If there was a time when the world was turning upside down, it was the 60s and 70s. The turmoil from Vietnam to Watergate made many question the things Americans relied on for decades. That anti-establishment arc found its way into many films. Sometimes it was overt, like in films like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.” Charles Bronson could do what the entire police force couldn’t – confront crime and defeat it. Clint Eastwood had to defy police orders to get the bad guy, and he threw his badge into the river to put an exclamation point on it.
But the anti-establishment vein was sometimes not so overt unless you’re looking for it. If you look at The Poseidon Adventure, it’s everywhere.
In a world turned upside down, notice the characters and their fates. The Poseidon’s owners want the top-heavy ship to speed up rather than take on ballast which might have helped keep the ship from inverting. Greedy owners.
Reverend Scott, played by Gene Hackman and the chaplain John, played by Arthur O’Connor, provide the contrast the film needs. Scott is the renegade, practically kicked out of his church, who leads the crusade to try to save himself and the few who will follow him. John chooses to stay behind with the masses, knowing they’ll be dead soon and accepting his fate to join them.
If that’s not an endorsement of progressivism and change, I don’t know what is.
The ship’s Captain follows along, sailing the ship full speed into a tidal wave. In the ballroom, the ship’s Purser tells everyone who survived the capsizing to stay put passively and wait to be saved. It’s a prescription for mass drowning.
Scott’s foil along the way is a retired cop, who follows along but complains when they don’t do things “by the book”.
The film does end rather cynically, with just about every institution damaged or destroyed. No married couple survives, with each losing a spouse to death along the way. The only ship’s employee to join in the quest for survival becomes the first victim. Even Reverend Scott, who led this effort, falls short of the Promised Land in Moses’ style, sacrificing himself to give the others a chance.
But the kids survive, giving hope that the future still has a chance. That’s a change from the book, mind you, where one of the children perishes as well. I’m pretty sure even producer Irwin Allen thought that was a bit much.
“The Poseidon Adventure” has a clear message: rely on established institutions and powerful people and risk your lives. The comforts of money and luxury aren’t so comfortable when you’re trying to outclimb flood waters.
The entire philosophy of the film is told early on during Reverend Scott’s sermon. You know exactly where the film is headed at that moment.