Friday, November 20, 2009


"Juggernaut" (Richard Lester, 1974) With the letting loose of the whirlwind that is "2012" this week, I thought I'd pay homage to a neglected, but sterling example of the "Disaster Movie"—the modestly budgeted, very smart "Juggernaut." Made in the shock-wave of such star-culling epics as "Airport," "The Poseidon Adventure," "Earthquake," and "The Towering Inferno" that had the gall to ask: "Who Will Survive?" in its posters, "Juggernaut" played the same game. See? All the stars are lined up like ducks in a gallery reading to be pinged, just like those other all-star slaughter fests.

"Juggernaut" plays the game differently, though, while maintaining the conventions. This film is as soapish as the others in terms of interpersonal relationships. But in other disaster movies, people are collateral damage to the epic depiction of crumbling masonry. Lester's film is all about character—the "disaster" is man-made, the people at-risk are portrayed intimately, if not by stars, by strong character actors (
Clifton James, Shirley Knight, Michael Hordern, Cyril Cusack, Julian Glover, Roy Kinnear—Lester's favorite buffoon is given a part to shine in this film—Ian Holm, a pre-fame Anthony Hopkins) you begin to care about. The cast is filled with faces who would become more familiar in later roles, but the two leads are Omar Sharif at his dyspeptic best as the Captain of the threatened ship and Richard Harris, who was never better than he is in this movie.

The cruise ship SS Britannic is half-way across the Atlantic Ocean when the line's president (
Holm) receives a phone call from "Juggernaut" saying there are seven barrels of high explosive rigged to go off the next day at a predetermined time. Unless a ransom is paid, the bombs will go off and the ship will sink. With the ransom, instructions to defuse the bombs will be sent. Any attempt to defuse the bombs will casue them to explode. Holm's president wants to pay the ransom quickly, but the British government threatens to pull his operating subsidy if he negotiates with terrorists. While Hopkins' Scotland Yard detective attempts to find "Juggernaut," bomb expert Tony Fallon (Harris) and his crew are sent out to the Britannic, dropped in the ocean, and clamber onto the boat.

The focus shifts to
Fallon, who sees all defusing jobs as a form of psychology—he's not trying to figure out the bomb, he's trying to figure out the man who made the bomb, and the tense scenes of Fallon examining one bomb to relay instructions to his crew are a whispered monologue of a man on the edge of death attempting to read the mind of the puzzle-maker in a battle of wills.

For director
Lester, who is fond of games and puzzle solving, the film is one of his obsessions brought to life with the bomb design being particularly devious. Given its nature, one is put immediately into the Fallon mind-set that he is battling a man and not a bomb. And it is this interplay, where one man must rely on his skills and his knowledge, rather than the tides of Fate, that make "Juggernaut" sail past the other films in the sub-genre.

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