‘The Poseidon Adventure’ or — The Passion of the Renegade Reverend?

After sitting through the existential nightmare that was ‘The Lovely Bones’ (2009) earlier this week I was looking forward to watching something that wasn’t theologically bonkers or taxing. “I know! I’ll revisit ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972). It’s about a ship turning upside down so there’ll be nothing religiously freaky about that!”

Oh, how wrong I was. Well, here we go again.

I hadn’t seen the film in years. All I could remember about it was (major spoilers) Frank Drebin from ‘Police Squad!’ has his boat turned upside down by a big wave which ruins everyone’s New Year celebrations and some guy gets crushed by a piano and then Roddy McDowall has a bad leg and there’s something to do with a Christmas tree then there’s some nonsense in a big shaft then Shelley Winters dies then Gene Hackman dangles off a valve wheel before dropping to his doom and then the rest are saved. And, to be honest, that’s still pretty much what the film is and what I was expecting and what I got. What I wasn’t expecting was all the very confusing, explicit, bizarre religious symbolism and analogies because there’s A LOT of that here. Good grief, where to even begin?

Let’s start with Gene Hackman who plays a “renegade reverend”, a man of God and a man of action. He’s the sort of minister who comes across as though he’s just sped-read the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, got a bit carried away and is now determined to go off exploring the world in the name of the Almighty. He loves to tip orthodoxy over, challenge the rules, just like Christ in the Temple. He tells his flock not to pray to God for help as only they can help themselves. Whoa! Is this guy a reverend or some crazy anarchist?!

Yet he also preaches that God doesn’t like quitters. What?! I’m pretty certain Christ never said anything remotely like that meaning Hackman comes across as less Christ-like and more Jordan Peterson cosplay.

When the Poseidon turns upside down (Creation is literally flipped on its head) it then turns from a disaster movie into a scene from Hell complete with Shakespearian-esque theologian discussions. The ship’s purser has succumbed to fatalism whilst another reverend decides to stay with the injured (the damned?). Hackman defies this and summons HUMAN AGENCY in the face of this inverted order and, in doing so, shakes the core belief of the community — that to ascend you must go “down”… or up or whatever. My head was starting to spin at this point, especially as I haven’t even factored in the Judaism and Old Testament readings of this movie yet. I had NO idea ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ was so hermeneutically complex!

At one point they even meet what appear to be some “lost souls” who are wandering, unthinking and guided solely by habit because they are still clinging to the old (pre-Christ?) world view, and that course can only lead them directly to Hell. In fact, there’s a lot of Dante-esque imagery of damnation or even Lars von Trier visions of Pandemonium and Tophet popping up, and the film’s excellent lighting only adds to that sensation, those angry Hellish flashes and flares from the upturned ship acting as punctuation points signifying the all-consuming inferno below. It’s all pretty crazy and fucked up.

But not as crazy and fucked up as the fact that the rest of the movie is made up of fat jokes and up-skirt shots. In fact, I would say that ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ consists of the following ingredients: 20% disaster action; 10% religious diatribe; 10% up-skirt shots; 60% fat jokes. Actually, the percentage of fat jokes might be closer to 80% because almost the entire film consists of knowing what to do with poor, full-bodied Shelley Winters — how to get her up a tree, how to fit her into a tiny hole, how to get her up a ramp, how to get her up a broiling metal shaft without looking up her skirt. There’s huge potential for a porn version of this film because the entire movie is, pretty much, nothing more than two hours of figuring out what to do with a BBW.

Indeed, the entire film is really rather sexist with only the men being allowed to be pro-active while the women either cry, die or struggle with issues of self-esteem. This isn’t a terribly progressive movie at all when you think about it.

Anyway, back to religion as the film really lays it on thick towards the end. The group are slowly reaching their ultimate goal but first they must be baptised (go underwater), then there is a leap of faith (jumping across a collapsed walkway) before Hackman sacrifices himself (transfiguration) so the others can reach their destination where they, finally, see the light (a welding torch). Oh, and Ernest Borgnine suddenly turns into Job railing against the injustice of God so there’s that, too.

If all this sounds crazy then that’s because it is, especially as Gene Hackman delivers a performance that’s quite over the top (at one point he even ugly cries near the end in a possible attempt to see if he could win an Oscar for this role just for a laugh). It makes his character appear, quite frankly, fucking nuts and also unnervingly right wing (I have the feeling he wouldn’t agree with the notion of universal state benefits). I also started asking questions about the Rosens and what their attitudes regarding Israeli foreign policy and Palestine would be and I’m not sure I’d agree with their reply.

Yet all the above certainly makes ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ legitimately fascinating, and not just for the old school spectacle on display. Some of the arguments and discussions were actually quite interesting and the script is certainly fully aware of what it is up to, even if what it is up to shouldn’t be allowed. There’s also quite a bit of bad language in this, even though nobody actually swears (the word “ass” gets said a lot). The directing had some nice moments too, with director Ronald Neame providing some decent flourishes. There’s a subtle, yet very effective, slow tilt near the end just before Hackman let’s go that oddly affected me more emotionally than I was expecting. It’s tiny but it was its smallness that I liked.

‘The Poseidon Adventure’ is a disaster movie and on that level it’s exactly how I remembered it. But everything else — the script, the characters, the ideas and subtext — were all WAY more baffling than I ever would’ve expected. You could really do a pretty in-depth analysis of the religious and social themes in this film. It might not make any sense, possibly because I’m not sure the film knows what it is doing with any of this itself, and would be totally pointless but the film is an odd, but fascinating, glimpse into certain aspects of American society and attitudes of Hollywood at the time. That and fat jokes.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.