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‘The Poseidon Adventure’ celebrates its 50th anniversary: How an oceanic disaster film upended a genre

“The Poseidon Adventure” is a disaster film unlike any other.

The saga of survival aboard a doomed luxury liner effectively turned the genre upside down when it was released 50 years ago. “Poseidon,” 20th Century Fox’s big Christmas release, was the year’s second most successful film (behind only “The Godfather”) and a cultural touchstone that influenced moviemaking – and moviegoing – for the rest of the decade.

Not bad for a bad sea cruise.

According to the film’s poster, “at Midnight on New Year’s Eve, the S.S. Poseidon Was Struck By A 90-foot Tidal Wave And Capsized… “Who Will Live?”

Who exactly? Based on Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel, the story focuses on the few who try: those who survive the rollover and then band together, led by a fellow passenger, to find their way from the ship’s bottom to its hull at the top.

More: ‘The Godfather’ turns 50: Why Frank Sinatra despised it and told author Mario Puzo to ‘choke’

“We’re cut off from the rest of the world,” says the unconventional Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), who refuses to obey the surviving crew’s orders to wait for a rescue. “They can’t reach us. Perhaps we can reach them.”

In any case, he reasoned, the only way out is up. So, under his caustic self-appointed leadership, the small group embarks on its journey, battling the clock, debris, and, in some cases, each other as they brave a deck-by-deck ascent through the overturned and slowly sinking vessel.

The cast includes five Oscar winners (Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, and Red Buttons), as well as a mix of familiar faces (Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley, and Roddy McDowall) and young newcomers (Pamela Sue Martin, Eric Shea).

The real stars of “The Poseidon Adventure” are its inventive (and Oscar-nominated) art direction and the special effects that depict the oncoming wave swallowing the ship and then its slow rollover from within – a decades-before-computer-generated image optical triumph that earned a special Academy Award for technical achievement.

The interior action scenes in “Poseidon” were shot partially on location aboard the R.M.S. Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor, south of Los Angeles. Near-exact replicas of the Queen Mary’s key areas were built, as well as a hydraulically controlled dining room set that could tilt up to 45 degrees for the film’s stroke-of-midnight inversion. (An “after” set depicting the room’s tables on the ceiling and its massive decorative skylight on what became the floor was also created.)

As they chronicled the journey towards the hull, the only part of Poseidon that remained above water, the cast and crew navigated around fire, through ductwork and shafts, up reversed ladders and stairwells, over twisted steel, and across pools of water – lots of water. The characters’ increasingly dirty faces, bruised bodies, and tattered clothes reflected the actors’ ordeals, as directed by Ronald Neame. Winters, then 51, gained 35 pounds for her portrayal of a zaftig elderly grandmother and managed an impressive seen-up-close underwater search-and-rescue sequence in a dress, exposed underwear and all.

The scene, in which Winters’ character was the rescuer rather than the one being rescued, left an impression: she received the film’s only Oscar nomination for acting. (She was beaten out for Best Supporting Actress by Eileen Heckart of “Butterflies Are Free.”) In total, “Poseidon” received eight Academy Award nominations, including a special technical achievement award. It took home two awards: Best Art Direction and Best Original Song (“The Morning After”).

The disaster film had long been a Hollywood staple, from “San Francisco” (1936) to “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) and “A Night to Remember” (1958) to “Krakatoa, East of Java” (1968). However, the success of “Airport” in 1970 triggered a flood of new disaster hopefuls looking for similar box-office gold. The success of “Poseidon” sped up the race. (Its box-office total of $93 million translates to more than $600 million today.)

Irwin Allen, the “Poseidon” producer most recently associated with high-concept 1960s TV such as “Lost in Space” and “Land of the Giants,” followed up with the skyscraper-in-danger epic “The Towering Inferno” in 1974. It was nominated alongside “The Conversation,” “Chinatown,” “Lenny,” and eventual winner “The Godfather Part 2” as the year’s best picture. And Allen’s success earned him the moniker “master of disaster.”

“Inferno” was one of three disaster films released that year, the others being “Airport ’75” and “Earthquake,” the latter of which featured the real-feel technology “Sensurround.” They were all big hits. Allen tried twice more later in the decade, but both “The Swarm” and “When Time Ran Out” bombed at the box office. After other mediocre efforts like “Rollercoaster,” two more “Airport” films, “Meteor,” and Allen’s own ill-conceived sequel, “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure,” time had run out for the genre. The disaster film was relegated to Hollywood’s back burner until CGI arrived a decade or so later to breathe new life into it in films like “Independence Day,” “Titanic,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Perfect Storm,” and “2012.”

Storm director Wolfgang Petersen’s big-budget remake of “The Poseidon Adventure,” titled “Poseidon,” flopped in 2006, its clearly better effects proving no emotional match for the bare-bones, set-tilting, people-tossing original.

Never praised for its screenplay or nuance – “Are the characters as gaudy and thin as cereal boxes?” asked Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times in 1972. Is the dialogue trite and shrill? Is the moralising overbearing and unending? Even in the context of a showmanship special, is the hokum a little thick? Yes, indeed. But who knows?” Nonetheless, “The Poseidon Adventure” was a holiday E-ticket thrill ride: A doomsday story with the promise of a morning after for those who can make it through the night.

Only a handful of the handful could succeed in the end.

However, for the past 50 years, it has been a classic that moviegoers have flocked to, particularly during the days of “It’s Auld Lang Syne.

“The Poseidon Adventure” can be rented or purchased through Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and other platforms.

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