The Cassandra Crossing is a somewhat surprising movie in more ways than one. It’s not the movie that the title and the posters would lead you to suppose and then having led you to believe that it’s a certain type of movie it switches gears dramatically and becomes a whole different movie.
It’s an action adventure movie that is also a classic 1970s disaster movie, and it’s also a classic 70s paranoia movie.
It starts with a well-executed action scene but you need have no fear that director George P. Cosmatos has shot his bolt early. He has a whole bag of other action scenes up his sleeve.
Swedish peace activists have raided the headquarters of the International Health Organisation in Geneva. Presumably they were hoping for a few headlines but they ended up getting much more than they intended. Running about a medical facility with automatic weapons is not the greatest of ideas at the best of times (and is possibly not the best way to promote world peace) but it’s a seriously bad idea when the lab areas of that facility house very very dangerous stuff. Dangerous stuff like bacteria and viruses of some particularly nasty varieties, and even worse bacteria and viruses that no-one knows how to control. That’s why they were housed in an ultra-secure facility to begin with.
One of the peace activists is now lying desperately ill in an isolation bed while the other has decamped into the night. The one in the hospital bed seems to be suffering from some form of pneumonic plague, a nasty enough proposition in any circumstances but this strain may not be the regular pneumonic plague. Some of the stuff housed in the International Health Organisation’s facility is rather problematic, to say the least. Stuff like military viruses developed by the US that they were very anxious to destroy. The only problem is, they hadn’t figured out how to destroy them. So why were they housed in Geneva? For the very simple reason that it was supposed to be the safest place where they could only be stored in safety but where scientists could figure out how to get rid of them.
Now things have obviously gone badly wrong. The US has sent in Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster), a man whose job it is to work out how to being uncontrollable situations like this back under control. He has the reputation of being very very good at his job, although he also has the reputation of being a man who will do whatever needs to be done, with the emphasis on whatever.
The Swedish peace activist who escaped is now on board the Geneva-Stockholm train. That’s about the only thing that is certainly known, other than the fact that he is almost certainly now the world’s deadliest plague carrier. On board a train with a thousand other passengers.
Among the passengers is Dr Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris), a renowned neurosurgeon on his way to Strasbourg to collect an international prize. Dr Chamberlain’s presence on the train may be the first lucky break for the authorities. Although not necessarily such a lucky break for Dr Chamberlain who is travelling by train because he’s afraid to fly.
Also on board is his ex-wife twice over, Jennifer Rispoli (Sophia Loren). They’ve been married twice and divorced twice but that flame is still burning and they may yet be headed for marriage number three. If they live long enough.
Needless to say the authorities in every single country through which the train is scheduled to pass have categorically refused to allow the train to stop. That would seem to leave Colonel MacKenzie with no options, but there is in fact an option. Poland, despite being behind the Iron Curtain, has agreed to allow the train into Polish territory where it can can be unloaded and the passengers quarantined at a very secure facility. All the train has to do is cross the bridge at a place called the Cassandra Crossing and they’ll be just about home and hosed. In theory. At this point you might be thinking that the film’s title has some significance and that there’s something unusual about that bridge. Bingo.
For the first hour that’s how the movie progresses with the tension slowly being ratcheted up as one by one the passengers start to fall ill with disturbingly pneumonic plague-like symptoms.
It’s at this point that the movie switches gears. Forget everything I’ve told you so far. That’s not what is going on. Or rather, it’s only a very small and misleading part of what is really going on. I’d only seen one George P. Cosmatos movie prior to this, Escape to Athena, which is an outrageous and delightfully silly WW2 action adventure romp. At first The Cassandra Crossing seems to be a very different type of movie, more of a taut but realistic suspense thriller. Don’t worry, Cosmatos has saved up lots of outrageousness and delightful silliness for the second half of the movie. This train still has a long way to go before it reaches the Cassandra Crossing. There’s time for plenty of mayhem. And mayhem is what we certainly get.
OK, it has to be admitted up front that this is a remarkably silly movie. But then in general silliness is a major asset in a disaster movie. It’s almost embarrassingly easy to poke fun at the gaping plot holes. For starters, the ultra-secure facility in Geneva housing bioweapons has less security than the average neighbourhood convenience store. A team of reasonably motivated pre-schoolers could knock over this facility. And then there’s the major Plot Revelation halfway through. I can’t tell you what it is, but it involves the nature of the infection and it’s a doozy. And these people think they’re scientists?
It’s also one of the most hysterically anti-American movies I’ve ever seen, although allowance has to be made for the fact that it was the 70s and even American movies in the 70s were hysterically anti-American. But this one really goes overboard. In fact the paranoia in general is hopelessly overdone. If you keep increasing the paranoia level eventually it all just seems silly and that’s what happens here. As the paranoia level rises the movie’s credibility sinks.
The cast is what you expect in a mid-70s British-Italian-German big budget co-production. Some biggish international stars (Sophia Loren and Richard Harris), some European stars (Ingrid Thulin and Alida Valli), and (being a disaster movie) it has to have at least one superannuated Hollywood great. In this case it’s Ava Gardner, doing her best but hampered by being teamed up with Martin Sheen in cinema’s all-time unlikeliest romantic coupling. There’s also O. J. Simpson as a priest. Of course we know he’s not really a priest, but what he actually is will give viewers a few giggles. Plus Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg, demonstrating once again that Method Acting is pretty much indistinguishable from old-fashioned hamminess.
Co-producer Sir Lew Grade probably understood television better than any man who’s ever lived. Unfortunately he didn’t understand movies at all and his involvement in this project is convincing proof that he should have stuck to television.
So all in all The Cassandra Crossing is very silly indeed. It’s also undeniably fast-moving and it has plenty of action although the one mistake you don’t want to make is to think about anything you’re seeing. Once you do this the spell is broken and it’s just completely unbelievable. It lacks the delightful insanity of Airport 1975 or the even crazier Airport '77. Either way it’s kind of fun, in that manner peculiar to spectacularly bad 70s disaster movies.