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Juggernaut

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.

Operations Fiddlage

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.

Mappery Sweatiness

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.

Kinnearitude Rolling out

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!’)

Swimming Ballroomisation

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.

Fagging up Clipperations

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.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Richard Davies

    November 30, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    I’m guessing the bomb hoax on the QEII in 1972 was an influence on this.

    Macgyver had a similar episode where the bomb was partually defused with a mixture of skimmed milk & baking soda.

  2. Alan B

    December 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Fallon is the champion!

    My dad went to the same school as Richard Harris.

  3. Matt

    February 13, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Ah, you’re a clever man, Juggernaut.

  4. Joeb

    February 28, 2015 at 11:36 pm

    I always loved the bomb in the Rover biscuit tin. Classic. And I like the bit where the kid says the frogmen look like his Action Man.

  5. Sidney Balmoral James

    April 27, 2021 at 7:18 pm

    Must be one of the best British films of the 70s (not admittedly up against very stiff competition) – superb cast – Ian Holm, Anthony Hopkins, Julian Glover, Freddie Jones, the always excellent Shirley Knight, Kenneth Colley, Roshan Seth, Cyril Cusack, Tom Chadbon, Michael Hordern (although above review misses the point of his character, he’s not a disgraced civil servant, he’s a free-lance bomb maker, hence the reference to his last job being for the British government, and them taking him off the list) – and that’s just the support. Harris and Hemmings are top notch (although that’s not a provincial town hall in which we first see them, it’s the Tate Gallery!) Full of nice touches – Seth putting on an Indian accent for the guests, the relationship which develops between Knight and Kinnear, the ship as grim and grey as the weather, Ben Aris perpetually walking around the shop looking for women. Hopkins is particularly effective as the detective just about keeping it together knowing his family are in peril.

  6. THX 1139

    April 29, 2021 at 2:30 pm

    Apparently they rounded up a bunch of extras, put them on the liner with the cast and crew, and deliberately sailed off into the Atlantic in the worst weather they could find, all to replicate the ideal conditions for a 1970s British cruise. It really succeeds, you actually start to fear for them in real life, never mind the film.

    Also: Roy Kinnear’s best movie role, maybe? If he was ever better, I’d like to see it.

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