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the Poseidon adventure

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Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: ‘The Poseidon Adventure (1972)’

A disaster movie for a disastrous year.

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest, most memorable, and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that will leave a lasting impression for centuries to come.

2020 has officially come to an end and good riddance. In a year fraught with social unrest, racial tensions, domestic terrorist attacks, and oh yeah, a global pandemic- it would be an understatement to call it disastrous. Yet no matter which way you look at it, it’s a disaster by definition. What better way to close out a disaster of a year than by paying tribute to a classic disaster movie? This week’s Strange and Fantastic Tale examines 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, Ronald Neame’s adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel by the same name. This column usually looks at lesser known or less celebrated films, but the feeling of this film encompasses the general spirit of the world we live in today.

Nominated and winner of  numerous prestigious awards, The Poseidon Adventure unravels the story of passengers aboard a luxury ocean liner that is flipped over when it is hit by a tsunami. The first thirty minutes set the tone so well that the viewer may forget that tragedy will strike the characters. The dialogue in the first thirty minutes is crafted in a way that not only introduces the major players, but instantly connects the viewer to them.

Some disaster films have a way of glossing over those involved in whatever tragedy will occur. Dialogue is usually pretty basic and gives a sense of who the characters are, but they are usually sidelined by the theatrical spectacle of the disaster. In The Poseidon Adventure, not only is the audience able to distinguish the characters, but the viewer can get a true sense of who they really are. 

They are not just the preacher, the old lady, and the cop. There is Reverend Scott, a man of faith who believes a person cannot depend on God, but must rely on themselves. There is also Mike Rogo, a cop who is so conflicted with abiding the law and following his heart. He married a former prostitute and is capable of loving her without judgement. Then there is the kind-hearted Mrs. Rosen, an intuitive older woman who is fully aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and looks out for others. The disaster brings this assortment of characters together and gives them a sense of urgency, but ultimately, the disaster takes a backseat. 

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: 'The Poseidon Adventure (1972)'

Reverend Scott, played by Gene Hackman, is a minister who lives by his word. He does not just preach empty ideals, he lives them. When disaster strikes on New Year’s Eve, he takes charge. While many are content to sit in fear and wait for rescue, he demands that others help themselves by helping him devise an escape. Eight other passengers are willing to help, some are more reticent than others. And yet, they put their faith in him because he has been able to to put faith into himself. Reverend Scott proves to be a good leader by listening to his group and letting them use their instincts and strengths. 

The main character that pushes back against Reverend Scott is Mike Rogo, a police officer. Rogo, played by Ernest Borgnine, is not an adversary. He is a scared passenger that does not know what to believe. He wants to survive with this wife, but is terrified because up is literally down in this instance. Multiple explosions rock the overturned ship, there are fires, leaks, and water rushing in through various pockets.

As aggressive as he may seem, he has every right to be doubtful, but he also knows that action is better than inaction. Rogo is pushed to the brink, when he must take over as group leader. He does not have the same faith in himself that Reverend Scott has.  It is not until he receives a mean spirited pep talk from the gentle Mr. Martin who challenges him to get it together and be a hero. 

Mr. Martin (Red Buttons) is a bachelor who is an avid runner. His solitude catches the eye of Mrs. Rosen. Mrs. Rosen whispers to her husband that Mr. Rosen must run to avoid his loneliness. Throughout the film we see Mr. Martin listen and pay attention to the needs of others, often putting himself in peril to assist Nonnie, a singer who is paralyzed with fright for most of the film. 

Shelly Winters, who earned a Golden Globe award for her performance as Mrs. Rosen is a wonderful character. She loves her husband and is looking forward to meeting her grandchild. Throughout the film, she feels as a hindrance to the group and is afraid she will never make the trek to the engine room because she is old and overweight. She pushes through and is able to save Reverend Scott with her championship swimming skills. 

The Poseidon Adventure is almost like a video game as the survivors make their way through levels, navigating parts of the ship not meant to contain humans. Through pipes, fire, and water, they make their way to the engine, where it is believed they will have the best chance of salvation. No one is a bad guy in this film. Nature and poor planning are the main villains here and yet no one is looking to demonize anyone. The goal is survival and The Poseidon Adventure highlights the need to survive against the unknown. 

Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century: 'The Poseidon Adventure (1972)'

This year has pushed many of us to our limits and transformed life in various aspects. So many lives, already tormented by personal issues, have been turned over as the whole world adapted to a pandemic. There are those who push forward and those who push against. Many lives have been lost and so much has been taken, and not always pandemic related, but here we are.

The Poseidon Adventure teaches many lessons applicable to all of us. We are not out jobs, we can save ourselves, and cooperation is key to survival. It’s a new year and you have made it to what I hope is the engine room. Watch this film from the comfort of your own sinking ship.

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