There’s got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let’s keep on looking for the light
It’s New Year’s Eve on the SS Poseidon. And New Year’s Eve is often horrible. I’m sorry, I’m sure there are many who love New Year’s Eve and that is a wonderful thing, but good god it can be depressing. And especially at a party – crammed in a room (or on a boat) with people you’re supposed to be having a good time with. But there’s also something a bit mysterious about how woeful it can be. It’s not like you really want the same year to continue, not even if it was a great one, we all need a refresh of course, so that is the hope – a fresh start, a new beginning and, in some more dramatic circumstances, light out of the darkness. As Maureen McGovern sings, “There’s got to be a morning after…”
And that can happen for people. People who have permanently good attitudes, loads of self-motivation, or good luck. But with time and wisdom (and cynicism), you often know the next day, the New Year, really makes no damn difference from the day before. Unless you make it so (for yourself – for your community, or for the world, that’s something else). So here come the reflections about your life, which can fill you with melancholy or anxiety. And here come the resolutions. But will you empower yourself to even start them? Will you not, as Gene Hackman’s The Poseidon Adventure preacher testifies, “pray to God to solve your problems!” But instead, “Pray to that part of God within you! Have the guts to fight for yourself!” Maybe.
Or maybe you need an enormous push – a holler from a malevolent God, or a mischievous Devil (your choice), or, you need to take an absurdist journey through the looking glass. Or maybe you just need to freak yourself out. That all sounds so dramatic – it doesn’t need to be that dramatic, not in real life, and so this is why cinema is so glorious. You can, in the Ronald Neame-directed, Irwin Allen-produced, John Williams-scored, The Poseidon Adventure, live through all of these other people’s lives – their and hopes and their dreams and their freak-outs on New Year’s Eve. And enjoy the hell out of it. You can forgo a party or watching the ball drop or falling asleep early on the couch and experience the surreal hellscape of this aging luxury liner. There they go, sliding sideways across a dance floor, screaming. Here they are, terrified, hanging upside down from a table in a 1970’s party pantsuit. They’re not taking down the Christmas tree this year, they are, instead, climbing up it.
The passengers of the Poseidon, including four past Oscar winners, are facing the fight of their lives in an otherworldly realm of water, fire, explosions, and shimmering holiday tinsel. It’s ridiculous, it’s bizarre, it’s weirdly beautiful, it’s silly, it’s exciting, it’s, at times, incredibly human. You want a memorable New Year’s Eve? Or at least a pleasant kind of drunkenness? Watch Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine yell at each other about the right thing to do stuck in a capsized ship and watch Borgnine usually (always?) be wrong about it. No wonder, even beyond the whole disaster he’s found himself in, he’s often in a rotten mood.
And from the start, he’s sour – even as none of the sliding-across-the-dance-floor or hanging-upside-down has happened yet (the only one aware of danger is Leslie Nielsen, the ship’s captain, and his immediate crew). But Borgnine’s cop, Detective Lieutenant Mike Rogo, is, from the first scene, dealing with his sick wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), who is also upset. She’s often cranky and snips at him (“To love, dummy” she says later during a toast), but he clearly loves her. She’s a former prostitute (it’s discussed a few times after this moment – she’s worried someone on board recognized her – so much for new beginnings) and he’s bickering with her about suppositories (he doesn’t know where you put them – she does). He’s also annoyed with the doctor for taking so long, but, a portent of doom – three quarters of the passengers aboard the Poseidon are sick. New Year’s Eve is already starting off terribly.
On a more positive note, there’s sweet Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters) and her husband, Manny (Jack Albertson), a loving, retired couple who are traveling to Israel, thrilled that they’ll finally meet their grandson. Belle notices the older bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons), speed-walking on deck, an activity that looks wobbly and weird – it seems like he’s both running away from something or towards a goal he may never reach (it’s hard not to think of Buttons’ marathon dancer in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – and Jane Fonda’s Gloria dragging his dead body on her back across the dance floor). Belle thinks the health-conscious haberdasher is lonely. “That’s why he runs. So he won’t notice,” she says. God, what a bummer, Shelley, and on New Year’s Eve of all times. But she’s right.
Then there’s the rogue preacher, Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman, who was in two great, very different pictures than this one – Cisco Pike and Prime Cut – the same year Poseidon was released), whose gotten in trouble with his church for, I suppose, being so rebellious, and is being sent to Africa. He thinks that’s just fine as he’s the best kind of reverend, he says: “Angry, rebellious, critical, a renegade. Stripped of most of my so-called clerical powers. But l’m still in business.” (He sounds like Royal Tenenbaum at that moment) We don’t know how to feel about him, he seems a little unstable, and he is going to become the hero of this movie, which is fantastic – a refreshing change of pace. He’s certainly not typical, he’s not square-jawed boring, this is going to be interesting…
He is full of New Year’s Eve assuredness and an almost creepy, all-powerful positivity towards the future. His punishment is, in fact, to him, “Freedom! Real freedom. Freedom to dump all the rules and all the trappings. And freedom to discover God in my own way!” He’ll discover something like God soon enough.
Later on, he’ll preach to a group of passengers – including a young woman (with a resourceful gown, we’ll learn that night) that he’ll bond with, Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin), who is traveling with her ship-curious younger brother, Robin (Eric Shea), and the sensitive singer Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), who will form a connection – traumatized – with James Martin. The Reverend is sermonizing that God wants “winners, not quitters.” And he will, indeed, bring up, quite forcefully, New Year’s resolutions:
“So, what resolution should we make for the New Year? Resolve to let God know that you have the guts to do it alone! Resolve to fight for yourselves and for others and for those you love. That part of God within you will be fighting with you. All the way.”
