Directed by Richard Lester
Written by Richard Alan Simmons, Alan Pater, and Richard Lester
Disaster cinema spent 1973 mostly in stasis. As far as I can determine, not a single major disaster film was released in theaters, and so the genre was represented, to the extent it was represented at all, by disaster-adjacent horror like The Crazies, which I wouldn't say "counts," and reedy made-for-TV timefillers like Runaway!, about a runaway (did you guess?) train, and co-starring Ben Murphy, so let us not spend even one more second of our lives thinking about it. The genre remained fallow for the vast majority of 1974, too, with the whole first eight months of the year again offering only TV movies (TV movies like Heatwave, which also starred Ben Murphy, because it's 1974 and of course it did). I mention all of this for a couple of reasons. The first is to note that twenty months would indeed have been exactly the right amount of time for studios to have absorbed the success of The Poseidon Adventure, and put the final touches on their own responses. I mention it also because 1974 wound up being the single biggest year of the 70s disaster flick after all—in terms of box office receipts, it was the biggest by a huge margin—and the last quarter of the year found the studios pounding disaster movie after disaster movie into theaters, month on month and seemingly by ascending budgetary order. But, immediately before Hollywood landed its three-hit combo of Airport 1975, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno, in the September of 1974 came a British contender for that almighty disaster film dollar. Don't tell Richard Lester that that's what he was doing, though, for the director has always denied that his Juggernaut was a disaster film. Which I suppose must be why its premise can be so aptly summed-up, "Airport on the SS Poseidon."
I've made a distinction between the Airport model and the Poseidon model, and Juggernaut's a vigorous little hybrid of both, though if Lester prefers we avoid the "d"-word and simply call it "a thriller," I cannot deny that he made an exceptionally drumtight example of the form, and one that gets down to its thrills with gratifying urgency. So: the liner SS Britannic has just disembarked on a cruise from England to America, under the command of Capt. Alex Brunel (Omar Sharif), carrying not only 1200 passengers and crew, but, unbeknownst to any of them, seven drums filled with high explosive gel and each rigged with a fiendishly clever (and maddeningly tamper-resistant) bomb. They won't be unaware of this for long, though the first to find out is the liner's owner in London, Nicholas Porter (Ian Holm), who receives a telephone call from a man identifying himself—with not a little jaunty self-regard—as "Juggernaut," requesting the highly-reasonable sum of £500,000 in exchange for not blowing up the ship, though to prove this is no hoax (such as, for example, the 1972 QE2 bomb hoax that inspired this screenplay), he blows up a little bit of the ship, with a tiny little bomb, like an aperitif.
The authorities arrive to discuss Porter's situation, and much to Porter's shocked chagrin, the government's representative Hughes (John Stride) blithely advises him to not even bother trying to pay the ransom, for it is best not to let the terrorists win and all that, and while the government shall do their best to save all the people aboard the Britannic, if they don't, at least they'll have not set any disagreeable precedents. Scotland Yard inspector John McLeod (Anthony Hopkins) takes over the domestic side of the case, and, armed with the suspicion that "Juggernaut" must have been trained by his own government to have hatched such an ambitious plot, he scours the list of suspects, reduced to a theoretically-manageable several dozen. Out in the North Atlantic, however, the real duel is happening, as the Royal Navy's foremost bomb disposal expert, Tony Fallon (Richard Harris), is dispatched with haste along with his team—six more in all, including his usual partner, Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings)—to rendezvous with the Britannic on the open seas by way of a dangerous parachute jump, and, from there, hopefully, to disarm seven bombs in time to save the ship and all aboard.
