In the earliest days of The Underworld's existence, I set about doing tributes to virtually every 1970s disaster film. It's the genre that is by far my favorite. When I'd finally worked my way through all the major examples, I realized that I had somehow left out one: 1974's Juggernaut. Juggernaut was inspired by an actual event; the attempt to extort money from Cunard Lines, the operators of The Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner. In 1972, a man claimed to have a bomb on board that would explode if he wasn't paid a ransom. Cunard prepared to pay him, but the British decided to parachute a special team of soldiers into the ocean who then boarded the boat and searched for the (nonexistent) bomb. The man was later caught.
For this film, the seed of the story was elaborated upon with a cruise ship being saturated with not one, but seven bombs(!) that will be automatically detonated in less than 24 hours if a 500,000 pound ransom isn't paid to a creepy-sounding, phone-calling extortionist. Thus, a team of experts has less than that amount of time to disarm the bombs or face certain death. (Rough seas basically prevent the use, or at least the practicality, of lifeboats.) The title of the movie, by the way, refers to the name given to himself by the extortionist and not to the ship itself. The ship is called The Brittanic (a name that was once also assigned to a sister ship of The Titanic. The real Brittanic sank during WWI when it was either torpedoed or struck a mine.)
Most '70s disaster movies open grandly, with memorable music played as the credits very deliberately roll out a staggering list of stars, the names of each one getting its time in the sun only to be followed by yet another one. (Think Airport, with its snowy airfield as Alfred Newman's score pounds away, or The Towering Inferno, with John Williams' music accenting a helicopter tour of southern California.) This one is unusual for the opening credits are all said and done in barely over a minute and are limited mostly to a cluster of actors' names and a couple of other key crew positions. The music is merely the ambient playing of a marching band at the dock.
That's not to say that there aren't plenty of stars on board. In fact, the roster of names looks better now than it probably did upon the film's release. Richard Harris is top-billed as the head of the bomb squad. An unchallenged master at what he does, he's capable of disarming most bombs while carrying on benign conversation. This time, however, he comes up against what is surely the most daunting set of explosives he's ever encountered. The process of trying to disable them takes a heavy toll on him. Harris has a right-hand man played by David Hemmings, who works in tandem with him on the various bomb disposal jobs that come about.
The captain of the ship is played by Omar Sharif, looking rather dapper in his brass-buttoned uniform and matching coat. He and Harris are the co-leads of the film, but only share two significant scenes with one another. (It's a sort of “lite” version of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman from Inferno.) Harris is the more showy of the two, without question, but Sharif's deliberate underplaying makes for a nice contrast between the men.
On dry land is Scotland Yard inspector Anthony Hopkins, desperately trying to snake out who the threatening caller is and prevent him from collecting his money while hoping he can also force him to reveal the key to stopping the impending explosions. In a bit of contrivance, Hopkins wife (Caroline Mortimer) and their two snot-nosed kids are on board The Brittanic, headed for the U.S. for a visit with her sister. Thus, his interest in the case transcends the normal level of concern.
The CEO of the cruise line is played by Ian Holm who wants to pay the ransom and save the 1200 passengers and crew who are sailing on his ship. He is pressured by government agents to forgo that plan and not give in to terrorist threats. His harried day begins with trying to feed his own two kids and a dog (presumably he's divorced?), but that's only the beginning of his troubles! Julian Glover is a naval officer who helps to coordinate the communication between land and sea and work out the logistics of the bombs on a chalk board.
Back on board the ship, we have Miss Shirley Knight as a jaded passenger who is married to an absent husband, but is also seeing a couple of men on the side, one of whom happens to be the captain! She strives to hold his attention, unaware that he is facing one of the primary hurdles of his seafaring career. Then there is Clifton James as a perceptive passenger and Roy Kinnear as a bumbling, relentlessly cheerful, though mostly unsuccessful, activities director.
While the authorities on land do whatever they can to locate Juggernaut and thwart him, the team led by Harris flies out into the North Atlantic and parachutes into the water near the ship. The weather is so rough and the ocean so turbulent that the mere act of getting from the water up onto the ship is a deadly feat in itself. Meanwhile, most of the passengers are seasick from the endless careening of the boat. They feel awful before they even learn that their lives are in danger.
Hopkins and his men interview various suspects who may be Juggernaut (two of which are played by stellar character actors Cyril Cusack and Michael Hordern in unbilled cameos), running up against dead ends as the clock ticks on.
