The Poseidon Adventure at 50: Gene Hackman brings dignity to disaster

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Ben Stiller talked about working on The Royal Tenenbaums with Gene Hackman and finally getting up the nerve, two days before the shoot ended, to tell the intimidating Hackman how much he loved The Poseidon Adventure and how it changed his life and made him want to become a film-maker. As Stiller recalled, Hackman gruffly responded: “Oh yeah, money job.”

The exchange did not go as Stiller hoped, but he was firm in his conclusion: “Even if it was a money job for Hackman, it was the most incredible money-job performance I’ve ever seen.”

Related: The Last House on the Left at 50: Wes Craven’s shock horror retains its power

Both men have a point. In the grand arc of Hackman’s career, The Poseidon Adventure is not a work of art like The French Connection or The Conversation, but a tacky Irwin Allen production, to be followed later by another enormous disaster movie, The Towering Inferno. It’s a lumbering ensemble piece, with Ernest Borgnine screaming at the top of his lungs, Shelley Winters swan-diving into floodwaters and an annoying little boy who happens to know that the engine room on a capsized ocean liner has a steel hull that’s only one-inch thick.

And yet Hackman is legitimately extraordinary. For actors that prolific – he would appear in over 100 movies in his career – there’s usually a temptation to “phone it in” on the junkier projects, but as a troubled preacher who leads 10 passengers up to the bottom of the ship, Hackman commits himself so fully to the role that you’d never imagine he’d ever shrug it off. He was a pro’s pro: in a cast full of hams and gams, Hackman creates a character whose will to live – and to save other’s lives in the process – is a matter of religious devotion, a Job-like burden against a spiteful or indifferent God. He strives to make the movie deserve his performance.

Fifty years later, The Poseidon Adventure remains an irresistible relic of the pre-blockbuster era, before Steven Spielberg came along and proved that productions of this scale didn’t have to feel so ungainly. But Allen and director Ronald Neame turn a simple fight for survival into an action showcase that nonetheless goes to greater lengths than necessary to develop its characters and make their survival (and sacrifices) meaningful to the audience. They’re making sure they earn their paychecks, too, just like Hackman.

Based on Paul Gallico’s novel – which would be adapted two more times subsequently, most notably in a 2006 flop from the Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen – the film takes place on the SS Poseidon, an old luxury liner that’s taking a final journey from New York City to Athens. And much like a cop on his last day before retirement, the ship is about to get popped. When an undersea earthquake near Crete triggers a tsunami, the captain (Leslie Nielsen) tries to steer away from the 100ft wave, but the ship lists so badly from the impact that it flips around entirely. Gathered in the promenade room for a New Year’s Eve party, the surviving passengers are the top of a ship that has now submerged, which means they’re at the bottom.

As the Rev Frank Scott, a minister who argues that people should help themselves rather than rely on God to do it, Hackman spends the film turning doubters into disciples, which is never easy. While the ship’s representative advises everyone to stay put and wait for help, Frank believes that the only chance for survival is to climb the six levels “up” to the bottom, but few are convinced. Among the 10 that join him are a cop (Borgnine) and his wife (Stella Stevens), retirees (Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson) en route to meet their infant grandson in Israel, the singer (Carol Lynley) in the house band, an injured waiter (Roddy McDowall), and a vitamin-popping haberdasher (Red Buttons).

Save for the occasional cutaway to the capsized ship rumbling underwater from an explosion, the effects in The Poseidon Adventure are mostly limited to Dutch tilts, shots of bolted furniture hanging upside down, and intermittent bursts of water as the flooding breaches the lower (upper) levels. Mostly, it’s Hackman trying to rally the others to stick to the plan and leading them through flame-filled galleys and ducts that may or may not be too tight for the plus-sized Winters to get through. (A scene where Winters gets the opportunity to show off her prize-winning swimming skills is a glorious bit of redemption.) The film is also shameless in doling out low-angle shots of the three leggiest women on board, who are told, in sobering terms, that they cannot possibly survive in their evening gowns.

For the film to open with Nielsen sternly issuing warnings about the ship’s stabilizers holding up in storm conditions already makes The Poseidon Adventure seem like the Nielsen-led spoof Airplane! eight years later, especially when a boy turns up acting just like Joey, the freckle-faced kid who interrogates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Hackman just keeps on providing the urgency and gravity that keeps the film from sinking the depths of self-parody. His Reverend Frank refuses to resign himself to an early afterlife, and his constant efforts to rally his weary, doubtful followers is a preview of what he’d pull off later as coach of a rural basketball team in Hoosiers. Few performances have done more to dignify a film that cares so little about dignity.