The Poseidon Adventure: Hell, Upside Down

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The best of the 1970s disaster films might just be The Poseidon Adventure

The 1970s delivered lots of disaster films. While the formula itself may have been simple–an all-star cast trying to survive an against-all-odds predicament–the productions were a undertaking of Herculean proportions. The era yielded such classics as AirportThe Towering Inferno and Earthquake. But the best of them all might be 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure.

The film was produced by Irwin Allen, who became known in the industry as the “Master of Disaster.” A few years earlier, Allen had created such successful TV dramas as Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaLost in Space and The Time Tunnel.

With that enviable track record, he was able to get The Poseidon Adventure green-lit by 20th Century Fox.

Its premise was simple enough: the S.S. Poseidon is on her final voyage, headed to Athens, Greece. On New Year’s Eve, amid the revelry among its passengers, the ship is at full speed, despite the protests of its captain (Leslie Nielsen).

It’s hit by a tsunami, which director Ronald Neame and his cinematographer are able to convincingly portray, considering 1972 era production capabilities. (The film earned the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.) The ship capsizes, pretty much ruining the ballroom festivities.

Its all-star cast, including Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley (who died Sept. 3, 2019, at age 77), Roddy McDowall and Stella Stevens–hey, this was 1972!–attempt to escape their (literally) upside-down world amidst numerous catastrophes.

The Poseidon Adventure contained all the requirements for the fledgling genre: an all-star cast filled with stereotypical characters, an epic scene of destruction, a near-impossible goal, lots of screams and a script with enough memorable and classic lines that got close to self-parody.

The film’s trailer jams much of that in its 3+ minutes. “Hard left!” screams the Captain. “Oh, my God,” from an unseen voice, witnessing the oncoming 90-foot tidal wave from the captain’s bridge. “That’s our way out… that’s our only chance,” from Hackman’s strong-willed Reverend Frank Scott. A tender, prophetic moment between an elderly couple, in this case played by Winters and Albertson.

And there’s this, also from Hackman, born January 30, 1930: “I told you I was gonna get everybody out of here and DAMNIT I’M GONNA DO IT!”

Watch the great trailer

There’s a saying in Hollywood, “You can see the money on the screen,” referring to the caliber of production (versus money spent toward actors’ salaries and other budget items). The Poseidon Adventure‘s reported production budget? Just $4.7 million. And you can most certainly see the money on the screen.

The film was released on December 12, 1972. Its reported box-office of $93 million was the year’s biggest by far and would equal roughly $540 million in 2020.

The film earned a second Academy Award for Best Original Song for “The Morning After.” After the film’s release, Maureen McGovern’s recorded version reached #1, in August 1973.

[Variety reported that its songwriter, Al Kasha, died on Sept. 14, 2020, at 83, in Los Angeles. Kasha also earned a songwriter Oscar for “We May Never Love Like This Again” for 1975’s The Towering Inferno.]

The film spawned a 1979 sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, starring Michael Caine and Sally Field, but it was a disaster of a different sort, earning just $2.1 million at the box-office. A 2006 remake of the original, starring Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss and others, was considered a modest success, given its $161 million budget. It earned $181 million.

Related: Our look back at another classic 1972 film

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