The 1970s are considered to be the golden age of disaster films, with classics like Airport and The Towering Inferno. One of the best from this era is The Poseidon Adventure. By keeping the attention on the characters rather than the rogue wave that flips the ship, this film highlights the best parts of the disaster film genre.
At its core, a disaster film focuses on some kind of disaster, either man-made or natural, and how the characters change because of it. Essentially, a disaster film is a character study. The Poseidon Adventure is no exception. In the middle of a voyage to Athens, the S.S. Poseidon is turned upside down by waves from an undersea earthquake. A group of survivors from the initial flip is led by the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) from the ballroom to the bottom (but now the top) of the ship in the hopes of being rescued.
One of the key elements of a disaster film is the disaster hero, which for The Poseidon Adventure is Frank. As a minister, he already has the respect of the passengers before the disaster occurs, so it makes sense for the group to trust him with their lives. He is constantly seen going against the decisions of the traditional authority, whether it be crew members or the other minister on board, by saying his idea is the only one that leads to survival. Even with this arrogant attitude, he puts the survival of the group before his own and encourages them to fight for their own survival rather than rely on a rescue crew to find them.
An interesting detail behind the production of The Poseidon Adventure is the costume development for the characters, specifically the female characters. Costume designer Paul Zastupnevich had to create looks that would make sense for upper-class passengers but also be durable enough to not tear away completely. Even Frank points out that it will be difficult to move through the wreckage in a fancy dress at the start of the journey. This explains why Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) conveniently wore red shorts under her skirt and Linda (Stella Stevens) ditched her gown for her husband’s shirt. Only Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters) stays in her original outfit, so the skirt was already knee-length and made of a fragile fabric that could tear easily.
Although some of these films try to have a villain in addition to the disaster (think Cal Hockley in Titanic), The Poseidon Adventure ignores this trope in order to keep all the focus on the characters. This allows the film to explore the idea of having no one to blame for the tragedy. For example, just before the group reaches the rescue point, Linda falls to her death after an explosion. Her husband Mike (Ernest Borgnine) immediately yells at Frank saying he killed Linda, even though he obviously didn’t. By trying to blame someone for her death, Mike is able to be angry rather than start mourning his wife.
Another benefit to not having a villain complicate the plot of a disaster film is that the film can take a closer look at the signs of survivor’s guilt in the characters. Basically, survivor’s guilt is when someone feels they have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. For instance, Mike looking to blame someone for Linda’s death because he is trying to ignore his feelings of helplessness. This concept explains the final scene when all of the surviving characters look sad as rescuers cut into the ship. Instead of being happy about being rescued, they can only think of the ones who didn’t make it to the end.
Fatal romance is another trope often used in disaster films. In The Poseidon Adventure, this is shown in two different ways. One is the budding romance between James (Red Buttons) and Nonnie (Carol Lynley), where they use each other as a reason to survive. Initially, Nonnie believes she is lost without her brother and refuses to fight, but James convinces her to find the courage to survive. Without him, she would not have tried to escape at all. On the other side, there are the Rosens. When Belle sacrifices herself for the good of the group, her husband Manny (Jack Albertson) wants to give up and stay with her. However, he continues to survive because of her dying wish that he meets their grandson.
Unlike modern disaster films, The Poseidon Adventure doesn’t include huge moments of showing the actual disaster like the ship being turned upside down. Rather, the film only shows the audience the perspective of the characters being thrown around the ship. Even though this seems just to be the budget-friendly approach, withholding shots of the actual disaster puts more emphasis on the characters being the most important aspect of the story which is why this is one of the greatest disaster films ever made.