Celebrate New Year’s Eve aboard the S.S. Poseidon, and experience one of the standouts of the 1970s disaster-movie craze: The Poseidon Adventure. This movie has it all: action, suspense, a hit theme song, an all-star cast, and more WTF moments than any single ocean-liner journey has ever had before or since.
Spoilers follow, for any poor soul who’s deprived him or herself of The Poseidon Adventure thus far in life.
Leslie Nielsen Is Very Serious (So Don’t Call Him Shirley)
The first quarter or so of the movie is composed of two elements: getting to know the various passengers who will be among the “handful of survivors,” and some very, very heavy foreshadowing. Much of the latter comes from Leslie Nielsen, who plays the S.S. Poseidon’s captain.
As much as you want this to be Airplane!, he’s deadly serious here, which is part of the reason why audiences in 1980 found Airplane! so damn hilarious. (We may lack the context of that contrast today, but fortunately Airplane! is still damn hilarious no matter what.) In Poseidon, Nielsen’s Captain Harrison is guiding the ocean liner on its final voyage; the aging ship has some problems, but none greater than the slimy guy representing the Poseidon’s impatient owners. Despite Harrison’s protests (“Dammit, man, the Poseidon is too fine a lady to be rushed to the junkyard on her last voyage!”), a course for doom is set.
Meanwhile, passengers Mike and Linda Rogo (Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens) are a newly married and frequently bickering couple who don’t know the meaning of “inside voices;” they met when Mike, a cop, arrested Linda for prostitution. Sure.
Linda is seasick. The pills the ship’s doctor gives her are suppositories. Mike doesn’t know what those are. The Poseidon Adventure lingers on this fact, choosing to make it the most uncomfortable character-building moment imaginable.
And then there’s Gene Hackman, who had won his first Oscar a year prior, for 1971’s The French Connection. Here, he channels some of that Popeye Doyle snarl into his portrayal of Rev. Frank Scott, a take-action man of God who favors turtlenecks rather than clerical collars.
Why would a newly minted Best Actor sign on for a ridiculous action movie? What other movie would let him use a giant fake Christmas tree as an escape ladder, engage in multiple screaming matches with Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine), dramatically curse God, and ultimately sacrifice himself to save a group of passengers who otherwise would’ve been literally dead in the water? No other movie is the answer.
The Massive and Terrifying Tidal Wave Hits
Even with the exceedingly dated special effects and hammy “Oh gawd we’re flipping over!” reactions, this sequence—which comes just after everyone below decks has finished boozily welcoming the New Year at midnight—is still a jaw-dropper. The subsequent moment when water punches through the wall of the ballroom—bringing certain death to those who refused to follow Rev. Scott’s pleas to evacuate—is almost as startling.
And it’s at this point that the movie reveals its most brilliant piece of fashion innovation.
At the New Year’s Eve party, teenager Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) is wearing a long dress, but when it comes time to climb to safety, she reveals that the skirt is detachable and conceals a pair of coordinating shorts. Apparently, this was a thing when it came to formalwear in the 1970s? Lucky for her, not having to spend the rest of the movie pants-less, like Linda does.
But while Susan’s wardrobe choices are thrilling to see today, the treatment of Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters) has aged less well. “A fat woman like me can’t climb,” the kindly Belle insists. It’s the first in a jarringly mean running series of remarks about her weight, and it never gets any easier to hear them. She’s a grandmother, not a swimsuit model ...
...But she is—AS IT HAPPENS—a former underwater swimming champ of New York (for three years running!), as illustrated by what’s probably the most famous scene in The Poseidon Adventure.
No offense, tidal wave, but this rescue by the “fat woman who can’t climb” is as incredible as it is unexpected. And at this point in the film, even the most bizarre plot twist just kind of gets taken in stride.
“You see, Mr. Scott, in the water I’m a very skinny lady!” she trumpets before ... having a heart attack and dying. Harsh.
And meanwhile, Mr. Martin (a fiftysomething Red Buttons) is a lifelong bachelor; early in the movie, he tells Mrs. Rosen that he’s been too busy all his life to bother getting married, which he now regrets. After the ship flips, he takes special care in helping scaredy-cat singer Nonnie (a twentysomething Carol Lynley) to safety. The relationship wouldn’t have weird undertones—he’s never inappropriate with her, and saves her life several times—if it hadn’t been for his big speech about wishing he could find a wife.
The fact that anyone survives the events of movie—between that 90-foot wave, the violent overturning of the ship, the gushing water, the pits of fire, and all the screaming matches—is possibly the craziest thing about it.
And maybe the most satisfying takeaway from the entire movie is that it really holds up over 40 years later—way better than 2006 remake Poseidon, which followed other water-oriented disaster movies (including Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and, obviously, James Cameron’s Titanic). Sure, Poseidon had much more sophisticated special effects than the original. But no amount of CG tsunamis could replace bizarre offhand details like Susan’s skirt, or the fun of watching two macho actors chew the scenery with gusto, or the campy dialogue that’s so fun to quote today. It was crafted as a thrill ride, but The Poseidon Adventure has stayed afloat as a most enjoyable cult classic.
Happy New Year!