I noticed that The Poseidon Adventure was leaving HBO soon, and I’d never seen the classic 1970s disaster movie, so I started watching it, not expecting a Christian parable:
Right at the start we’re introduced to the hero, the Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a renegade priest whom we soon come to realize is a modern-day stand-in for Jesus Christ.
Some of the parallels are subtle. Scott is introduced during an onboard religious service by a priest named John, as in John the Baptist. Before disaster strikes the ship, Scott sits at a table with a former prostitute. He raises his glass to toast “Love.” After the ship turns over, someone looks at him and says, “Jesus Christ, what happened?”
There is just one way out. It’s to climb up a huge Christmas tree. Yes, salvation can be achieved only by way of the tree. Scott is shown dragging it like Jesus carrying the cross. “Life! Life is up there!” he admonishes the passengers. But half of them won’t listen to him, and even his followers are put off by his confidence and stridency: “Who do you think you are, God himself?”
No sooner have Scott’s followers climbed the tree to safety than the walls collapse and water floods the ballroom. Interestingly, director Ronald Neame (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “The Odessa File”) doesn’t film the resulting chaos from the viewpoint of the doomed passengers. He shoots their scrambling and flailing from a cold distance, in much the same way that Cecil B. DeMille filmed the doomed Egyptians in “The Ten Commandments” (1956).
Neame brings the same distance to a later scene, in which Scott and his followers come upon a group of survivors led by the ship’s doctor. Scott tells them that they are headed in the wrong direction, but they walk by like zombies. “We’re following the doctor,” one says. They are people in the trance of a false doctrine.
Any doubt that Scott is a Christ figure is eradicated in the climactic scene in which Scott sacrifices his life for the remaining passengers. His method of self-sacrifice is telling. After an agonized and angry prayer (“What more do you want from us?”), he leaps onto a steaming valve and closes it, using his body weight to turn it shut. After hanging from the valve for a few extra seconds (so we catch the crucifixion reference), he drops to his death.