He really seems to vibing something here, like perhaps a major catastrophe (or maybe he was really upset by the state of the world, hated Richard Nixon) and that is surely the point, but some of this preaching seems like it would creep out half of the ship. But Hackman is so good, so angry/charming, that he makes this guy’s weirdness riveting. I’d go see him preach if I were on that boat. I’d sit there all entranced and scared like Red Buttons in his natty scarf hoping his multiple doses of vitamins keep him virile enough to find a girlfriend or a wife or survive a 90-foot tidal wave. New Year’s Eve is awful anyway. Why not?
Once we get to the New Year’s Eve celebration, we’ve now met a likable waiter named Acres (Roddy McDowall), who is digging the young people and their music, and Arthur O’Connell as an older Chaplain who seems a bit disturbed by Hackman’s iconoclastic Reverend. Everyone’s celebrating in the grand, holiday-decorated ball room where the Captain doesn’t sit at his table for long – he and the greedy Linarcos (Fred Sadoff) must leave as there is an emergency (the undersea earthquake and all) – and Reverend Scott will take over as Captain. At the table anyway. But then he already seems like he has taken over. And then… the boat, described by the purser as “a hotel with a bow and a stern stuck on,” will capsize. Spectacularly so.
It’s an incredible, strangely beautiful, artfully composed sequence. The passengers, adorned in bright gowns and suits with frills and funny hats, fall to one side, tumbling over chairs and tables and musical equipment. They keep rolling along with the boat as its turned over by the tidal wave – the floor becoming the ceiling. They slide on a surface strewn with colorful New Year’s Eve confetti, trying to grab on to anything, desperately attempting to hang on to loved ones. The tables now have screaming topsy-turvy passengers clinging to them as they hang in the air. It’s insane, wonderfully surreal – Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole by way of Hieronymus Bosch mixed with a Max Ernst collage. The Day of the Locust’s Tod Hackett could paint it in his mind – and go crazy for sure – or maybe Shelley Winters would save him.
And from then on, the movie does not stop. These passengers, who really become only the handful of survivors/movie stars (all mentioned above) – the ones who climbed up that Christmas tree (save for Roddy McDowall who was already at the top, and then poor Arthur O’Connell stays down with all those who sided with the by-the-book purser instead of the rebel Reverend), will work through an unearthly quagmire within this upside-down abyss. They are moving up, from the top of the ship to the bottom (insane), to the outer hull, and they climb and crawl and swim through various stages of hell. Belle, who is constantly worried that her weight will impede her, will perform her heroic, sacrificial swim (she was once the underwater swimming champ of New York) and it’s quite moving. People argue – Rogo and the Reverend, Rogo and Linda, some are braver than others, some nearly lose their minds, and some of them die. And they’re all being led by a Reverend who is so challenged by God that, in his last act, he screams to the big man upstairs: “How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many more lives?! Belle wasn’t enough! Acres wasn’t! Now this girl! You want another life? Then take me!”
The Reverend, who has not wasted any time praying, something he seems not to believe in (for good reason in this case, he’s got to keep himself and everyone moving, what good would praying do?) is fueled with an anger at a blood-thirsty God that feels damn righteous at this point. If God set up this entire catastrophe as a test – why? Why did brave Shelley Winters have to die a watery death again (remember A Place in the Sun, The Night of the Hunter, the rain storm in Lolita)? Yes, I am blurring Shelley Winters with Belle, and with everything else she’s played (am I forgetting another cinematic water death?), but this is what The Poseidon Adventure does to me. Why take out any of these people? And more about God – God is all over this picture, and yet, it really feels like God isn’t around much, not any sort of benevolent God. This God is furious. This God does not give a good goddamn while they’re twisting through this upside-down underworld of a ship. (Maybe a kinder God helped with the Christmas tree?) Or, to go further, there is no God – how could one not feel that while being so tested and enraged by a higher being? There is a Devil, likely. And maybe nature is God. (Maybe Gene Hackman’s Reverend is really getting to me…)
Well, wait a second… perhaps there is something more powerful up there to believe – a divine intervention. Near the closing of the movie, when they reach the end of the line, their only chance out of this netherworld, Rogo hollers out, “My God, there is somebody up there. The preacher was right! The beautiful son of a bitch was right!” (That would be a terrific bible verse – someone should work on that) Rogo once angrily accused the Reverend of thinking that he, himself, was God. Now Rogo may think that “beautiful son of a bitch” was some kind of Christ figure.
But does everyone believe now? I don’t know. Certainly not all of the viewers. The movie’s power is from how punishing and surreal it is – not entirely spiritually, even if religious allegory is all over the picture and surely meaningful to some – there’s something more potent about it being a crazy, screaming spectacle intertwined with all of this God business – it moves into another realm, one of wonderful epic absurdity. It spins through your brain like those Alice in Wonderland passengers rolling through the ball room in loud clothing with confetti and pianos flying everywhere. It manages to be both mind-numbing and invigorating, inane and inspiring. Is that possible? Sure it is. Life can be like that. And the movie is strangely satisfying. What you might need as the year comes to a close. What you might need on a day before the morning after.