Six Damn Fine Degrees #43: Juggernaut

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!

Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974) was probably the first Richard Harris film I ever saw. It’s very likely it was also the first time I ever saw a film starring Omar Sharif, Anthony Hopkins, Ian Holm or Freddie Jones. It’s most definitely the first time I encountered that time-honoured trope where a bomb exposal expert faces two differently coloured wires and has to decide which one to cut: one will defuse the bomb, the other will mean death, for him and for everyone else in the building, on the plane or (in this case) aboard the ship.

On paper, you’d think Juggernaut would have to have been a hit. It’s the mid-’70s, and here you’ve got a thriller with a dash of disaster movie, with a strong cast, a solid script and all the suspense that comes with an ocean liner in which some unseen blackmailer has placed seven booby-trapped barrel bombs, demanding a ransom of £500’000 or otherwise the ship is blown up, including all the men, women and children on board.

Except Lester’s film didn’t do particularly well – perhaps exactly because its audiences expected it to be more of a disaster movie, perhaps because while Lester’s film was thrilling, it wasn’t exactly action-packed. You see Omar Sharif as a dashing captain, engaged in an affair with one of the passengers, and you expect the soapy melodrama of Airport, The Poseidon Adventure or Earthquake. You expect a diabolical villain, a dashing hero, explosions and the like, but that’s not what Juggernaut delivers. Lester thought that the film’s prospects were hurt because they expected disaster movie fore, but “that wasn’t what it was at all”.

And he’s right: even when I first watched the film as a kid, I found Juggernaut thrilling, but it is oddly muted and melancholy – and fittingly so. There is an autumnal, practically existentialist quality to the film. At first the passengers don’t know about the bombs, but when they find out there’s not so much a panic than an outbreak of despondency and malaise – and it all feels right. This makes Juggernaut much less colourful than your average ’70s disaster movie, but it also gives it a personality all of its own and, even though Lester was from the United States, an oddly British feeling of “quiet desperation”. Which isn’t to say that there’s no humour, but it is dry, deadpan and bleak.

Which makes Richard Harris’ bomb disposal superstar, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Fallon, such a fitting hero for this film. Fallon is one of the best at doing what he does, but as a human being he’s, well, a Richard Harris character. He’s cynical, he drinks like a fish, and when he gets a colleague and friend killed, his immediate reaction is to give up, until he is ordered by the captain to get back on the job. There is a world of difference between Fallon and the conventional heroes of other action movies and disaster films of the time. In key ways, he’s closer to characters such as Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe from The Long Goodbye.

It’s easy to see how audiences expecting a disaster film of the kind they’re used to – daring, manly men with square chins and names like Charlton Heston braving the elements! curvaceous blondes whose wardrobe falls into more and more disarray over the course of the movie! cowardly politicians or the ex-wife’s new boyfriends/husbands who abandon those they should protect and who are punished by dying horribly! – would be disappointed by this laconic, melancholy film. If you want melodrama and action setpieces, you’re better off elsewhere. But if a melancholy thriller sounds good to you, if you think you’d face the very likely possibility of your demise within the next 24 hours going through the five Kübler-Ross stages either with existential malaise, cynicism or a lot of booze, and if you’d want to spend your final hours on a boat with a middle-aged Richard Harris.

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