the sixth most-watched film ever to air on prime time network TV. The film's biggest coup, however, was jumpstarting an action-adventure subgenre, the disaster film. Though movies had been made in the past that wrung drama out of calamitous spectacle (from the silent Noah's Ark to Titanic to The Last Voyage to The High and the Mighty), Allen had hit upon a formula that clicked. While George Seaton's Airport (1970) had strapped its dramatis personae into its seats for an inflight disaster, Allen gave his characters free range, allowing what he considered to be Walter Mitty types to find their inner hero. As had The Poseidon Adventure, such like-minded disaster films as Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), Allen's own The Swarm (1978), and Meteor (1979) attracted a host of A-list (or formerly A-list) stars such as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Henry Fonda, Michael Caine, and Charlton Heston.

Influential and trend-setting, The Poseidon Adventure's legacy also included a cash-in sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), which tanked with critics and audiences alike, and two remakes. The made-for-TV The Poseidon Adventure (2005) swapped out a tsunami for terrorist bombs as an inciting incident while Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon (2006) merely supersized the spectacle with a post-9/11 over-emphasis on mass death that bordered on (some might even say eclipsed) pornography. (The budget for the Petersen remake was about what Neame's original grossed worldwide.) But it's the original that remains nearest and dearest to the heart of the disaster fan population, with Allen's The Poseidon Adventure inspiring fan groups, chat rooms, tribute websites, anniversary screenings, cast reunions (star Gene Hackman remains one of the few holdouts) and not one but two musical homages/parodies. In 2001, the American Film Institute's centennial celebration of "100 Most Thrilling American Films" ranked The Poseidon Adventure at 90, just below The Guns of Navarone (1961) and well ahead of Speed (1994).

By Richard Harland Smith


"The Gallico Adventure" by Paul Gallico, as told to Jerome Holtzman, New York Magazine, May 6, 1974
Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes, edited by Jill B. Gidmark (Greenwood Publishing, 2001)
Straight from the Horse's Mouth: Ronald Neame, An Autobiography by Ronald Neame
"Hollywood Trend: Spectacle is the Star" by Lloyd Shearer, The Spokesman-Review August 24, 1974
Ernie: The Biography by Ernest Borgnine (Citadel Press, 2009)
"Underwater, and Over the Top in 1972" by Thomas Vinciguerra, The New York Times, May 7, 2006
"A Return to the Poseidon Adventure" by Susan Grander, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2012

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