Monday, 13 April 2015

Juggernaut (1974)

Juggernaut is a 1970s disaster movie set on an ocean liner. That might lead you to avoid this film on the assumption that it’s going to be a rehash of The Poseidon Adventure. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Juggernaut is not really a disaster movie - it’s an old-fashioned suspense thriller. And a very good one.

It’s not quite what you might expect from director Richard Lester either. Lester made his name with quirky, stylish (possibly over-stylish) 1960s movies such as A Hard Day’s Night. In the 70s he made a series of big-budget adventure movies that were also exceptionally quirky, managing to be determinedly anti-heroic and yet enormous fun - movies like The Three Musketeers (and Lester’s was the best-ever adaptation of Dumas’ adventure classic), Robin and Marian and the criminally underrated Royal Flash. Juggernaut is not at all typical of Lester’s output although it does have some distinctive Lester touches.

The plot is straightforward suspense thriller stuff. A madman calling himself Juggernaut has planted seven bombs on the ocean liner Britannic, bombs loaded with enough explosive to send the ship to the bottom of the sea. To make things worse the ship is caught in a Force 8 gale so there is no chance of launching the lifeboats.

A Navy bomb disposal team is despatched to try to defuse the bombs. They are dropped by parachute from a Hercules transport aircraft. The seas are so rough that it is by no means certain that any of the team will actually be able to get aboard the ship safely before being dashed to pieces by the sea. This scene, exceptionally well mounted, is a major highlight of the film.

The team is led by Lieutenant-Commander Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris). Defusing the bombs is no easy matter - whoever designed these bombs was a skilled and very devious artist in the art of bomb-making.

While Fallon and his team work to defuse the bombs Detective Superintendent John McLeod (Anthony Hopkins) of Scotland Yard is working equally feverishly to track down Juggernaut. It’s a race against time with the bombs set to explode in 22 hours. Of course the steamship line could pay the half million pound ransom but the British government has put pressure on the line not to do so on the (perfectly correct) grounds that caving in to terrorists simply encourages further terrorism.

What distinguishes this movie from a typical disaster movie is the rather subtle characterisation. All the characters are believable. Even the ship’s social director (played by Lester regular Roy Kinnear) is believable even though he’s there to provide comic relief.  He’s trying to do his job, to keep the passengers’ minds off impending disaster. He’s terrified himself but he still has a job to do. The ship’s captain, played by Omar Sharif, is obviously a man whose life is much less in control than it should be. This is all conveyed by subtle suggestion, a far cry from the cardboard cutouts you usually find in a disaster movie.

Richard Harris gets the sort of role that he always played to perfection. Fallon is a cynical, hard-drinking outrageously larger-than-life personality but he’s exactly the sort of man you’d expect to find defusing bombs for a living. He has spent his career thumbing his nose at death but he knows that death has a way of making a man pay for that sort of bravado. 

David Hemming is Fallon’s second-in-command, Chief Petty Officer Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings). Fallon and Braddock are poles apart in personality in temperament but they’re very close friends, Fallon’s over-the-top machismo complementing Braddock’s quiet rather self-effacing likeability. Harris and Hemmings have equally divergent acting styles but they work together superbly. These were the days when Anthony Hopkins had not yet discovered his inner ham and his performance as the flustered but determined detective is nicely judged. Ian Holm’s role as the director of the shipping line is one of the movie’s few weaknesses, being overly predictable and obvious. Freddie Jones is at his creepy best as Sidney Buckland, one of the many suspects interviewed by the police in their search for the bomber.

You expect cynicism in a 1970s movie, especially so with this sort of subject matter, but this movie resists the temptation to indulge in anything quite so obvious. There’s only one overtly cynical line of dialogue (delivered by Ian Holm on the subject of terrorism) and it’s the one moment in the film that falls completely flat. While Fallon might seem cynical he isn’t really - his cynicism is more a kind of bravado, his way of dealing with a life spent facing imminent death and also a useful way of diverting attention from the fact that he’s actually a brave man who is a thorough professional.

Maybe we’re supposed to see the British government’s attitude as cynical but the way the story develops tends to undercut that interpretation and to suggest that their tough approach was actually the correct one.

Richard Lester’s direction is crisp and efficient, without too many overt stylistic flourishes. The emphasis is on suspense rather than action and Lester proves himself to be equal to the challenge. Given the storyline you expect constant cutting back and forth between the events on the liner and the police investigation in London but it’s done in an unusual way. Instead of the rapid cutting that you’d see in a movie today this one cuts back and forth in large and rather leisurely chunks. Oddly enough this serves to heighten the suspense much more effectively.

Lester was brought on board quite late in the day after two other directors had departed. The fact that he didn’t originate the project and was essentially working simply as a director for hire is possibly one of the reasons the movie works so well. He had few opportunities for self-indulgence and stylistic excess.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray offers an adequate if less than stellar transfer without any extras apart from a trailer.

For some bizarre reason this movie was originally released on DVD under the atrocious title Terror on the Britannic.

Juggernaut is a taut tense and very superior thriller with enough distinctiveness of style to make it interesting without distracting from the essential suspense. Very highly recommended.

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