Juggernaut represents an unusually severe side of Lester, best known for his shaggy-ass Beatles movies in the early 60s, along with his run at the first two Superman sequels in the 80s. It's not an unprecedented side: the lesser-seen anti-war pictures he'd gotten up to in the late 60s have a reputation for being very severe indeed, though my understanding is that even these bear a streak of absurdism as their maker's mark. The basic fact is that, for Lester, Juggernaut was just a job—just off of The Three Musketeers, executive producer David V. Picker called him, desperate to replace the director he'd fired, whereupon Lester answered, "sure, I'd take a cruise." Now, he still took his job seriously: alongside Alan Pater, he effectively rewrote producer Richard Alan Simmons's script from scratch (much to Simmons' incensed annoyance, so that you won't find his real name anywhere on this film). If you squint, you can see Lester's wackier sensibilities reflected here, for example, in an unsteady porter (Roshan Seth) who has a very "don't mind him, he's from Barcelona" vibe, or in the existence of a pinball game in a cruise liner's lounge titled "Shipwreck." But it's all in a very downbeat register—Juggernaut isn't anywhere close to humorless, but when it's funny, the laughs have a remarkable tendency to die in the throat long before the film ever manages to crack a smile.
Instead, then, maybe it's just unusually straightforward, though I don't know if this quite appropriately captures the feeling of watching it, either. Well, regardless, Lester throws himself into the deep end of a sprawling procedural, and what he does is treat Juggernaut's procedural as the excuse for a terrific exercise in craft. One might use the word "style"—for Juggernaut is, in its way, an extraordinarily stylish example of the 70s thriller—except that the single most salient aspect of its aesthetic had already been locked-in before Lester even came aboard, and this imposed something like an anti-style upon the director, though the degree to which Lester embraces it is one of the things that makes the film so vivid. This was Picker's decision to charter the cruise liner TS Hamburg from its new owners, the Soviet Black Sea Shipping Company, who agreed to allow Picker access to the ship for a few months between sale and delivery. (Amusingly, the agreement specified that the Soviet firm would pick up the operating costs, which meant that due to the skyrocketing cost of oil, the Russians lost money and Picker came out further ahead on the deal than he could have dreamed.) Redressed as "the Britannic," the liner was sailed into the North Sea with a complement of extras offered a free cruise—with the caveat that, for reasons of both narrative and atmosphere, they would be seeking out the very roughest water that the North Sea could provide, which is very rough indeed, and the stories told about this dismal and nauseous vacation suggest a reason besides frugality why Lester might've wrapped principal photography in six weeks instead of the scheduled ten.
That's all a fun piece of production history, but what that means for the film itself is obvious if you've seen it: a deeply-immersive sensation of tactile realism, from the undeniable metal existence of the 25,000 ton ship to the weathered detail of its interiors to the way the extras can often barely manage ambulatory movement across its heaving decks. Confronted with the undeniable fact of their "Britannic," Lester and cinematographer Gerry Fisher went ahead and emphasized its reality even further, with mostly-handheld camerawork and hasty, unadorned set-ups dictated as much by the weather and the events in front of the camera than any set plan, and the result is a thriller with the mien of a hard-nosed docudrama. This is never more evident than in the footage gleaned from Fallon's team's treacherous drop into the ocean and the not-entirely-successful attempt to get them all aboard alive. Though pressed into the shape of a narrative—it's splendidly well-told, considering the challenge—the individual shots take on a certain journalistic, "this is just where the camera happened to be at this moment" quality, with the rain and seawater frequently covering the lens entirely, and even when the shot is free of occlusion, there's the definite sense that "lighting" or "framing" or even "focus" could not be the priority when the task was to capture the rawness of the stuntmen struggling in difficult seas. The approach has obvious drawbacks, namely that they can't wreck the Hamburg—they can set off some fireworks on deck, but can't even really fuck up its interiors beyond knocking some stuff around—and this is a weakness, considering that the rad poster did indeed promise that, at some point, we were going to get to see a big-ass hole blown in the side of the ship. But it's not a problem you notice much while you're watching it, and the blunt naturalism Lester was obliged to play with here is mostly all to Juggernaut's benefit.