The passengers are informed of the bomb threat and yet have little choice but to proceed with the scheduled “fancy dress” ball, though none of them is in the mood to party. Kinnear tries to raise everyone's spirits, to little avail. Here, we are treated to some particularly ugly clothing on the cast. The '70s were a dubious time for fashion anyway, but the costumer here managed to find a horrifically ugly and unflattering dress for Knight, a white thing riddled with big holes. As Edith Head had been nominated for her Airport costumes and would be again for Airport '77 and Irwin Allen's resident designer Paul Zastupnevich scored three of his own nominations (for The Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm and When Time Ran Out...), this is yet another way in which this disaster movie differs from the leaders of the pack.
Eventually, the threat of Juggernaut's bombs become a reality and explosions occur and some lives are lost, though it is not on the level of spectacle that one might expect. (One explosion includes the unbelievable horror of... having the sprinkler system go off.....) The real draw here is the nail-biting suspense that comes from watching Harris try to take apart one of the bomber's creations. This and the pleasure of watching a truly solid cast at work is what helps make up for some of the lack of familiar disaster elements.
Juggernaut was directed by Richard Lester, a very unique talent who had helmed the seminal '60s film Petulia (which featured Knight in a supporting role.) After enjoying success in the early to mid '60s, the 1969 flop The Bed Sitting Room brought his career to a screeching halt. His next film, 1973's The Three Musketeers, made him a viable option within the industry again. This movie came right on the heels of that success and he continued to work steadily, a major success being Superman in 1978, until the late '80s.
One of Lester's motifs, which he uses plentifully here, is the sound of background characters talking, often saying amusing things. For Juggernaut, it helps to either be British or have an ear for dialect in order to pick them up properly. There are some effectively dismal shipboard announcements made over the loudspeaker prior to the revelation of the emergency. His direction is skillful and solid, though he makes no effort (quite the opposite, in fact) to present the cruise liner as anything but a dreary, routine, unexciting experience.
Extras for the film were composed of folks willing to take a true and real sea voyage on an old German liner that had been sold to the Soviet Union, but was first leased to the filmmakers. The vessel was then launched into the ocean in search of as bad of weather as could be found in order to meet the needs of the script. Thus, some of the seasickness and general displeasure amongst the passengers might not have required much acting! This is not The Love Boat. Where some other films of the genre (The Poseidon Adventure, for example) might have used miniatures in addition to location shooting, Juggernaut is all done with a real ship, with everything shot right on board, lending it a significant amount of versimililtude, though also limiting the camera freedom and the ability to shoot on roomy sets.
Lester has a perverse sense of the absurd, which is put to good use in this film and sets it apart from others in the genre. There is a striving towards the ordinary rather than the extraordinary and a welcome lack of sentimentality. There are no mushy love scenes or clinging embraces. James and his wife (played by one-time starlet and now semi-retired wife of actor Alexander Knox, Doris Nolan) have a frank chat about their relationship that is refreshingly free of the maudlin. It must be said that her wig is ghastly, though, and what about those glasses!
Harris is charismatic and strong in his role. Often, he's called upon to act by himself or to a disembodied voice on headset, yet he maintains interest through his commitment to the duty at hand. A screen actor from the late '50s, he continued to rise from supporting roles to eventual leads (with 1963's This Sporting Life containing his first starring part, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. The statuette went to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field.) Two years after Juggernaut, he made another disaster film, The Cassandra Crossing, as well as that disaster of a film Orca. His last hurrah as a lead was probably 1990's The Field, for which he earned a second Oscar nomination (losing to Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune), after which he segued back into colorful supporting roles. He died in 2002 at the age of seventy-two from Hodgkin's disease.
Egyptian actor Sharif, after making quite a few movies in his homeland, made an international splash with a role in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. He was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, losing to Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth. He then made several epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Genghis Khan (1965.) 1965 also brought him his most famous role (and one of his own least affectionately remembered) as Doctor Zhivago. He continued to star in a variety of movies and continued to take supporting parts until 2009. He is still with us today at age seventy-nine. This marked the only time he and Richard Harris worked together on screen.
