Do you cut the red wire or the blue wire? One renders the explosive mechanism harmless. The other causes everyone to die in an almighty explosion. And you make your decision as the sweat pours off your forehead, and makes your fingers holding the pliers slippery, with the traditional, sadistically pointless digital clock installed in the device inexorably counting down to zero … red wire? … blue wire? … red wire? … blue wire? … tick, tick, tick.
Talk about being triggered. In 1974, while the nation went into stoic semi-denial about the IRA bombing campaign, I went into a trance of excitement about the bomb-disposal suspense thriller Juggernaut, which was showing at the Watford Odeon in the school holidays. The cinema had just been split into three screens: a big one upstairs in the former balcony, and two small screens downstairs created by partitioning the rear stalls. My memory is that I was in one of these boxy “minis”.
Apparently inspired by a bomb hoax on the QE2 a couple of years previously — though I’ve only just found that out now — Juggernaut was about a terrifying mega-bomb planted on a transatlantic ocean liner called the Britannic, sailing from Southampton to New York. The seas are too rough for the passengers to be taken off in lifeboats. The Irish-accented bomber (codenamed: Juggernaut) telephones the liner company boss with a surprisingly modest ransom demand for £500,000 (rather like Dr Evil naively requesting a “million dollars”.) Richard Harris plays the scotch-swilling cavalier tough guy with the reckless courage and intuitive bomb-disabling ability who is parachuted to the ship with his team to do the business. David Hemmings is his loyal assistant.
Juggernaut had a very good cast. Apart from Harris, there was Omar Sharif, who gave a diffident, slightly torpid performance as the ship’s captain, having an ungallant affair with a beautiful passenger (Shirley Knight); Ian Holm is the company chief, Anthony Hopkins is the Scotland Yard cop whose wife and kids are aboard the Britannic; Roy Kinnear is the frantic entertainment director who at one point actually says “Hi-de-hi!”. Roshan Seth is the Ugandan Asian steward who can switch accents to white-Brit when it is expedient. Veteran American character actor Clifton James (who was the glowering sheriff in the Bond films Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) plays an American tourist. Cyril Cusack has an uncredited role as the defiantly uncooperative IRA veteran who is questioned by Hopkins in prison about who might be behind this. His questioning now looks very gentlemanly. The director is Richard Lester and the writer is Richard Alan Simmons who demanded to be credited as Richard DeKoker after a quarrel about the way his script was rewritten. (Again, I’m finding out about this now.)
I loved Juggernaut as a 12-year-old, though it didn’t have the high gloss of big Hollywood disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure. And watching it again now, what strikes me is the awful weather: the cloudcover of this-is-not-America Britishness, which instantly signalled the fact that this is coming from Blighty not California. The Britannic is very different from the sleek digital hallucination of James Cameron’s Titanic. It is a real ship: with unsightly rust marks on the hull where the anchor comes up. The scenes on board make it look like a ropey cross-Channel ferry. I sat through it pop-eyed with my Kia-Ora and carton of Maltesers, before staggering out into the bland weekday sunshine of Watford High Street, the world of Dolcis shoe shops and Clements department store, weirdly not much less glamorous than the Britannic, with its world of slightly depressed passengers making the best of things and not questioning authority. (Some years later, Linsday Anderson’s Britannia Hospital was offered as a condition-of-Britain metaphor. Maybe we should have been thinking the same way about Lester’s ocean liner Britannic.)
So I sat down to this again, thinking that Juggernaut would just look hilariously awful. But no. Actually, it’s a really tough, forthright, well-made action thriller which holds together tremendously well, and despite the creaky, groany moments … well … the big blue/red wire finale had me on the edge of my seat. Juggernaut now has an almost gritty social-realist look.
And watching it now, something hit me like being whacked over the head with a frying pan. “Juggernaut” is Irish — BUT SO IS RICHARD HARRIS! CLANGGGG! Of course, Harris’s character has to be Irish, at least subliminally (his own accent is subdued and he is a Royal Navy officer,) so that there is the all-important non-controversial political balance.
Fans of 70s trivia and ephemera will love things like the kids playing on the rudimentary Pong computer game in the ship’s lounge bar and the arcade-style pinball machines. (We 70s kids really did do a lot of playing on these games on holiday, or hanging around pennilessly looking at them.) And we get to see some vintage “executive” novelty desk toys that were all the rage in those days.
There are, of course, also some dodgy attitudes, in throwaway “funny” lines that have clearly been dubbed in post-production. As the Britannic departs, leaving the crowds behind on the quayside, we hear a campy voice: “Right, Humphrey, my place or yours?” Oo-er. Similarly, a south Asian deckhand dealing with a dog on board mutters: “I’ll have you in a bloody curry if you don’t move.” Yikes. Yet later, Seth’s steward will tell Knight that he has endured racism in both Uganda and Britain and it is a “sad world for refugees”.
There is also an outrageously and, in fact, dangerously real-looking Sweeney-type cop car scene as Hopkins’s vehicle careers around the streets, almost hitting some kids as it screeches to a halt. It really does look as if risks were taken. Also, there is an amazing scene as Harris and his comrades parachute from the plane. The mask of one jumper comes off and you can hear: “Christ! Bloody mask!” Again, it really did look like a real mishap. And the scenes showing the jumpers getting hauled aboard the ship from the sea are amazingly well done and genuinely gripping.
Juggernaut feels more like an old-fashioned war movie than a disaster movie, and Harris’s character is supposed to have learned his trade disabling Nazi bombs in the blitz. It’s a period piece from both the 40s and 70s. Surprisingly entertaining and effective. And the message that things will be all right in the end due to the dedication and expertise of professionals … that is also acceptable.