This would be enough to make it interesting, but it seems very possible that the necessity of building such difficult scenes in the editing room recommended to Lester and editor Antony Hibbs to treat the whole movie, or at least huge stretches of it, as the same basic kind of assembly, albeit typically much more-closely controlled. And this is where style, in the positive sense, re-enters the picture in a big way, and never really lets go, though it's a lot more aggressively musical about it in the early running, which gives Juggernaut the rare distinction of being a film that is arguably at its best while voiceover exposition sets up its plot. "Juggernaut's" phone call to Porter is a piece of cutting that, narratively, exists solely to tell us what the premise of the movie is going to be; but it has the effect of casting a grim shadow over everything else to come. So, as the glibly sociopathic mad bomber runs through what he wants the shipping magnate to do, Lester and Hibbs put together a montage of the ship's alarmed and panicked crew discovering the bombs at some point minutes into the future, only to circle back to the "present" when that aforementioned "I'm not fucking around here!" bomb goes off, with just enough time left for Sharif's stunned expression to dissolve into a huge, screen-filling rectangle of blood red, introducing us to our actual hero, Fallon, defusing another bomb in what turns out to be an art museum.
It's not at all the last time that these kind of elliptical, affective cutting rhythms take over for "the plot," and to a degree the whole movie's built that way, thanks to the discontinuous geography of the action—bouncing back and forth between the company office, the investigation, and the ship, and even between Fallon's team aboard the Britannic, who have been obliged to work in isolation from one another on the seven individual bombs. The second half of the movie settles into a more conventional groove, but by this point it's earned it, with an increasing focus on the sweaty, anxious mechanics of devices designed to kill you if you try to take them apart.
The trade-off is that Juggernaut is never a film that permits much in the way of character, though if it is a trade-off, it's a good one, and it gets around this pretty much the same exact way it's gotten around its plot, by focusing instead on brief snapshots of humanity (or, better yet, Britishness) rather than people with "stories," as such. So if, for example, Captain Brunel's romance-or-whatever-it-is with passenger Mrs. Bannister (Shirley Knight) feels superfluous (and for "the plot," it is), I don't believe I'd dismiss it, for Bannister is the chief venue (amongst several) by which we get to see the psychic toll of the proceedings upon the civilians here, and Knight's lightly-dazed, lightly-sarcastic way of navigating these deadly circumstances is at least interesting as a counterpoint. Likewise, Sharif's visible feeling of redundance in his mostly-useless role as a mostly-useless captain winds up being more profitable than if he had been a real character. Better still is the Britannic's roly-poly social director (Roy Kinnear), whose chipper commitment to his duties in the face of destruction would, at first blush, seem to amount to nothing besides comic relief (bleakly effective comic relief, but no more), which is why it's almost a shock when his cheerful forced optimism finally does decay into something genuinely poignant right before our eyes. The only element that feels like it could be dismissed, anyway, is the contrivance that puts the inspector's wife and kids aboard, a disingenuous emotional hook that Lester is so obviously embarrassed to have included in his film that neither he nor Hopkins ever insist upon it as a source of stakes, and the screenplay doesn't even bother to pay it off.
If Juggernaut has any human focus, then, it's inevitably Richard Harris—not even necessarily "Tony Fallon," who is presented the same as everyone else, an aggregation of moments, and thus mostly a collection of droll, English-accented macho soundbytes (though I do not mean this in a bad way)—but Harris at least finds a strong throughline in his degeneration from pipe-smoking rake to bundle of exposed nerves, even making something fascinating out of Fallon's drunken breakdown and the terribly-written declarations of personal philosophy that come with it. Or maybe that is still Lester and Pater's script, which has the good sense to treat it as a put-on, and end it with Fallon's matter-of-fact line, "Tea break's over." (Which I suppose is such a flawless summing up of Harris's own approach to being an actor that we may also prefer to read it as funny metacommentary, too.)
But above all, Juggernaut gets its juice out of the tension it develops between the concrete realism of its setting and the abstracted, even dreamy way it jumps through its thrills, discovering by the finale some terrific intensities in the clash between such disparate ways of establishing a cinematic world. Lester puts enough art into what could've manifested as an utterly basic disaster thriller that what you wind up with is endlessly compelling—maybe even great—and that's true even when our story is mostly just about the immortal dichotomy between red wire and blue. And even on this count, it's a hell of a choice our man Fallon gets to make between them.