Juggernaut

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 6/13/23;
Kino Lorber;
Thriller;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
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.

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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.

Actor Brian Cox Headlines New BritBox Docs on Acclaimed Actors, Including Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole

Award-winning actor Brian Cox (“Succession,” King Lear) will discuss his life and career in An Interview With Brian Cox streaming on BritBox beginning April 11. 

In addition to exploring his early years in Scotland and Shakespearean beginnings to his contemporary roles across film and television, Cox will interrogate the idea of the American dream, searching to find out whether anyone really can make it big in Hollywood if they work hard enough, or if this is just a myth. The one-hour special is an extended version of an interview that aired on the BBC in the United Kingdom last year.

The special airs prior to the subscription streamer bowing separate docs on the late Richard Harris (A Man Called Horse, Harry Potter) and Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, Venus) on May 9. Both docs were acquired from Abacus Media Rights.

The Ghost of Richard Harris addresses the darker and less fortunate aspects of the actor’s life, including broken marriages, his use of drugs and alcohol, the films that he might have preferred to forget, and the extraordinary talent that was sometimes dissipated. Director Adrian Sibley sought to avoid the chronological approach to his subject. Instead, he used previously unheard audio recordings by biographer Joe Jackson, previously unseen family footage, and interviews with his three sons, to present an insight to the complex life and work of Harris. The doc was initially screened at the 2022 Venice Biennale. Since then, it has received various awards and nominations, including being longlisted by the BAFTA Film Awards.

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Peter O’Toole — Along the Sky Road to Aqaba centers around the legendary actor Peter O’Toole and is presented in four acts — each introduced by a quote about O’Toole that encapsulates his life during a specific time period. Each act expands into a narrative addressing questions such as his self-belief, his alcoholism, his relationships with women, his belief in socialism and his selective embrace of Irishness. While O’Toole’s words (gleaned from hundreds of hours of archival interviews) act as a narrator of his own journey, director Jim Sheridan further explores O’Toole through interviews with family members, artists, actors and directors that knew him well. Matter of Fact Films produced the documentary in association with Treehouse Media and Alice Productions.

1960s Christopher Lee Classics, 1980s Actioner ‘Strike Commando’ Among Titles Due on Disc June 22 From MVD and Severin

Christopher Lee European classics and 1980s actioners Invaders of the Lost Gold and the “Rambo”-inspired Strike Commando and Strike Commando 2 are coming to disc June 22 from MVD Entertainment Group and Severin Films.

Due on Blu-ray is The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee. The collection features movies made during his career in 1960s Europe and brings together five of these Lee classics — Crypt of the Vampire (1964); Castle of the Living Dead (1964) co-starring an unknown Donald Sutherland; Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962); The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967); and the rarely-seen Challenge the Devil (1963) — with the 24 surviving episodes of the 1971 Film Polski anthology series “Theatre Macabre” hosted by Lee. All are remastered from original negative materials with more 10 hours of trailers, rare promos, audio commentaries and vintage interviews, plus the Castle of the Living Dead soundtrack and a new 88-page book by Lee biographer Jonathan Rigby.

Coming on Blu-ray and DVD are the actioners Strike Commando and Strike Commando 2.

For Strike Commando, writer-director Bruno Mattei and co-writers Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi borrowed from Rambo: First Blood Part II, Missing in Action and more to create their own ’Namsploitation masterpiece. Reb Brown (Uncommon Valor) stars as Sgt. Mike Ransom, a one-man war machine on a vengeance mission against brutal Vietcong, merciless Russians and double-crossing U.S. officers. Christopher Connelly (Raiders of Atlantis), Luciano Pigozzi (All the Colors of the Dark) and Jim Gaines (Island of the Living Dead) co-star in the film mastered in 2K from the original negative for the first time. Special features include “War Machine,” an interview with Fragasso; “All Quiet on the Philippine Front,” an interview with Drudi; and in-production promo; and the trailer.

In Strike Commando 2, Mattei, Fragasso and Drudi return to the Philippine jungles with a higher budget, bigger action and actor Richard Harris for a film that borrows from Apocalypse Now, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rambo and other actioners. This time, Sgt Mike Ransom (Brent Huff) battles the KGB, rogue CIA agents, an army of ninjas and a tough bar owner (Miss World 1977 Mary Stavin), among others. Mel Davidson (Robowar) and Vic Diaz (The Big Bird Cage) co-star in this sequel featuring a 2K scan from the original negative for the first time ever. Special features include “Guerrilla Zone,” an interview with Fragasso; “Michael Ransom Strikes Back,” an interview with Huff; and the trailer.

From producer Dick Randall — whose international trashterpieces include Escape From Women’s Prison, The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield and Pieces — comes Invaders of the Lost Gold, an all-star Philippine production of the 1980s, on DVD and Blu-ray. In the last days of WWII, a Japanese platoon is attacked by headhunters while attempting to hide millions in gold. Then, 36 years later, a grizzled guide (Stuart Whitman) is hired to lead an expedition — including Woody Strode (Spartacus), Harold “Oddjob” Sakata and Laura Gemser (Black Emanuelle) — into a jungle inferno of greed, violence, nudity and murder. Edmund Purdom (Absurd) and Glynis Barber (Dempsey and Makepeace) co-star in this film directed by Alan Birkenshaw (Killer’s Moon). Also known as Horror Safari, the film is scanned in 2K for the first time ever. Special features include “Rumble in the Jungle,” an interview with director Alan Birkinshaw, and outtakes from Machete Maidens Unleashed with Birkinshaw and the wife of Randall.

