(c) United Artists
At a loose end a few Sunday afternoons ago, I sat down on the sofa and on a satellite movie channel watched 1974’s The Towering Inferno for the first time in years. For people my age, the 1970s were synonymous with big glossy disaster movies in which top Hollywood stars were threatened by (and often succumbed to) death by earthquake, avalanche, tidal wave, meteor or crashing airplane. The Towering Inferno, in which 294 guests celebrating the opening of the world’s tallest building at a reception on its top-floor promenade room are endangered when a massive fire erupts 54 floors below them, is commonly seen as the daddy of all disaster movies. For me and no doubt for millions of my contemporaries, the title of the film conjures up happy childhood memories of sitting in grubby 1970s cinemas, munching popcorn and enjoying the spectacle of Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughan, Jennifer Jones, etc. being incinerated or plunging 135 storeys to their doom.
Alas, seen in the cold light of 2014, The Towering Inferno doesn’t live up to those happy memories. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are great in it, just by being themselves, but otherwise it’s a big, absurd and rather dull soap opera. The characters are mainly a bunch of obnoxious, ultra-rich bastards swanning around that promenade room in tuxedoes and evening gowns, getting their champagne poured by deferential waiters (probably working below the minimum wage and on zero-hour contracts), whilst listening to some musical flunky tinkling on the ivories of a grand piano and a chanteuse warbling We May Never Love Like This Again, the blandest power ballad in the history of the cinema. You really want the flames to rush up the building and singe their smug arses. And to make things worse, O.J. Simpson is in it. And to make things even worse, George Kennedy isn’t in it.
Indeed, I suspect that, seen today, nearly all those big-budget 1970s disaster movies – Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and so on – would seem like a load of tosh. However, I can safely say that there’s one 1970s disaster movie that was great then and is still great now. It made little impact at the time and has been unjustly neglected since, no doubt because it eschewed the big dumb spectacle of those aforementioned Hollywood epics in favour of such unsexy things as character development and claustrophobic tension. However, those qualities are what make it seem so good now. It’s a British movie, but one made by an immensely talented American director, Richard Lester. It is… Juggernaut.
Released in 1974, the year of The Towering Inferno, the plot of Juggernaut is simple. A cruise liner called SS Britannic is crossing the Atlantic with 1200 passengers on board when the shipping firm that owns it receives a telephone call from someone calling himself ‘Juggernaut’. He informs them that a half-dozen bombs have been secretly stowed on board the Britannic and these will shortly explode unless a ransom is paid. Unfortunately, the firm is heavily subsidised by the British government, which means they call the shots – and the political powers-that-be make it clear that no ransom will be paid because their policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. Even more unfortunately, the Britannic is currently beset by stormy weather, which makes it impossible to evacuate the passengers and crew.
So you have a ship, filled with people who can’t be taken off it, and you also have a bunch of bombs on board that will very likely explode because the nutcase who planted them there isn’t going to receive his ransom money. Who ya gonna call?
Richard Harris? With all respect to Harris, the legendary Irish actor doesn’t immediately strike me as the actor you’d cast in the role of a bomb disposal expert who gets parachuted aboard a cruise liner to defuse six bombs while 1200 lives are at stake. It’s fair to say that at the time Harris had a bit of a reputation as a booze-hound. In fact, in the 1970s, he was putting away as much as two-and-a-half bottles of vodka a day, which would suggest he’s the very last person you’d want attempting to dismantle a large explosive device in your vicinity.
(c) United Artists
Nonetheless, Harris it is. He plays Lieutenant Commander Fallon, head of a Royal Navy team of bomb disposal men whom the government sends to the Britannic to foil the mad bomber’s plans. Incidentally, Harris’s number two, Braddock, is played by 1960s heartthrob David Hemmings. Harris and Hemmings had previously worked together in Camelot, the 1968 musical about King Arthur, and despite Harris punching Hemmings at a party and splitting his lip, the two of them became good mates. Indeed, Hemmings once managed to dissuade an inebriated Harris from jumping off the balcony of his Hollywood Hills apartment into the swimming pool below by pointing out, tactfully, that the swimming pool didn’t have any water in it.
While Harris, Hemmings and their men grapple with the bombs on the Britannic, the police back in Britain try to identify Juggernaut by interviewing all the known bomb experts who have the technical ability to mount such an operation. (I won’t say who plays Juggernaut, but anyone with a knowledge of shifty, twitchy and sweaty 1970s British character actors should be able to guess immediately who it is.) Leading the investigation is Superintendent John McLeod, played by a disconcertingly young-looking Anthony Hopkins, who has a personal stake in its outcome – because his wife and children happen to be passengers on board the Britannic at the moment.
