Six Damn Fine Degrees #41: Pandemic and Disaster in The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

The grim reality of an ongoing global pandemic and the eerie parallels to other historical viruses like the Spanish flu of 1918 (so poignantly discussed in last week’s post) have not exactly whet our appetites for pandemics in movies. The likes of Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995) might be too real for comfort and post-virus zombie tales of World War Z (2013) or 28 Days Later (2002) too horrific for escapist entertainment.

Thank goodness for 1970s disaster cinema! The decade of (has-been) star power filling boats, planes, skyscrapers and trains doomed by everything from spectacular accidents, tsunamis, raging flames, killer bees, meteors, volcanoes and sheer human failure had to eventually give birth with a skin-crawling scenario of an eclectic cast trapped and decimated by a raging virus!

And so The Cassandra Crossing was born! After the enormous profits of the Airport series, Irvin Allen’s double smash of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (which were multiple Oscar winners, too!), it was only logical that European producers would try to cash in on their American brothers’ success. Lew Grade (Space: 1999, Raise the Titanic) and Carlo Ponti (Dr Zhivago, Blow Up, La Strada) jumped on board for a British/Italian/West German cooperation helmed by George Pan Cosmatos (Rambo II) that would emulate the disaster formula to come up with, well, an infectious outcome – and one of my favourite guilty pleasure movies.

The (sic!) ‘Transcontinental Express’ from Geneva to Stockholm is hit by disaster when a virus-infested terrorist escapes capture after breaking into the (sic!) ‘International Health Organization’ and – unknown to its illustrious passengers – starts to spread a deadly pneumonic plague: There’s Sophia Loren as a romance author, trying to stalk her (twice) ex-husband, Dr Chamberlain (Richard Harris in particularly cakey make-up) into marrying her again. There is a boozy Ava Gardner as industrialist wife Nicole Dressler along with her drug-smuggling toy boy Robbie (Martin Sheen). Along for the ride are also acting studio founder Lee Strasberg as a Jewish salesman, Lionel Stander as the Swiss train conductor, 1940s beauty Alida Valli as a googly-eyed passenger and O.J. Simpson as a cop-undercover-as-priest. Oh and let’s not forget the trio of Burt Lancaster as sinister US colonel McKenzie (it was post-Vietnam/post-Watergate after all), Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin (as a courageous but helpless doctor) and John Philip Law (as Lancaster’s lapdog) influencing the train’s fate from headquarters in Geneva.

As the train races on and the virus keeps spreading, Lancaster’s colonel McKenzie helps engineer an even deadlier plan to stop the pandemic: Redirect the train to a camp in Poland (you guessed it: a former concentration camp Lee Strasberg’s salesman lost his family in) and have the train cross the decrepit Cassandra bridge. When Harris and Loren suspect foul play, they start a race against time to stop the train from ever reaching Cassandra Crossing. Do they succeed – and does the movie, in conveying the drama of that unbelievably unlikely journey?

The answer to both is a resounding no, but does it make The Cassandra Crossing less of a pleasure? Definitely not! I have admittedly a soft spot for this much-maligned ‘Euro trash’ flick: It was the first movie my dad allowed me to watch after hours in my early teens – and I loved it! Rewatching it today, I can still feel the excitement about Jerry Goldsmith’s brazen action score and majestic title theme, remember the suspense around the approaching bridge disaster and the marvel of some of my favourite stars at the time happy to make a buck in front of back projection at Rome’s Cinecittà, where most of the scenes were filmed. Obviously, the Swiss locations and the confused geography helped too (at one point they even did not bother to replace all the panels to turn Basel into Geneva Main Station!).

Does it hold up as a movie mid-pandemic today? I think not, but it makes for marvellous guilty pleasure cinema, when pandemics were caused by sweaty Swedish terrorists in US military laboratories and one international train ride became the virus’ superspreader event. The minds of the filmmakers were certainly not with the realness of a virus or realistic countermeasures, but it’s still a reminder of how long cinema has been imagining scenarios that now seem quaint and laughable.

There was laughter at the time, too, when Cassandra Crossing came out (announcing 12 international stars on its poster that are hard to cobble together): Screenings were apparently filled with boos and hisses, much to the chagrin of director Cosmatos. Box office revenues were disappointing and reviews unkind, but to me, it will always be a nostalgic thrill ride into cinematic disaster of a very contagious kind.

The full movie is available on YouTube in quite decent quality.

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