Thirty-eight years ago today one of the quintessential movies of my youth was released. I was just a baby then, not even five months old, and wouldn’t get to watch The Poseidon Adventure until it finally aired on regular St. Louis television some years later. When I was a kid, it seemed a tremendously long movie (just barely shy of two hours), and I hated the theme song fiercely. “There’s got to be a morning after,” my hind quarters. Blech. My sister and I still make fun of it.
What I always remembered and loved about it was how Gene Hackman (as Reverend Scott) and Ernest Borgnine (as Det. Lt. Mike Rogo) both seemed like Hollywood versions of my dad. Stubborn, opinionated, regularly loud and often grouchy…. A touch tortured, but completely capable. A crabby hero. If you’ve watched this first version of the movie (my preference to the TV version in ’05 or the passable studio remake from ’06) you may agree with me that this movie is a glorious example of human nature. The good parts and the bad. People just living. Working and trying to celebrate one thing or another, on their way from one part of the world to another. Arguing. Questioning their faith, or reveling in it. Just living. Until this thing happens. This huge, shocking, life-threatening thing that really is just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And then people get to/have to decide what to do next. Will they react? Or will they respond? It’s taken me a long time in my life to understand the difference between those two verbs, and this movie is one example of what can happen with both. Largely because once that tidal wave crashes into the Poseidon all those lives are literally turned upside down, things just don’t get any easier for anyone still breathing. What started out good (or at least normal) turned bad. And then it got worse.
It seems in any unexpected situation, hysteria and terror will almost always give way to one of three basic responses. Concession (“It seems quite useless, so I’ll just sit here with the Purser and the corpses and wait for possible rescue.”), violent self-preservation (“I know I wasn’t interested in your Christmas tree ladder moments ago, but now that the ballroom is flooding GET OUT OF MY WAY!!!”) or practical motion (“…sitting on our butts is not going to help us either. Maybe by climbing out of here, we can save ourselves.”).*
And for the few who decide to stick with my pseudo-dads, the hits just keep on coming. Bad enough that their holiday cruise is ruined by a natural disaster. Explosions disrupt what little sturdy footing they have and more compartments flood. Stella Stevens and Roddy McDowall fall to their deaths. Shelley Winters has a heart attack. Carol Lunley almost spends the entire rest of her life clutching a ladder in a shaft that’s filling with water because she’s too petrified to move. But generally, they keep moving. Even when their cohorts have died and the ship sinks further into the ocean. The ones that died did so while they were moving. I love that.
Fifteen years ago today my family’s version of the Scott/Rogo archetype died. He was a man who was, I think, another glorious example of human nature. He had good parts and bad. He didn’t like to struggle, but often found himself in one type or another–be it self-imposed or accidental, literal or figurative. He just wanted to live and work and celebrate things from time to time. Sometimes he reacted. But more often than not, he responded. He tried to keep moving.
If I could reach him today and actually hear his voice, I would tell him how much I still enjoy that film. I would tell him how much Ernest Borgnine jumping into that flooded shaft to save Roddy McDowall reminds me of Dad swimming across the Farmington City Pool to rescue a ten-year old flailing version of me before I could swallow too much water and sink to the bottom. I would tell him he is still my crabby hero.
And then we would make fun of that horrible song and discuss what to get Mom and my sister for Christmas.
Maybe a dvd of A Bridge Too Far. Gene Hackman rides again.
*Author’s note: The first two of these three quotes was just me being a blowhard. The last, though, is what Rev. Scott says to the Purser before leading those few others up and out of the ballroom, moments before the ocean crashes through. Good advice, I’d say.