Street Date 6/13/23;
Stars Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, Anthony Hopkins, Shirley Knight, Roy Kinnear, David Hemmings, Ian Holm, Clifton James, Freddie Jones.
Juggernaut was the thinking person’s answer to Irwin Allen, a disaster film in name only cooked up by United Artists PR flacks looking to cash in on a rapidly dwindling craze that would soon be bottom-lined to extinction. (The Hindenburg, released in 1975, sounded the official death knell for the sub-genre.) What was the one commonality between Juggernaut and Earthquake, Towering Inferno, Airport, etc.? A line of celebrity headshots strung across the bottom of the poster. What kept 1974’s Juggernaut afloat was the one thing the competition failed to consider. For a change, the disaster was being driven by an artist who cared, Richard Lester.
Lester was not producer David V. Picker’s first choice to direct. Bryan Forbes was announced, but backed out as did his successor Don Taylor. Unable to find a reason why the project wasn’t to their liking, I reached out to “Coffee Coffee and More Coffee’s” Peter Nellhaus who could only “assume Forbes and Taylor wanted more prep time when production logistics demanded a hard start date.” Picker’s third choice proved to be the charm: the two had previously worked together on A Hard Day’s Night. Lester was in Spain finishing work on the Musketeers pictures when he got the call. Three weeks later he was on location in the North Sea. (Much of the picture was shot aboard a real ocean liner.) This wouldn’t be the first time Lester acted as the hired gun needed to turn a mess into a miracle. (Those who have seen the abysmal so-called “Donner cut” of Superman II know what I mean.) Lester hired British playwright and scenarist Alan Plater and together they rewrote the script much to the dismay of the film’s producer and credited screenwriter, Richard Alan Simmons. Dissatisfied with the finished product, Simmons signed the film as Richard DeKoker.
Much of the story is based on fact. A terrorist’s call to cruise line managing director Porter (Ian Holm) brings news that seven bombs hidden inside the ocean liner SS Britannic are set to explode in 24 hours if his ransom of £500,000 isn’t met. Any attempt to move the canisters will cause them to spontaneously combust. The film alternates between the police tracking down the culprit and munitions experts Fallon (Richard Harris) and Braddock (David Hemmings) working to defuse the bombs. The boys are so good at what they do that they can afford to be cocky. Clichés go unspoken. Rather than a character instructing police to trace a call, Lester simply cuts to a bank of clicking relay switches. Disaster films tended to come with built-in play-by-play narrators whose function it was to keep the audience abreast of every calamitous situation: “Look! There’s a tidal wave coming off the starboard bow!” Lester would have none of that. When Fallon is called upon to describe the action, he does so to bring Braddock up to speed while at the same time insulting a group of bigwigs listening in on the extension. If anything, during times of disaster, very little dialogue was spoken. On Lester’s watch, passengers amounted to more than comic relief and/or designated victims. It’s Clifton James’ small town mayor who was the first to question why the ship is sailing in circles.
Lester asked himself “What would Irwin Allen do?” and then proceeded to do the exact opposite. There’s no formal introduction of characters, no “Love Boat” boarding list to billboard the stars, several of whom had signed on before Lester took control. Secondary cast members are introduced when Social Director Curtain (Roy Kinnear) greets them, his arms loaded with ritualistic bon voyage streamers. When Curtain assures a rock band that they’ll enjoy throwing them, the quizzical stoners take him at his work and toss them to the side. Credit Lester regular Kinnear with a career best. As the ship’s unnervingly cheery master of ceremonies, Curtain supplies comic relief to passengers and viewers alike. It’s through Curtain that the director’s obsession with silent slapstick comedy shines through. A faulty gyroscope provided Kinnear ample room to rock to and fro when the cruise hits rough waters. He’s also trusted to deliver the film’s most endearing homage. When asked by a worried passenger if everything is all right, Curtain promises, “A night to remember.” And let’s not forget Kinnear’s string of under-his-breath dubbed-in asides worthy of Popeye.
A few clichés proved unavoidable. Captain Omar Sharif’s affair with Shirley Knight goes nowhere, as does a young boy taking leave of his mother for a private tour of the ship. And as subdued as Harris is, his character is allowed one blow-up scene that must have influenced “SCTV” alumni Dave Thomas’ dead-on parody in The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes. The real life bomb threat that formed the basis for the film turned out to be a hoax. That’s more than can be said for the explosion crater Juggernaut left at the box office. Audiences looking for a mindless action film were greeted by a smart film with action.
Special features include a new commentary track by film historians Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson, as well as a trailer and TV spot.