And that’s about it. The film follows both the hunt for Juggernaut on dry land and the increasingly desperate attempts of Harris and his team on the ship to disarm the bombs – which have also been booby-trapped to deter attempts to tinker with them – and it focuses too on an array of passengers and crew-members as they try to deal with the crisis unfolding around them. A couple of bombs explode prematurely, and certain people die, but the ship just about manages to stay afloat. However, can the three Hs – Harris, Hemmings and Hopkins – thwart Juggernaut before the majority of the bombs go off and blow the Britannic out of the water?
It’s fair to say that by the mid-1970s director Richard Lester was at the height of his powers. In the 1960s he’d achieved fame directing the Beatles movies and he’d also made 1969’s surreal, post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed-Sitting Room, which is surely one of the weirdest things in the history of British cinema. Just before Juggernaut he’d completed The Three and The Four Musketeers, a pair of films that are the wittiest, best-cast and most entertaining of the many cinematic versions of the novel by Alexandre Dumas père. He was also starting work on a version of another popular and much-filmed tale, Robin Hood. Released in 1976, Lester’s bitter-sweet film about an older and disillusioned Robin Hood, Robin and Marion, which starred Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, got indifferent reviews at the time but is now seen as a minor classic.
Lester was drafted in as director of Juggernaut at short notice – two other directors, Bryan Forbes and Don Medford, had been involved in the project but had quit. His participation was contingent on the script being rewritten. From all accounts, the original script for Juggernaut, by writer / producer Richard Alan Simmons, was pretty generic disaster-movie stuff. Luckily, the rewrite was done by the distinguished north-of-England playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater, who at that point was most famous for working on the BBC’s seminal police series Z-Cars and its spinoff Softly Softly. No doubt Plater contributed much of the quirkiness, eccentricity, grim humour and general beleaguered, keep-calm-and-carry-on sense of Britishness that make Juggernaut so pleasantly distinctive.
(c) United Artists
Also distinctive were the conditions under which Lester shot the film. A real 25,000-ton cruise ship was used, one that’d been owned by a German shipping company and called the TS Hamburg, but that’d recently been sold to the Soviet Union and renamed the SS Maxim Gorki. To make some extra money, the Soviets rented it out to the filmmakers for two-and-a-half weeks just before it went into proper service again, carrying passengers. Lester and his team set sail for the North Atlantic looking for the right weather conditions to go with the script – conditions so stormy that it’d be impossible to deploy lifeboats and evacuate the ship. “We found only two days’ bad weather out of sixteen,” said Lester in an interview on the website www.parallax-view.org in 2002, “but we had our own cast, crew and extras all on board. We were served by lovely ladies from Odessa—endless supplies of vodka, seven-course meals—and we made the poor captain’s eyes water as we asked him to do things with his ship which I’m sure are against every code of ethics on the sea.”
Among those un-seamanlike things was the filming of a scene where an explosion blew off one of the ship’s funnels. Aware that the Soviet captain would probably draw the line at that, Lester sneakily waited until the ship got back to port. In an interview in the Guardian in 1999, Lester recalled, “You’re not allowed to bring dynamite aboard a commercial liner, but we did and we didn’t say anything. On the last day of shooting, just as we were about to get back to Southampton, our producer got one of the world’s first digital watches and had it inscribed with, ‘To Captain Alexandrov Dondua with the grateful thanks from the cast and crew of Juggernaut’. And we had a presentation ceremony, got all the senior (crew) on the bridge, and just as he was handing it over at precisely 10.00 a.m. – BOOM! – we blew up the funnel with four cameras on it and a helicopter up above. By that time it was too late and we docked at 11.30.”
Considering the ingenuity Lester and his film crew had to deploy on board the Maxim Gorki, I feel churlish for pointing out that the storm scenes are not always convincing. For example, during an early sequence where Harris’s team parachute into the sea around the liner and the sailors try to fish them out before they drown, the ship’s deck doesn’t seem to be pitching around as violently as the waves are rising and falling. However, these inconsistencies in the film’s editing are easily overlooked because the viewer is so engaged with the characters and story.
And the characters are engaging. Harris plays Fallon as a weary, dishevelled but lovable warrior-poet, musing philosophically while he pokes and probes at the bombs – my favourite utterance in Juggernaut is probably Harris’s despairing line, “Remember what the goldfish said? ‘There must be a god! I mean, who else changes the water?’” However, he also isn’t averse to sinking a bottle of whisky when Things Go Wrong. No doubt the brave, poetic and boozy persona Harris projects here is the persona he attempted to project in real life.
