If you don’t have plans for this New Years Eve, I’d like to suggest you spend the evening watching the Irwin Allen production of “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972). It was the first of the epic disaster films, the first PG film I ever saw, and one of my favorite films of all time.
Actually, the first gift that my partner, Craig, ever gave me was an original, mint condition movie poster for the film, a piece of beautifully painted narrative artwork that depicts different moments from the film happening simultaneously. I dragged him to see the twenty-one foot ship model used in the film (now on display at the San Pedro Maritime Museum) and to Rocky Horror-esque fan screenings to meet cast members like Stella Stevens, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, and Carol Lynley and call out famous lines in unison with other audience members.
One of my most indelible memories was the dinner Craig and I spent with our friend, the actor Roddy McDowell, at a terrace table under a tree at Orso in Los Angeles. Wearing one of his famous crushed velvet purple smoking jackets, Roddy was a bewitching storyteller who recalled every production detail from that physically exhausting, technically demanding, and emotionally draining motion picture. Although his character dies early in the plot, he returned daily to its Twentieth Century Fox soundstages to watch the filming.
That film was always more than a thrill ride to me. With its destruction of Biblical proportions and a modern message of spirituality and small group self-reliance, it provided moral instruction for my entire life. And it seems to grow more relevant with time. In fact, I can’t think of a more useful allegory for 2020. Its ultimate thrust is hopeful, but it is an essential, foundational brand of hope that can only be discovered in the aftermath of tremendous loss and tragedy when your world – either literally or figuratively – has been turned upside down.
If you don’t happen to know it, I should offer a little background. It is based on a Paul Gallico novel about an old luxury liner, the portentously named S.S. Poseidon, en route from New York to Athens. Shortly after midnight on New Years Eve, when the passengers are celebrating in the three-storey dining room, a 90-foot tidal wave overturns the ship. Most official leaders, like the Captain and senior officers, are dead; and the hundreds in the dining room are swept up in a frenzy of fear, anger, and denial, insisting perversely that they wait to be told to go to their life boat stations.
But the irreverent Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) insists that – if there is a God – he wants them to help themselves and each other. Mocked by the crowd, he mobilizes a small band of survivors representing a cross-section of societal archetypes – elderly Jewish grandparents, a police chief and his (former prostitute) wife, two children, a middle-aged hardware store owner, a young singer, and dining steward– to escape. He insists they use the 25-foot artificial Christmas tree not as a symbol of faith but as a functional ladder. They set out for the engine room – not because there is an exit there, but because the propeller shaft hull is only one inch thick, and “one inch of steel,” as the Reverend says dauntlessly, “is one inch less then two inches.” They are highly imperfect people, prone to bickering, but ultimately unified by their collective hope. Not all of them make it, but it is this collective hope that ensures that some do.
We’ve all seen our worlds capsized in 2020. Some of us have been tossed about more than others. Many have died, leaving the rest of us to carry on and to remember that our place is with the living. The systems we took for granted could not protect us, and many established leaders have failed in their jobs because of weakness, moral blindness, or rage. At the same time, unconventional leaders speaking to our higher angels emerged. And where we have survived, it has generally been because we chose to work together across boundaries, creating new kinds of families, in an implausible quest for life. And life, as the film reminds us, always matters very much.
At the end of the film (don’t worry: I am not robbing first-time viewers of any of the film’s memorable moments), the handful of survivors from the S.S. Poseidon will never be the same. They have experienced painful traumas, made hard decisions, and witnessed scarring sights. But they all now have a deeper understanding that “there’s got to be a morning after,” which was actually a song lyric performed by Carol Lynley’s character in the ship’s dining room just hours earlier. And this is why this sometimes campy film may matter even more today than it did in 1972. When the film was released, the song lyric – despite winning the Oscar and becoming a gold record — was considered schmaltzy and a little smirk-inducing.
Today, I think we will hear it with a sobriety and conviction that will make us more like the characters in the film than an audience watching it.