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Thursday 4 June 2020

Burl reviews Juggernaut! (1974)

Welcome aboard, it’s Burl, here to review shipboard suspense! Ha ha, of course we know that the mid-1970s was a time of much disaster at the movies, with The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and many other such pictures! The movie under review today must have gotten lost among these releases, even though it’s not very much a disaster picture itself! No, it’s a suspense exercise about bombs on a ship called Juggernaut!
The situation is pretty simple, and reminds one a bit of ffolkes! After much ticker-tape tossing, a passenger ship (ha ha, one hesitates to call it a “luxury liner,” as its appointments range somewhere between the black sheep of the Cunard Lines and a WWII troop ship) called the HMS Brittanic hoves out of her English port with Captain Omar Sharif at the helm, bound for New York City! But a mad bomber with extortion on his mind has left seven complicated barrel bombs scattered in passages all over the ship! The weather is too rough for the 1200 passengers (an easy figure to remember, as it is repeated dozens of times in the picture) to be debarked at sea, so, despite tweedy admonitions from Her Majesty’s Government, the company (represented by Ian Holm) and its insurers lean toward paying the money, the more so every time they look at the stoic face of Inspector Anthony Hopkins, the cop on the case, whose wife and two kids are on board the Brittanic!
So they send some bomb specialists out to the ship, and these are led by the sardonic, hard-drinkin’ Richard Harris, whom we remember as a sardonic, hard-drinkin’ flier in The Guns of Navarone! David Hemmings, much more relaxed here than he was in Blow Up or Deep Red, is Harris’s pal and lieutenant; sadly, I have to report that, where Hemmings is concerned, the title of one of his previous films becomes all too apt! The second half of the picture is largely given over to quiet, tense, close-up shots of Harris trying to defuse the bomb! Ha ha, it’s very nicely done: clearly the writer and art department did their research on this one!
All the while, the ship’s social director, very well played by Roy Kinnear, does his best to keep up the spirits of the passengers, who are, improbably, all gathered and in costume for a fancy-dress ball! Ha ha, there’s a really rather remarkable sequence in the ballroom when Kinnear’s forced, increasingly desperate merrymaking reaches a crescendo, and, answered only by the crowd’s glum acceptance of impending death, gives up! Then he has a dance with Shirley Knight from Our Idiot Brother, and this impulsive act, rather than his hysterical pleas to roll out the barrel, is what leads to the crowd making their own doomsday fun! Of course, the fun is interrupted by an explosion or two, ha ha, but what are you going to do!
Three things stand out in this marvelous picture! One is the cast, which is astonishing: in addition to those named, we also get Clifton James from Live and Let Die as a shrewd U.S. Senator; Julian Glover from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a member of the ship’s crew; Freddie Jones from Dune in a crucial, bitterly grumpy role of his own; and a further gallery of great British actors like Roshan Seth, Michael Hordern, Cyril Cusack, and even Simon MacCorkindale from Jaws 3-D! The second thing is the interweaving of drawn-out suspense and a particular attention to detail, which proves an uncommonly effective dramatic admixture! And third is a sort of end-of-an-era allegorical quality the picture has, in which it depicts, in relative miniature, the crumbling of a once-glorious empire, Brittania itself, no longer ruling the waves but ruled by them, and being destroyed bit by explosive bit at the hands of an internal rot brought on by its own hegemonic inhumanity!
As a further bonus we get typically marvelous cinematography from one of my favourite cameramen, Gerry Fisher, who also shot Wolfen, Highlander, Malpertuis and The Ninth Configuration! Richard Lester, a director who is frequently and unfairly underrated, at least by me, does a grand job of keeping the scale and the focus right where it ought to be! So, yes, I recommend Juggernaut as an under-seen 70s gem, and give it three five-mile turning radii! Furthermore I urge you to have a look at it whenever you get a chance! Ha ha, boom!


  1. Seriously underrated, it got lumped in with other 70s disaster movies but with Richard Lester at the helm it's far more self-aware. Roy Kinnear was never better, he's fantastic in this. Due a reassessment.

    1. Kinnear really is good! The whole cast is, but he's a stand-out!