Favorite screenplays: The Poseidon Adventure part 2
So, let’s remember, the metaphor in play in The Poseidon Adventure is “the world is upside-down.” The important thing to remember about this metaphor is that it’s already in play before the ship turns upside-down. That is, the world is already upside-down for the characters on the Poseidon, the tidal wave only serves to make the metaphor literal.
So who do we have?
The screenplay starts us off with The Captain. What does The Captain want? “To stabilize the ship.” He is charged with the safety of everyone on board, and he takes his job very seriously. What stands in his way? Mr. Linarcros, the owner of the ship, who wants to get it into port as fast as possible so he can dismantle it and sell it for scrap. Is there a better description of the American Problem than this? The captain wants to get everyone to port alive and well, but the owner, that is, the businessman, says “The hell with that, I’ve got money to make off of selling this thing off piece by piece and destroying it.” The fact that Linarcros is a swarthy foreigner only adds to the 1970s air of American discontent. Not to mention the fact that The Captain seems to be completely powerless in the face of business.
Next we have Robin Shelby, a boy, who comes to visit the bridge in the midst of a storm. The Captain is shocked and angry, but little Robin reminds him that The Captain said he could visit “any time.” That is to say, Robin still believes in the promise of democracy, he believes he has the right to access the halls of power, literally any time he wants. Robin is also a know-it-all, in the manner of a boy, he guards against the sea of troubles by amassing trivia — the height of waves, weather statistics, design specifications.
Then we have Mr. and Mrs. Rogo. Rogo is a NYC cop, and his wife is an ex-prostitute he rescued from the streets. To put it another way, Rogo is a tarnished knight and Mrs. Rogo is his Dulcinea. A NYC cop in 1972 has pretty much seen all the ugliness anyone would need to in terms of world-upside-downness, so it’s no surprise that his wife is the most important thing in the world to him. She is his One Right Thing In This World. He values her beyond how much she values herself. Even though Rogo is a cop, that is, an authority figure, he sees himself as helpless before authority. He never once throws his weight around. Rather, he blusters and pleads and then goes away mad. He is a little man convinced everyone is laughing at him and everyone is leering at his wife.
Mr. Martin, on the other hand, has no wife. He has no one. His way of dealing with the world upside-down is to be a health nut, which the movie illustrates by showing him speed-walking and taking vitamins. Mr. Martin is a curious character, he wheedles and blushes and cringes, but somehow gets everything he wants.
Mr. and Mrs. Rosen are an elderly Jewish couple on their way to Israel to visit their grandson. Their guard against chaos is “tradition,” for lack of a better word, continuity. Israel is their past and their grandson is the future, they see that they are only transitory characters in a continuum of existence.
Next we have our putative lead, the fulcrum of the narrative, Reverend Scott. Reverend Scott has had enough of the way things are. He’s seen for a long time now that the world is upside-down, he’s spoken out about it, and he has been punished for doing so. To his mind, people should not beg to authority, whether that authority is God or a government. People should fight, they should get angry and take their problems in hand. The Chaplain, on the other hand, is puzzled by Scott’s anger, and more so by his joy, because Scott is (or says he is) glad to be out of “the system,” so that he may now begin to answer life’s questions on his own terms. Of all the characters, Rev Scott is the most prepared to deal with the big oncoming metaphor.
Into this morass wanders Nonnie, a doe-eyed waif singer getting a free ride to Athens. Nonnie doesn’t have a plan, she barely seems aware that there is a world at all. All she has is a cloying soft-rock song, the theme of which is “We’ll make it through the storm if we love each other,” a vague, innocuous panacea of a philosophy. Along with Nonnie we also meet Acres, a waiter. Acres, also, has no plan. He’s a working stiff, taking life as it goes.
Then there is Susan, Robin’s teenaged sister. Susan is stuck being mother to Robin, who resents her for it, and a dreamy young woman with eyes for Rev Scott. Rev Scott has no problem accepting Susan’s lustful eyes, even though he’s got 25 years on her and is a Catholic priest (okay, not Catholic — see comments). He never acts on her desires, but he knows he can use them to inspire her.
Now that we’ve met everyone, Rev Scott gathers some of them to hear a sermon on the deck of the ship. His message: God doesn’t care about you, specifically. “The individual is only important to the extent of providing a creative link between the past and the future,” he crows, echoing Mr. and Mrs. Rosen’s philosophy. God will not help you, he says, you’ve got to help yourself, and in so doing, you will discover God within yourself.