Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) (part 1 of 8)
The Poseidon was supposed to sink.
You remember The Poseidon Adventure. At midnight on the worst New Year’s Eve ever, a giant tidal wave—you really have to watch out for those in the western Mediterranean, I’m told—capsizes the S.S. Poseidon, a 40-year-old passenger liner on its last voyage. In the wake of the disaster, Reverend Scott (memorably played by Gene Hackman) leads a string of colorful survivors up through the ship to the weakest spot in the hull in hopes of rescue.
Unfortunately, the further he leads them, the fewer of them there are, until finally only six make it out alive. As they’re hauled away by a French Coast Guard helicopter, those six gaze dolefully down at the monkey-butt-red hull of the upended Poseidon and think to themselves, “Next time, I’m taking Amtrak.”
The Poseidon Adventure was the big hit of 1973, temporarily relaunching the film career of producer Irwin Allen, who’d been having a little too much fun in Saturday morning TV-land in preceding years. Allen went on to milk the disaster genre so mercilessly that before long it was screaming in pain and demanding that he get his hands off its teats.
Among Allen’s later disasters—sorry, I meant to say disaster films—is the previously Boothed When Time Ran Out…, which makes producer/director Allen one of two Repeat Offenders from this film. Irwin Allen, a Repeat Offender? I think I can speak for everyone when I say: Gosh, what a shock.
But in 1972, Allen was riding high. The original Poseidon Adventure even got some major awards (a BAFTA nod for Hackman, a Golden Globe for Shelly Winters, even a Best Song Oscar for “The Morning After”) to back up its boffo box-office and the middling critical response.
It’s fashionable now to deride The Poseidon Adventure. (I even found one deluded blogger who says it’s worse than Batman & Robin. Hello? Not possible.) But the fact is, however unlikely some of the events are, the central plot device—how do you get out of an ocean liner that’s turned upside-down?—is pretty compelling. Even now, The Poseidon Adventure is not dull viewing, and the special effects—including the famous scene where a massive torrent of water crashes into the packed ballroom—have aged remarkably well, all things considered.
There was just one thing the filmmakers couldn’t get to work.
According to the script, those few final survivors in the helicopter were supposed to be staring dolefully at the Poseidon finally sinking. After all, the ship had, rather obligingly, elected to stay afloat long enough for Hackman’s ragtag band to wander through half the ship’s corridors, encounter other survivors, take wrong turns, get separated, argue about how to proceed, share meaningful revelations about themselves, give up, take heart, rail against God, and of course take turns dying in arbitrary and picturesque ways.
It was pretty considerate of the ship, I feel, to keep its butt sticking up out of the ocean long enough for them to go through all that crap before they found, clairvoyantly, the exact spot at which the rescue workers decided to burn through the hull from outside. Honestly, I felt bad for the old girl.
So surely, now that the rescue had been effected, Poseidon was finally going to get fed up with rearing its ass up in the air, and would dramatically slide to the sea-bottom with a satisfying glorp. And that’s the ending that was supposed to happen. But they couldn’t get it to look right on screen, so they scrapped it. The movie just ends with the survivor-laden chopper flying off like a sated mosquito.
The upshot of this is that Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, in which Michael Caine stumbles across the liner the next morning with its ass still up in the air, owes its existence entirely to the failure of that one effects shot. If only they had managed to get the Poseidon to sink properly, we never would have had to endure the sight of such ’70s demi-celebrities as Telly Savalas and Slim Pickens skulking around those same dimly lit, upside-down corridors five years later, as if it were an episode of Extreme Love Boat.
The sequel begins with a long sequence of storm-tossed, roiling ocean waves under the title credits. As with any disaster movie, these credits are overloaded with as many available “names” that audiences might conceivably recognize as possible, regardless of how little time they actually spend on screen. (You can tell a cast is overloaded when there are two “and” credits at the end—in this case, one each for Shirley Jones and Karl Malden.) Watching this (and bearing in mind previous Agony Booth disaster recaps) I rediscovered a rule of thumb that’s almost guaranteed to work for any disaster film. For the sake of convenience, I’ll call it the Telly Savalas Rule: The more TV stars that appear among those opening credit “names”, the suckier the movie.
The original Poseidon Adventure gave us no less than five—count ’em, five—Oscar laureates, though admittedly a few of those Oscars were for achievements in acting that are not well-remembered today. They are: Gene Hackman (The French Connection, 1971), Ernest Borgnine (Marty, 1955), Red Buttons (Sayonora, 1957), Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank, 1959), and Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses, 1968). The supporting cast was bolstered by Old Reliables like Roddy McDowall as a steward and Leslie Nielsen (at this point in his career, still playing it straight) as the captain.
In contrast, Beyond‘s cast is led by two legitimate but then un-Oscared film stars, Michael Caine (Alfie, which sets up some weird Six Degrees of The Poseidon Adventure thing by coincidentally co-starring Shelley Winters) and Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein). Supporting them is a raft of actors best known for their TV work: Sally Field (from The Flying Nun and Gidget), Telly Savalas (fresh off of Kojak), Jack Warden (who’d just done The Bad News Bears TV series), Shirley Jones (a Broadway star, but best known to audiences for The Partridge Family), Karl Malden (from the recent hit The Streets of San Francisco), and Angela Cartwright (she was the stepdaughter for years on Make Room for Daddy [!] and Penny on Irwin Allen’s original Lost in Space). You can count Slim Pickens as well, who was in practically every Western-themed TV series from The Lone Ranger to Gunsmoke.
That’s a ratio of seven TV stars to two movie stars. Not good odds.
Not only that, but watching it today, you can see that even the unbilled youngsters in the cast were also TV-star material, only they didn’t know it yet. On the distaff side is the world’s most famous cardboard cut-out, Veronica Hamel (Hill Street Blues). I’ll say this about her acting: when it comes to projecting emotions, as the old saying goes, Veronica Hamel runs the entire gamut from A to B. Her appearance here, incidentally, makes her a Repeat Offender, having later turned in an equally nuanced performance in When Time Ran Out…. Also in the cast is her male equivalent in the category of absolute flatness of performance, Mark Harmon (later to wander aimlessly through Hill Street‘s MTM brand-mate St. Elsewhere).
Now, it’s true that some of these folks had been in some good movies as well. Sally Field had already made Norma Rae, for example (and yes, I know she won an Oscar for it, and against not inconsiderable competition—but that was awarded after Beyond the Poseidon Adventure came out). But then again, she’d also done Smokey and the Bandit, so there you go. My point is, in 1979 her reputation was still thoroughly as a TV actor. Where Poseidon gave us a surfeit of movie stars, Beyond is now giving us Penny, Kojak, and Gidget.