At the time of Juggernaut, Hopkins had only been a movie actor for about seven years. His first role of note was as one of Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn's sons in The Lion in Winter (in which his love interest was Timothy Dalton!) A reliable supporting actor, he didn't emerge as a leading man until 1978's Magic, opposite Ann-Margret. Around 1990, he had something of an epiphany which gave him extraordinary insight into the craft of acting and opened up a new realm of possibilities for him. He took great advantage of this, first with the unforgettable part of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (for which he won an Oscar) and then with Remains of the Day, Nixon and others. Now seventy-three, he is as busy or busier than ever.
Hemmings started out in films as a youth in 1954. By the time of Blow-Up in 1966, he'd become an internationally known presence in new age cinema. The following year, he played Harris' illegitimate son Mordred in Camelot and in 1968 appeared in the cult classic Barbarella. As his acting career slowed, he took to directing, surprisingly enough, he did several episodes of Magnum, P.I. and quite a few of The A-Team! He died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of sixty-two.
Knight started out as a Warner Brothers contract player, kept busy in many TV series and movies. She was nominated twice for Supporting Actress Oscars with The Dark at the Top of the Stairs in 1960 (the award went to Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry) and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1962 (losing to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker.) Never one afraid of controversial roles, she tended to avoid the routine, perhaps at the expense of a career as a leading actress. By the time of Juggernaut, she was in a bit of a film career lull. She, in fact, didn't make another movie until the disaster-at-sea fiasco Beyond the Poseidon Adventure in 1978, in which she was one of the few saving graces. Though there are occasions in Juggernaut where she looks quite pretty, there are others when she's less so. She sports what might be one of the all-time ugliest pair of eyeglasses in one scene! In time, the weight came on, but she began to enjoy a healthy career as a valuable character actress. Now seventy-five, she works constantly in small roles in films of every type.
5' 6” Holm managed to pack a lot of punch into his diminutive frame. Active on British TV since the late '50s, he began to land decent supporting roles in films during the late '60s. In 1979, he had a memorable appearance in Alien and in 1981 was Oscar nominated in the Supporting Actor category for his work in Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire (John Gielgud won that year for Arthur.) In recent years, he put his size to good use as Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in two Lord of the Rings films as well as an upcoming set of films based on The Hobbit. He is eighty years-old as of this writing.
James is a New York City native, but made something of a specialty out of playing good ol' southern boy types in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Silver Steak (1976), often playing a sheriff. John Sayles used him in Eight Men Out (1988), Lone Star (1996) and Sunshine State (2002.) His most recent film appearance came in the 2006 comedy Raising Flagg with Alan Arkin. He is ninety years-old at present!
Kinnear was a longtime favorite of Lester and he cast him in seven different films (eight if you count The Four Musketeers, the second part of The Three Musketeers that was lopped off and released as a sequel.) Positively perfect at playing endearing, affable, but utterly hapless types, he was busy from the early '60s on. When Lester went back to the well once more (for the ill-advised The Return of the Musketeers, released in 1989), he naturally cast Kinnear again, but, sadly, an on-set accident (a fall from a horse) led to his demise. He was dead in 1988 at only the age of fifty-four. The movie (which never even received a theatrical release in America) was dedicated to him.
Mortimer, who spends the bulk of her time on screen either wrangling her two unruly kids or wretching from motion sickness, had an active career in British movies and on TV from the early '60s through the late '80s, with only sporadic appearances since then. There's an awfully prominent mole or wart above her right eye in Juggernaut that becomes a bit of a distraction! One of her credits is the infamously bad 1968 film A Place for Lovers, that starred Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni. She is sixty-nine years of age now. The kids, by the way, were real-life sibling, who, with their other two sisters enjoyed a spate of acting projects during the mid-'70s before retiring.
Keen-eyed viewers will also spot star-to-be Simon MacCorkindale in his film debut as a helmsman on the bridge of the ship. His wordless role is listed in the credits, so perhaps he had lines initially that didn't wind up in the final cut of the film. His next film (also set on a boat), 1978's Death on the Nile, would give him a far more prominent part. Later, he had a featured role in Jaws 3-D and worked a lot on American television. Sadly, he passed away last year at only fifty-eight years of age due to bowel and lung cancer. (Did you ever notice how my cast wrap-ups, especially of older films, tend to be all “she died” or “he was killed”?? It's depressing sometimes, I tell ya!)
So long as one doesn't go into Juggernaut expecting the usual glossy, slick disaster movie, it ought to prove quite entertaining. The subversive approach to the material from Lester and the at times taut suspense give it some distinction. I recall seeing it on TV many years ago and hating it, but in more recent years I've come to appreciate what it has to offer.