Any time that I’m in a position where I think that my back’s against the wall, I can now find some succour in recalling the vision of Roy Kinnear’s character in ‘Juggernaut’, trying to engender good vibes from doing ‘The Lambeth Walk’ to 1,200 passengers who’ve been told that their ship might get blown up at dawn tomorrow: that is tough, that is trying to get blood from a stone, not whatever is bothering me at that time.
‘Juggernaut’ is one of those films that I can remember watching on television when I was little and enjoying it very much so I thought that I’d check it out again. It still works but now I appreciate it even more.
Remember the timeline: this would have made within that disaster movie cycle: two years after the massively successful ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ and coming out at the same time as ‘The Towering Inferno’ but it’s a very different beast in a lot of ways. It looks at human interaction much more than action sequences. The high concept here is that a passenger liner has sailed off to sea with some bombs on board which are due to explode at dawn the next day until 1974 value £500,000 (something like £5.5 million in 2017 money) is paid to the bomber. Do they pay or try to disarm the bombs so that the public can be saved and try to track down the bomber?
As someone said on IMDb: “Why didn’t the British make more disaster movies?”. Richard Lester was American born but if you’re born in a stable it doesn’t make you a horse and Lester was already a fifteen year stalwart of UK cinema by the time of ‘Juggernaut’. Also, it was Lester who brought in the British playwright, Alan Plater, to re-write the script and infuse some underplayed humour.
Lester ramps up the tension through editing and the construction of the script, he indulges in very few show-off camera moves save for a great one at the start, which recalled the opening of Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Hill’. The ship is about the cast off and we have a few shots of a brass band. Then the fourth or fifth shot from within the band rises up, up, up and onto to the vessel so I suppose it was an extended crane shot that gradually retracted up and into the ship itself.
In many films, if the passengers got apprised of this full situation, it would have led to tiresome internecine conflicts between those members of the public but here you got none of that. It was just a load of people trying to deal with a horrible situation in the best way possible. One might say that they were being very ‘British’. Perhaps but the ship’s manifest also included the awesome, and recently late, Clifford James. Yes, we probably all loved him as that hillbilly buffoon in the James Bond films but he played many other roles in his career and here he’s a stand-up guy who’s a very smart U.S. politician. When the ship has to hold its position for the bomb disposal people to find them in the ocean, James’ character ‘Corrigan’ senses both that the ship’s been sailing around in circles and that the excuse given by the member of staff gives him a strong reading on his own internal bullshit detector, but he plays along.
Normally, these kinds of film irritate with supposedly adorable kids getting on your nerves. The children in this film not only have dramatic weight in the story (being the children of detective, Anthony Hopkins, so giving his efforts to track down the bomber extra nuance) but they actually are likable in themselves. The boy almost gets himself blown up by being too bored and too inquisitive (cheerfully telling his Daddy on the phone about his brush with death later) but he’s also smart too. When given a book about ships to keep him occupied, this small boy is one of the first to decipher that the ship is in trouble as it raises the specific flag to signal that it’s carrying explosives.
The cast is scrumptious. Little did Anthony Hopkins and Ian Holm know that in 10 – 15 years they’d be desperately sought by many a Hollywood film-maker/North American arthouse auteur. Well, only five years for Holm until the UK filmed blockbuster ‘Alien’ and seven years to Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Chariots of Fire’ and only six years for Hopkins to ‘The Elephant Man’ but seventeen years to ‘Silence of the Lambs’……and the mighty ‘Freejack’ (which honestly isn’t too bad a film at all).
The main star is Richard Harris and there’s a cineaste Pavolvian response when he’s first introduced alongside his workplace right-hand man, David Hemmings, as you want to say to both: “What was it like to work with Michelangelo Antonioni, eh?” (‘Red Dessert‘ for Harris in 1964 and ‘Blow Up’ for David Hemmings two years later) or at least imagine that they swapped stories when in the pub after a day’s filming. I found out later that they both appeared together in ‘Camelot’ so they’d have used up their anecdotes by the time of ‘Juggernaut’, I’d guess.
Harris is great in this film. His dialogue sounded so natural that I’d guessed that some was improvised but the end credits showed the hand of Alan Plater so perhaps it was all scripted. Harris is cinema’s great shouter too. Pacino always sounds like he’s trying to rouse himself from a near somnambulistic state but Harris sounds for real, like he’s an actual threat. It’s exacerbated here by the sharp acoustics within the depths of the ship. The man is loud; you wouldn’t cross him, you’d just say yes to everything.
The story’s inspired by a true event when a bomb hoax led to bomb disposal experts being flown onto the QEII in 1972. Harris and Hemmings’ characters led this group of experts, who then had to fight against awful weather and get on that boat to save the day. 2017 eyes get the pleasure of seeing a boat in a genuine fight against the elements as there was no CGI to help. The Wikipedia page says that a casting call went out for members of the public to go on a long cruise but that the boat was going to intentionally seek out the roughest weather possible. Anthony Hopkins is a detective back in London trying to save the people, which include his family, and it’s this tension, this cross-cutting that gives the film its impetus.
Regarding the casting, the film keeps its reveal close to its chest for as long as it can. Contractually obligated credits might normally be expected to show its hand, to the ‘heads’ in the audience, by giving the juicy part of the bomber to an actor who’d receive a ‘and’ credit prior to their name, like Tim Roth in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or indicating Janet Leigh’s restricted time in ‘Psycho’. Here, you have three name character actors: Freddie Jones, Michael Hordern and Cyril Cusack as the possible bomber. Who could it be? Will they hang it around the neck of the usual 1970s bogey man demographic or will it be someone else?
If you’re in the UK, you might find ‘Juggernaut’ on Film4 rotation during daytime viewing as there’s no swearing, save for some uses of ‘bloody’ and no gore detail. It might be well worth a watch also for it’s signifiers for the 1970s: the haircuts; the smoking in-doors/at the workplace; and the amazing lack of traffic on the roads. At one point Hopkins and some police officers jump in a car and race to a nearby London address due to a phone trace. Sure, police might still do that now but not without loads of drivers trying to pitch up on the side of the road, letting them through. In 1973/1974, London roads almost look like they’ve got the traffic volume of villages in 2017. Almost heartbreaking if you think about it too much…so don’t.