Also good is Roy Kinnear, the roly-poly English actor who was a regular in Richard Lester’s movies. He plays the ship’s entertainment officer, who has the unenviable job of keeping the passengers’ spirits up when at any moment they could be blown up. Kinnear isn’t very good at it – the fancy-dress party he organises sees one person appear dressed as the Grim Reaper and carrying a round black object with BOMB written on it. Late on, however, in a generous moment in Plater’s script, a glamorous American passenger played by Shirley Knight thanks the harassed Kinnear for his efforts by inviting him onto the ship’s ballroom floor for a dance.
Even actor Clifton James – best-known for playing the loud, dumb, redneck Louisiana police officer Sheriff J.W. Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) – plays someone who’s more interesting than you’d initially expect. His character Corrigan, another passenger, seems set up to be a stereotypical gormless American tourist, but he gets some of the sharpest dialogue and shows there’s more to him than meets the eye. Early on, when the ship’s crew are trying to keep the existence of the bombs a secret, he memorably tells the third officer: “Buddy, I am by profession a politician, the mayor of a rather large city as a matter of fact. In my line of work, you have to be able to lie with remarkable precision. You also have to know how to recognise a lie when it bites you in the ass… And I have just been bitten.” (Admirably straight-faced, the third officer replies, “I’ll convey your complaint to the captain, sir.”)
I also like how Lester and Plater populate the film with incidents, characters and half-seen story threads that don’t necessarily relate to the main plot but that suggest there really is a bigger world out there, beyond the perimeters of the film, getting on with its own business. There are the kids who get shooed away from Hopkins’ police car and nonchalantly flick V-signs at him as they walk off; the minor character played by Ben Aris who’s seen pacing obsessively about the deck, though why he does so is never explained; the steward played by Roshan Seth (later to play Nehru in Richard Attenburgh’s 1982 Oscar-winner Gandhi), whose accent switches from clichéd Hollywood Indian when he’s with the passengers to broad Cockney when he isn’t; and the scenes involving the family of Nicholas Porter, played by another disconcertingly young-looking actor, Ian Holm, who runs the shipping company but has to do what the government tells him.
(c) United Artists
There are also glimpses of a brief, half-hearted and ultimately bitter affair that Knight has with the Britannic’s captain, who’s played by none other than the great Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif. Near the end, while passengers and crew are preparing to enter a sea that most of them are unlikely to survive, Kinnear glumly tells Knight that it could be worse: “Well, there are no icebergs.” Spying Sharif on the bridge, Knight replies, “Correction.”
At the same time, Juggernaut is nail-biting as a thriller and the scenes where Harris and Hemmings work on the bombs are as tense as anything else filmed in the 1970s. The two men banter away affably, even though they know that at any moment they could be blown to pieces, which somehow makes the tension even more intolerable. “May you inherit the earth,” says Harris beatifically at one point. “Yeah,” replies Hemmings, “six feet of it, I think.”
Finally, there’s something undeniably melancholic about the film. On one level, it feels like a paean to Britain in the twilight years of its history – and certainly by 1974, following the Oil Crisis, the era when the country had been a world power felt a long time ago indeed. Britain, it seemed, had nothing left, save for its sense of humour and eccentricity (which of course are well represented in Juggernaut). It’s easy to see the film’s setting as a metaphor for the state of the nation – here’s a ship called the Britannic, adrift at sea, threatened by dangers outside and inside. And the bloke at the helm is actually an Arab…
Juggernaut is also sad in retrospect because it’s one of the last chances to see its three main actors at their youthful peak. Afterwards, Hopkins’ career would be steady but unspectacular until, of course, he achieved Hollywood stardom with The Silence of the Lambs (1989) – not as a leading man, though, but as everyone’s favourite middle-aged cannibal, Hannibal Lector. Hemmings became a director, of TV shows and minor films. When he did make the occasional film appearance in later life, he looked shockingly bloated, with eyebrows that seemed the size of tarantulas.
And as for Harris – well, he’d eventually stage a comeback, in Jim Sheridan’s The Field (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven (1992), and he returned to making big movies like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (1999) and the first two Harry Potter films. But for a decade-and-a-half after Juggernaut, his acting career would be in freefall, his movie CV blotted by some god-awful pieces of rubbish. When I see him in the very last scene of Juggernaut, treating his psychic wounds with a big glass of whisky on the Britannic’s deck, I wonder if he suspected what was in store for him when he got back to dry land – The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Orca Killer Whale (1977), Golden Rendezvous (1977), Tarzan the Ape Man (1981). From a film about bombs to a string of films that were bombs.