Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the most popular films of the Nixon era were epic disaster movies. Of all such action-adventures, however, none was as big [or as entertaining] as Ronald Neame's The Poseidon Adventure

Airport kicked the craze off in 1970, but starting with Poseidon in 1972, these films became events. This was before Star Wars, but The Poseidon Adventure begged repeat viewings. Hardcore fans made replicas of the doomed ocean liner. They'd attend Poseidon Adventure conventions for decades. Theaters [like the Music Box in Chicago] still hold annual screenings every New Year’s Eve. And when all was said and done, the film made more than 27 times its production budget. At the time of its exit from theaters, it was among the six most successful films in cinema history.

The film follows an obvious formula. We meet a group of people, mostly strangers. They are suddenly thrust into a life-threatening situation filled with dangerous twists and turns. Some won't survive. The rest learn important lessons. Happy ending. Roll credits. 

The life-threatening situation in this particular case is a cruise ship upturned by a "wall of water" while on its way from New York to Athens. The plucky fighters' journey for survival—"toward life" as one of them remarks—takes them from the ballroom [now on the bottom of the ship] to the steel hull at the top, which ought to be the last compartment to flood and the place most easily accessed by potential rescuers. 

What sets the film apart from Airport and disaster movie successors like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno is its insistence that the characters own their situation and take agency. The Poseidon Adventure disposes of its wilting flowers [i.e. extras] at its halfway point in a decidedly pointed way. Gene Hackman's Rev. Scott—our primary protagonist—tries to convince as many passengers as are willing to join him on this potentially deadly trek through the heart of the destroyed ship, but his unorthodox ways [more on that in a minute] and the insistence by actual crewmates to stay put means hundreds are doomed to a particularly slow and agonizing death by drowning. Dramatically, Scott closes the door on them and their too-late conversion to his way of thinking while they scream out for help. It's a scene packed with the kind of emotional power all too missing in disaster movies since.

As serious as this scene is and as brutal as later deaths might be, however, the film is a lark—an extremely enjoyable piece of pure 1970s excess. The mutton chops and go-go boots our crew carries with them throughout the ship are the stuff of cult legend—not to mention the special surprise Shelley Winters[!] carries around her neck until it comes in handy late or lines like “What a dumb stupid way to die, going to the john!”

The film one-upped the star-studded cast of Airport with a whopping five Oscar winners on the screen. Hackman and Winters give easily the two most memorable performances, though Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, and Ernest Borgnine are no slouches themselves. 

Ultimately, this was my entry point into the film. My dad, a Hackman guy through and through, introduced me to The Poseidon Adventure at a young age. It utterly captivated me and is probably responsible for my love of all things disaster movie [except Disaster Movie … that thing is hot garbage.] I even have a begrudging appreciation for the 2006 version of Poseidon with Kurt Russell playing Gene Hackman. It’s missing both the original’s kitsch and seriousness, but it’s a competently crafted mid-2000s action flick that improbably brings together Richard Dreyfus, Fergie, and Johnny Drama from Entourage.

It’s an unorthodox choice for an “essential” piece of cinema, but while many are still reeling from having their lives turned upside-down by the American election, I hope you’ll appreciate its escapism as well as its depiction of what others do when their lives are turned upside-down—in this case, literally.

A preview of what we’ve got on deck:

  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 4
  • A survival guide to disaster films
  • Related Review of Norwegian disaster film The Wave
  • Our regular streaming recommendations
  • And more!