Irwin Allen was never really a director. He could run with a concept, shape suspenseful sequences within the disaster framework, and guide a production with top talent and money into a blockbuster if the elements of the story and script were sufficiently original, or gave an old genre a refreshing, if not exciting spin.
Forever pegged as the Master of Disaster (which he was, given he codified most of the things good and ridiculous within each subsequent genre entry), Allen somewhat delusionally came to believe he could repeat the same concepts and conventions with great success, provided the film was populated with top, Oscar-winning talent. Audiences clearly enjoyed watching the nuances of people trapped, stranded, wounded, and abandoned, and their efforts to reach safety through the aid of saviors either blessed with a sense of self-sacrifice, or unintended saviors who chose goodness of heart over greed when the water level made them pick a human life over a bag of shiny happy gold.
Allen exploited these disaster mobiles in several TV movies, replicating the successful formula from The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure in a variety of productions, and one sensed that The Swarm, Allen's 1978 theatrical bee epic, was a sign the producer was getting a bit tired of the small screen and wanted to return to the grandeur of Panavision, multi-track stereo, and the affableness of workaholic Michael Caine.
The Swarm stunk - winning a Golden Turkey Award for the dumbest bee movie ever, according to the Medved brothers - but it lived on as a bloated but fun B-movie, even though the longer version sure pushed the limits of melodrama home video and TV audiences could stomach between bee assaults.
Undeterred by the blunder of his bug film, Allen went back to the epic that really began his cinematic career as the Master of Disaster, and had Nelson Gidding scribble a scenario about a salvage tugboat captain and his best buddy Wilbur who together attempt to sneak into the upturned Poseidon for some gold and jewels before the behemoth disappears and suffers the fate of the Titanic. Gidding's career included some fine literary adaptations, including the stellar drama I Want to Live!, the definitive version of The Haunting (1963), and the procedural sci-fi classic, The Andromeda Strain, proving he could shape powerful drama and suspense from good source materials (plus direction, in all of the aforementioned, from Robert Wise).
Unfortunately for Gidding, when he scribbled The Hindenburg, Universal's own disaster riff of Grand Hotel in the air, Robert Wise was no longer in his prime, and the next offer to write a film was a genuine disaster entry on all counts.
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure was made for a lot less money, although like Allen's next stinker, When Time Ran Out..., the budgetary limitations may have been the result of stacking the film with too many stars and top character actors. Michael Caine had already begun his career slide by taking a lot of tripe for money (oddly, beginning with The Swarm, and ending with Jaws: The Revenge).
Two-time Oscar Nominee Caine, however, was one of many actors with ties to the bald gold statue. Also part of the exclusive club were Karl Malden (playing Wilbur, who never loses his sailor's cap), Telly Savalas (as the white-attired villain with an unpronounceable name Svevo, or Swayvoh, or Sooayvoh, with which fellow castmates struggle), Jack Warden (as blind man Harold), Shirley Knight (as Harold's pajama-clad wife), and Shirley Jones (as the good-hearted nurse too new to the ship to know anything about anything except fixing dislocated shoulders).
Allen seems to have bought a few stock shots from the original film, but the rest are lesser models and less grandiose sets. Amazingly, while the band of survivors from the first film trekked through dark passages and flaming chambers of death to the sun-exposed belly of the Poseidon, Caine and Savalas' teams manage to find gloriously overlit locales, with key light and kickers perfectly covering the cast when dry, or swimming underwater in what's supposed to be a murky passageway in a powerless ship.
There are also several gaffes in the film, including a shot at the end, where Caine is seen diving back into the ocean off the shiny inverted hull, while his castmates wade in the water. As photographed from below, one can see a large a brown bed sheet instead of a steel hull.
The story basically has Caine, Malden , and "monkey" Sally Field searching for the purser's safe, while Savalas and his goons search for a drum of Plutonium. It's a variation on the search for cargo "X" resting in a wreck - later the basis of Raise the Titanic ! - with a perfunctory race to the surface that forces each group to trek through upside-down sets less cool than the first film, and lose a few colleagues along the way.
The final reel is extraordinary for its inept plotting, and one senses screenwriter Gidding had no choice but to follow the implausible events to satisfy sequences that had already been storyboarded for the film's final battle. Caine's group buddies up, and shares oxygen tanks, yet he's surprised when Malden fails to surface - even though he was supposed to be sharing the tank with Malden during the whole swim, like the others.
