As I noted in my opening take for The Poseidon Adventure week, Ronald Neame’s 1972 film wasn’t the first big disaster movie. That distinction goes to 1970’s Airport. Still, The Poseidon Adventure was the first in which a band of survivors really took their fate into their own hands.
The years and decades that followed would see dozens of similar movies tread this path—a band of determined men and women, often quarreling misfits, fight with ingenuity and grit to save themselves—but we can look to The Poseidon Adventure for at least a few baseline rules for how to avoid the inevitable death traps that will claim the lives of many a disaster movie character.
Note: Spoilers A-PLENTY.
1. The crazy guys have the best plans
Rev. Frank Scott [Gene Hackman] had lower approval ratings aboard the S.S. Poseidon than Donald Trump currently does in New York City. So when the ship flips and he starts hollering like a banshee about the need to climb upward, he doesn’t attract much of a following. Instead, the ship’s passengers follow the advice of the relatively calm and reasoned crew. “Stay put,” they say. “Help is on the way.”
Just as Rev. Scott gets the last of his people out of the ballroom, the water starts rushing in, promising certain doom in minutes for those who stayed behind. Listen to the crazy guy.
2. Don't have a special or relevant skill
Among the crazy good cast of Oscar winners [Hackman, Borgnine, Winters, Buttons, Albertson] in this film is another relatively familiar face. Roddy McDowell is perhaps most famous for playing Caesar the ape in the original Planet of the Apes series. In The Poseidon Adventure, he’s Acres—a waiter who helps guide Rev. Scott and crew through the ship’s confusing upside-down passageways. Unlike everyone else in the film, Acres has no personality, so as soon as his utility has run out, he becomes the first notable notch on the film’s death count.
You definitely can’t say Shelley Winters’ Belle Rosen has no personality. It’s not necessarily a personality that endears her to her fellow Poseidon adventurers—they constantly mock her weight and resent her trepidation for, I don’t know, walking through fire—but he’s a major figure in the film and ultimately serves a very important purpose.
As the film reaches its final act, those who remain need to dive underwater and swim a great distance. Thankfully, Belle is a former swimming champion[!] who gladly volunteers to put her skills to use for the sake of the group’s survival. Like Acres, the film’s screenplay almost inexplicably disposes of her as soon as her heroic deed is done. If you find yourself in a similar situation, just be quiet and follow.
3. Fall in love while fighting for your life
The Poseidon Adventure actually proves that grief helps drive individuals forward. Among the ten men and women we follow, there are two married couples. By the time our final six reach their destination, no married couples remain.
But this rule is about new love between two people who meet each other in the midst of a fight for their life. In The Poseidon Adventure, it’s a little unclear if we’re supposed to think Mr. Martin [Buttons] and Nonnie [Carol Lynley] are an item. He’s quite a bit older than she is, and table-setting scenes early on seem to tiptoe around the idea that he might be gay. But regardless, these two develop a very quick relationship that’s stronger than any other between strangers in this band of survivors.
4. Don’t be a person of color
The old stereotype of the African-American friend getting knocked off first in horror movies seems to exist, at least in some form, in disaster movies, too. The Poseidon Adventure has no diversity to speak of, though Rev. Scott dances with an Indian woman—IMDb has her listed, uncredited, as “Indian Woman” played by Frieda Rentie—during dinner. She clearly doesn’t follow her dance partner to safety, and as we don’t see any others, it’s safe to assume they all perish in the great ballroom flood of 1972.
So not a great look, but hey, at least it’s not the 2006 remake. Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon features two notable characters of color. One is a stowaway named Elena played by Mía Maestro. She survives! Her boyfriend, Marco, is one of the ship’s waiters [ugh] played by Freddy Rodríguez.
Marco is this film’s Acres. He’s the first to die, but that’s not the worst part. It’s how he dies… by getting MURDERED by the rest of the gang of survivors. They’re trying to cross an elevator shaft when their makeshift bridge gives, and Marco—last across, of course—is clinging to the leg of Richard Dreyfus. The elevator itself looks like it’s about to come crashing down on them, so Kurt Russell and crew tell Dreyfus he must kick Marco loose. He says, “Sorry,” and down the waiter goes.
It’s a hideous sequence of events, but an entirely predictable one based on the history of characters like Marco in films like this.
5. Never separate from the group
You sort of know going in that a 70s disaster movie isn’t going to kill a kid, but Robin [Eric Shea] nearly bites it in embarrassing fashion. While Rev. Scott is off trying to find the best route forward, he drifts away from his sister and the rest of the group looking for a place to relieve himself. As the water comes rushing in, Scott swoops in and saves the day, but his sister leaves him [and us] with a valuable piece of dialogue. “What a dumb stupid way to die, going to the john!”