It’s great fun when straight-laced Leslie Nielsen first shows up in 1980’s “Airplane!” playing the stern, solemn doctor; or to see Peter Graves as Captain Oveur, explaining air travel, gladiator movies, and Turkish prisons to little Joey.
Satire is nothing without a target, and the inspiration for “Airplane” was the great disaster movies of the 1970s, especially the “Airport” series that started in 1970. One of the best of those catastrophe films, full of movie stars, practical special effects, and plot points that would become cliché, is 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure.”
Leslie Nielsen appears (albeit briefly) as Captain of the SS Poseidon, an old luxury liner on her last voyage before being scrapped. As her passengers revel on New Year’s Eve, the Poseidon is capsized by a huge rogue wave, killing plenty but trapping the rest in her now upside-down compartments and passageways. A scrappy group of passengers and crew fight to stay alive and find their way to safety.
The theme of this season’s CAL Film Series is “20th Century Fox: The Stars,” and “The Poseidon Adventure” doesn’t disappoint. Five of its actors had already won Oscars by 1972: Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters (nominated for this film), Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine, and Gene Hackman, who had just taken home a Best Actor statuette for “The French Connection.”
Hackman stars as Reverend Scott, a somewhat non-traditional minister who becomes the defacto leader of a small group of survivors including Detective Rogo (Borgnine), Rogo’s ex-hooker wife Linda (Stella Stevens), kindly Jewish grandparents Belle and Manny Rosen (Winters and Albertson), Susan (Pamela Sue Martin), and her little brother Robin (Eric Shea), the “Joey” of the group who knows an awful lot about the ship. Turkish prisons? We may never find out.
The formula is firmly in place: we’re introduced to a diverse group of characters, many of them caricatures to one degree or another, and learn just enough of their backstories to either care a bit when they are eliminated one by one, or at least to understand their motivations when they act.
The initial crisis is bad, but to keep things exciting, there are little mini-calamities throughout the film… explosions, floods, fires… gotta keep those survivors on their toes! Personal conflicts arise, sacrifices are made, relationships blossom.
And of course there is a theme song: Nonnie (Carol Lynley), the ship’s singer, belts out “The Morning After” during the big New Year’s Eve bash; it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
One of the amazing things about “The Poseidon Adventure,” my personal favorite of the '70s disaster pics, is that it still holds up 45 years later. It’s standard these days to see entire cities destroyed by CGI, but almost all of the effects in this movie are practical, that is physical effects, no CGI, no post production effects. Many interior scenes were filmed on the Queen Mary, and sets were built on gimbals to allow entire rooms to be tilted while actors were tossed around. A 21-foot long model of the Poseidon was used for the capsizing and other exterior shots.
We seem to get several world-destroying cataclysm movies every summer, but nothing compares to Gene Hackman cursing God while he leads his flock to safety.