Worse, Caine and Field swim underwater with their own tanks to reach the Jenny (Caine's mortgaged tugboat) and start the engines to attempt a rescue of the hiding survivors. Of course, their actions immediately alert Savalas and his armed goons, yet all the survivors had to do was swim with Caine to the tug, and then race for open water, while Savalas is too busy to make chase because of the boxes of guns and plutonium drum that he and his lone goon managed to brilliantly drag through the fiery engine room - all by themselves.
The cold and hasty tone of the film is partly the result of serious cutting, although those deleted scenes were more character bits and minor extensions. Integrated into the TV broadcast version, as was done for Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and countless disaster flicks of the era, the extra material at least opened up the relationships of the characters, and provided some codas as the last Poseidon survivors bond as the tug sailed into the sunset.
Lost scenes from the finale include nurse Jones taking Warden's hand and offering to be his companion after the loss of clumsy Knight, and Mark Harmon (soon to appear in Goliath Awaits) exchanging further thoughts of a love-bound future with Angela Cartwright after her pop, a WWII master sergeant (played by Peter Boyle), transcends his prickly nature by sacrificing his life for the good of the group. Probably the biggest casualty in the trim bin is Cartwright - a veteran of Allen's popular kid sci-fi series Lost in Space – who mostly stands tense or sits in fear among fellow survivors, because in the theatrical version, the focus is only on Caine (who plays his absurdly motivated character with incredible sincerity).
Even composer Jerry Fielding (also an Oscar-nominated talent) reworks his theme from The Killer Elite for Beyond, although the actual score has original material, with some standout cues (including the firearm battle in the ship's hold). Cheaply released in mono, the sound mix is well-balanced, and both score and modest sound effects come though clearly.
Warner Bros.' transfer is very clean, and vastly superior to the grainy, full frame VHS tape and TV prints that ruined Joseph Biroc's overlit but pretty widescreen compositions. The only gaffe that's sure to rankle with fans of this disaster entry is the omission of those 25 mins. of extra scenes.
The problem with these productions is that no one wants to go to the trouble and archive such apocryphal material on the DVD release. With rare exceptions – DVDs for Halloween, Witness, and Towering Inferno each come with material from the TV versions - the footage is often ignored, leaving a few aging fans as the only witnesses to the extra scenes of bad cinema that's viewable on rare TV airings of old broadcast masters. (Universal failed to correct that mistake when they re-issued Earthquake again, although some of the extra Superman footage was incorporated and archived into the film's first DVD release.)
The problem, if Fox' Towering Inferno is an example, is that those scenes probably don't exist anymore in widescreen, and the only source materials may be those ancient TV masters, but ignoring an opportunity means the footage may well never make it to DVD. Inferno was a blockbuster, so Fox' effort made sense; but Beyond the Poseidon Adventure is a stinker, and like Exorcist II: The Heretic (with its alternate edits) and Swarm (which lacked the shorter theatrical version), it's unlikely the studio will ever attempt a special edition for a re-release.
To offset that disappointment, however, Warner Bros. have included a vintage making-of featurette that's similar to the as a half-hour TV promo piece on the Swarm DVD, showing Allen directing key action sequences with his wet but smiling cast. With the exception of Savalas (who's conspicuously absent from the interviews), the remaining cast have standard on-camera bits about their characters, the sets, and working with the meticulously prepared Allen.
Billed as a production attempting "an impossible task" and Allen's most challenging effort in twenty-nine years, the promo has plenty of on-set footage mixed with film clips, including one of the brief character bits between Knight and screen hubbie Warden that was snipped from the theatrical cut. (Allen himself describes the script as being in a state of constant flux, with rewrites happening up to the day of filming.)
There's some production meetings and model work for the inverted sets that presage the elaborate planning used in both the original Poseidon, and the 2006 remake, though it's somewhat ironic that all the steel, paint, set design, camera setups, pyrotechnics, seaside filming and diving lessons failed to offset the film's hard-lit, TV look, and much of the widescreen photography lacked the depth and scope prevalent in the '72 original, which successfully set up the relationships between fragile humans scattered and trapped in the enormous hulk of a sinking coffin.
This would mark Irwin Allen's final theatrical film as director, after which he would supervise When Time Ran Out... (1979), with James Goldstone (Rollercoaster) directing another disaster novel adaptation & scripted by Carl Foreman (!) and Stirling Silliphant (The Swarm, Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure). Hopefully, if Warner Bros. releases Allen's theatrical swan song, the chance to include additional footage won't be missed again.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan