Forget The Poseidon Adventure. Forget The Towering Inferno. Try to dimly recall William Shatner’s colliding train epic Disaster on the Coastliner. Then forget it again. In the much-maligned realm of the disaster movie, one film effortlessly demolishes all its peers, in super-slow motion from eight different angles. And surprisingly for a genre so typically Hollywood, it’s British.
Omar Sharif captains luxury cruise ship the Britannic from Southampton to New York. Yes, it’s Omar Sharif, but that’s where the glamour trail ends. Sharif commands a slate-grey hunk of Clydeside engineering across even greyer seas under greyer-still skies. No priests or actresses are among the passengers on this ship – lower middle class, recession-hit purgatory before the inferno.
All is shiftless, fruit machine-playing British reticence until brash US mayor Clifton ‘ Live and Let Die‘ James starts asking difficult questions. Eventually it comes out: a disillusioned explosives expert called Juggernaut has festooned the Britannic with eight superbombs, primed to explode before dawn in lieu of a ransom. Grizzled bomb disposal expert Richard Harris is dispatched to the boat. On the ground detective Anthony Hopkins – whose family is aboard – rounds up the usual suspects for leads. All fairly unremarkable. There’s certainly no disaster movie revolution in Juggernaut. Countless hoary old cliches of the genre are duly observed: Harris as the maverick bomb disposal expert, rakishly smoking an outsize Sherlock Holmes briar – while defusing a bomb; the hard-boiled ‘buddy’ banter between Harris and number two David Hemmings (‘I’ll bring you back some dry toast, Charlie!’); passengers and crew, thrown together in disaster, getting to Really Know Each Other; and a final red wire/blue wire cliffhanger that would have the most hardcore Andy McNabb fan chuckling at its corniness if it wasn’t so brilliantly handled.
Doing most of the handling is Richard Lester, a long way from his amiably daft Beatles features here. Or is he? The rather dry, downbeat and unexpectedly realistic world that housed the zany antics of A Hard Day’s Night is pushed to the foreground here, with help from Alan Plater on dialogue duty.
Any potential glamour in the derring-do is relentlessly uncut with subtle touches. Harris is first seen in a provincial town hall, defusing a home-made device housed in a Rover biscuit assortment tin. The various arms-related boffins Hopkins tracks down are convincingly dishevelled – the jailed bomber who refuses to grass, figuring he’s only got another ‘seven years to go, with a bit of luck and a decent Home Secretary’, and Michael Hordern’s disgraced former civil servant, reduced to working the electronic scoreboard at a dog track (‘there’s always work for a skilled pair of hands’). Even the tense moment of Juggernaut’s first call to the shipping line owner is undercut by having said magnate in the middle of giving breakfast to his three kids.
Best of all, there’s Roy Kinnear’s perfect turn as the ship’s entertainments officer, who has a bad enough time of it at the start, trying to inject fun into windswept games of quoits and peppering the bingo calling with blue jokes to glumly echoing silence, and ends up, after Sharif’s solemn announcement of the situation to the passengers, trying to generate enthusiasm over that evening’s fancy dress ball. And what a ball that turns out to be. ‘A night to remember!’ claims Kinnear bleakly, after running through psychotically cheery, whisky-fuelled renditions of Roll Out the Barrel and The Lambeth Walk, again to a total vacuum of response (‘Sod you all, then!’)
But Juggernaut‘s not just a sardonic pastiche of the disaster genre. It still believes in its story enough to be a thoroughly gripping thriller in its own right. The bomb squad’s fraught trip from plane to ship in a storm is properly hair-raising. The scene where Harris and Sharif drink solemnly to ‘the insanity of governments and the poor simple sods who pick up the pieces’ is a cliche, but an effective one for all that. And Hopkins’s dilemma – the shipping line wants to pay the ransom and get it over with, but he must side with the government, who won’t allow it – is a well-judged downplaying of the old ‘that’s my wife up there!’ chestnut.
For the climax, where most films would open out into huge (and unconvincing) panoramas of crumbling dams and flaming scaffolding, Juggernaut closes in on the microscopic inner workings of the booby trapped bombs, and replaces the standard suspenseful musical score with claustrophobic silence. Never mind Shelley Winters’s swimming medal or Steve McQueen’s fireman’s uniform with the word ‘chest’ helpfully written on his chest, the only trappings you really need to generate nailbiting thrills are a pair of pliers and a pipe. Now that’s blockbusting on a budget.