Other disaster-themed movies had come before, but as far as many observers are concerned, the trend really started with “The Poseidon Adventure.”
Getting a Cinemax showing Tuesday, Aug. 24, the 1972 blockbuster — adapted from a Paul Gallico novel — also launched a cottage industry for producer Irwin Allen, largely a supplier of science-fiction films ) “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “The Lost World”) and series (“Lost in Space,” “The Time Tunnel”) in earlier years. He would follow “The Poseidon Adventure” with another enormous success, “The Towering Inferno,” then keep working in the genre (even putting forth “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”) until the end of the ’70s.
Set on New Year’s Eve, “The Poseidon Adventure” puts the title ocean liner in the unfortunate path of a monstrous tidal wave that overturns the ship, forcing a handful of survivors to climb up through the now-upside-down vessel to reach hoped-for rescuers. The perilous trek is led by a maverick priest (Gene Hackman) who often clashes with an equally stubborn cop (Ernest Borgnine) along the quest to survive, which often has to be revised as the group runs into fires and floods.
Also aiming to stay alive: the cop’s ex-prostitute wife (Stella Stevens), who fears former clients will recognize her; a nervous haberdasher (Red Buttons) who finds a cause in helping a terrified singer (Carol Lynley); an elderly couple (Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson) en route to Israel for a family visit; siblings (Pamela Sue Martin, Eric Shea) traveling to join their parents; and a friendly crew member (Roddy McDowall) who proves helpful despite being injured during the capsizing.
A good chunk of the wonderment regarding “The Poseidon Adventure” comes from realizing that it was accomplished before CGI went into wide use in moviemaking. Now, a lot of what placed these actors in actual peril could be accomplished via computer trickery — and, in fact, it was in the heavy digitalized 2008 remake “Poseidon.” Here, producer Allen often took the reins from director Ronald Neame in calling the shots on the action sequences, guiding the cast through big doses of water and flames.
In one of his playing-it-straight-turns before becoming a comedy star, Leslie Nielsen is perfectly solemn as the ship’s captain, even while wishing a colleague a happy New Year as they watch the “enormous wall of water” heading directly toward them. Appropriately, the picture was honored with an Oscar for its visual effects, and it won another for the song “The Morning After.”
Old-fashioned filmmaking in the best sense, “The Poseidon Adventure” maintains its permanent place in Hollywood history as “disaster” when disaster was cool.