The Heroes of Telemark

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Sony Pictures;
Drama;
$24.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave.

There’s no accounting for what memory can preserve from a movie not seen in decades, and with 1966’s The Heroes Telemark (aside from its convincing portrayal of incessantly frigid temperatures), it’s always been the nifty sweaters Kirk Douglas and Ella Jacobson wear inside a cozy Norwegian home just made for lovin’. Or it would be, were the place not transformed by circumstances into a kind of mission central for fighting Nazis in early 1942.

In this case, memory has not played tricks. The sweaters really are nifty, though with perhaps just enough white in them that I’d be a lock to spill a glass of red wine in the wrong place were somebody to gift me with one. Still, you have to think that this isn’t the likely takeaway that director Anthony Mann had in mind for what turned out to be his final credit for a movie he lived to complete — though this fairly handsome production for its day did pretty fair business in Europe. Yet, in my Midwestern city, it failed to rate a downtown booking, and I caught its local opening engagement at a normally second-run campus movie house in a year when studio execs and marketers had less than a firm idea of what people wanted to see. Probably not Resistance fighting, or at least not in college towns when Blow-Up wasn’t that far away on the horizon.

Still, I’m guessing the picture worked well enough in drive-ins because it had a reliable veteran superstar (Douglas) teamed with an on-the-rise arthouse hunk (Richard Harris) — and this would be way before years of Demon Sauce gave Harris that Keith Richards look he sported in Randa Haines’s underrated Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. Before long, Harris would eschew the likes of Antonioni and Red Desert to find himself playing Cain in John Huston’s The Bible and King Arthur in Joshua Logan’s stillborn stab at Camelot — an entire career right there for a lot of actors. Here, though, he’s playing a character based on Knut Haukelid, who wrote a 1954 remembrance that served as one of two sources for the film — a book called Skiis Against the Atom, which pretty well sums up the 134 minutes we spend here.

Harris (name modified to called Knut Strand) is a resistance fighter in Telemark, Norway, where the Nazis are trying to produce the heavy water that’s needed to construct an atomic bomb amid Germany’s race against the Allies to do just that. Douglas, too, is Norwegian and a physics professor to boot, though from appearances, he also seems to have had time to work in some weight training. Then again, this is a country where all the men and probably lots of women automatically exercise by half-living on skis; even Michael Redgrave (as “Uncle” — who shares the house with Jacobsson) doesn’t look out of sorts, looking more spry than he did in The Browning Version a decade-plus earlier.

Nothing risible is meant by all this because Heroes’ skiing sequences are as memorable as the sweaters. Thus, I’m once again reminded of the remark someone once made to the effect that of you could find someone who shot exteriors like Mann and interiors like Nicholas Ray, you would have the perfect filmmaker. Or at least you would if the exteriors, as here, were shot by Robert Krasker, who was also behind the camera for Olivier’s Henry V, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Visconti’s Senso, and (for Mann) El Cid.

Jacobbson is not only a honey here but Douglas’s ex-wife — a plot point I’ll just bet you wasn’t in Haulkelid’s book. For most of the going, “Selfless” isn’t exactly the middle name of Kirk’s character here (Rolf’s the name), which makes her less than willing to welcome him back into the sack when he and Harris end up using her place as headquarters in which to plot blowing up the nearby factory where the heavy water is being manufactured. This was during the Swedish actress’s lamentably short run as a Hollywood hopeful, well after she’d appeared partially nude in the internationally popular One Summer of Happiness (1951, though not till ’55 in the States). Even with its delayed release, its ‘PG’-level sexuality agitated a lot of wheezing political hacks into their daily round of agitation over life as it’s lived. Here, however, she mostly keeps the sweater on.

The major heavy here is bad old Anton Diffring (a kind of meaner-looking Peter Van Eyck), an actor immediately recognizable to any movie lover with a memory and a pulse; he probably played more Nazis on screen than Roy Rogers played characters in billion-decibel shirts who were named “Roy.” Diffring and the rest of the film play out in ways that one pretty well expects, and the result is a respectable (but that’s all) finale to Mann’s career that’s ultimately less distinguished than its great skiing scenes. Mann would begin one more picture — 1968’s A Dandy in Aspic — before succumbing to a heart attack in the middle of filming. Lead Laurence Harvey took over, though Columbia Pictures gave Mann full on-screen credit; I’ve never seen it, but Britain’s classy Indicator series has a release coming March ’18 that’ll probably be all-region.

      

Heroes on Blu-ray appears to be the product of a master with some mold on it, one that really gets (going from 1966 memory) all there is to be gotten out of Krasker’s visuals — a rap that has nothing to do with this Blu-ray’s status as an on-demand selection. Though the word “Choice” doesn’t appear (per usual) on the disc jacket, this release appears to be another of Sony’s manufactured-to-order high-def releases of predominantly Columbia Pictures product. The problem for on-demand naysayers (and Sony issues BD-Rs) is the large number (out of relatively few issued titles) of movies that I, at least, like, love or treasure as oddball curios: The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Triplets of Belleville, Gideon of Scotland Yard, Real Genius, Spanglish, the Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette and the Gillian Anderson Little Women.

The last, at least, is one you’d think might be worth a full-scale marketing job, what with a brand new sibling go-around scheduled for Christmas under the eye of director Greta Gerwig. But this is just an observational aside and nothing more because I’m adverse to plopping Anton Diffring and Louisa May Alcott into the same piece of writing.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ and ‘Reap the Wild Wind’