Richard Lester’s talent is for impudence. He undercuts everything that means anything, debunks cherished notions of heroism, country and personal attachments and ensures that what’s going on at the sides of the frame is often as interesting as the main focus of a scene. Too often he has been sidetracked by flashy editing, ill-aimed juvenile satire and unsuitably large budgets. Lester needs reining in if he is to produce his best work. Given a reasonable amount of rope, but not enough to fashion a noose, and a strong producer to watch over him, Lester’s films can be riveting viewing and few of them are better than Juggernaut.
Released during a lengthy strike and at the height of an IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain, Lester’s only suspense thriller is a film about a hopelessly inadequate country beleaguered by troubles and reliant on the skills of one not particularly patriotic expert to get it out of trouble. The country, needless to say, is Britain, represented by the cruise liner Britannic, which has been selected by disgruntled bomb expert ‘Juggernaut’ as the ideal target for a small but lethal act of terrorism. The expert is Fallon (Harris), a brilliant bomb disposal technician whose only real loyalties are to his team and his art.
There’s a very small sub-genre of British movies of the 1970s which can be described as ‘State of the Nation’ films – so small, in fact, that it principally features Juggernaut and Michael Tuchner’s 1971 thriller Villain. In the latter film, ostensibly about Richard Burton’s Oedipally troubled gangster, the real subject is a Britain at the end of its tether. Nothing works properly, the politicians are either corrupt or incompetent, a car chase is abruptly halted by roadworks and a traffic jam, and the payroll snatch goes wrong because the unions have called a wildcat strike. Richard Lester’s film is more circumscribed by setting but the cruise liner Britannic is a vivid microcosm of a Britain which, by 1974, seemed to many to be falling apart. On the boat there is the kind of stiff-upper-lip spirit of a hundred Rank movies from the 1950s but there’s little heroism or selflessness – the only notable act of bravery by a crew member results in his death. Meanwhile, an American wife demands her husband’s assurance that he has been faithful to her, terminally dull Captain Omar Sharif is carrying on a joyless affair with Shirley Knight and the brilliant Roy Kinnear is trying desperately to cheer everyone up despite an abortive attempt to get the crowd to give a positive answer to the question “Are we downhearted?” That this was the basic message of the late Edward Heath’s first 1974 election campaign is, presumably, an intentional piece of satire. Kinnear’s grimace, fixed on his face, is more than a little reminiscent of that rictus which came over Heath the moment he was asked to demonstrate some personal warmth.
This is brilliantly observed by Lester and his cinematographer Gerry Fisher. Conversations are half-heard, characters drift in and out of the film and the overwhelming atmosphere is one of only slightly muted despair. It’s a great setting for a disaster movie because it’s a complete reversal of the Irwin Allen formula – as seen in its purest form in The Towering Inferno - in which people are divided into heroes, villains and victims. Lester’s usual disdain for glamorous notions of heroism and courage is vividly present. The good guys in the film - Fallon, his team and the police – are about as unglamorous as you could imagine. Anthony Hopkins makes a strong impression as the police inspector in charge – his wife and kids are on the boat – and Ian Holm is entirely believable as the manager of the shipping company, first seen trying to make breakfast for his horrible children. Even here there is shading in the character of John Stride’s civil servant who tells Holm not to pay the ransom because it’s the government’s policy not to succumb to terrorists. It’s obvious too that Lester isn’t entirely engaged in this cloak and dagger investigation against ‘Juggernaut’ and the film gets a bit bogged down once they find out who he is. There’s a greater sense of fun and a lot more vibrancy to some of the character cameos – Cyril Cusack in a prison cell, Michael Hordern as a dodgy bookie. Once Juggernaut is revealed, his motives don’t seem entirely thought through by the writers and the film dribbles away – despite the best efforts of Juggernaut, played by one of the most entertaining and shameless hams in the business.
What Lester does respect is professionalism and this is epitomised in the film by Richard Harris’s Anthony Fallon. It’s one of the best performances ever given by Harris and he dominates the second half of the film. Harris gets to do everything that he loved to do in his performances – joke around, be one of the lads, spit out pithy epigrams, drink and rant – but it’s all made part of the character, something for which I assume we can thank Alan Plater’s ‘additional dialogue’. If Fallon were just a bullshit artist then we would get bored with him but his character is bound together by his obsessive professional expertise and the camera gets miraculously close to the devices which he is taking apart. The bomb disposal scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen – sometimes so tense you can hardly breathe - and it helps that we are shown, vividly, what happens when it goes wrong during the middle of the film. Harris is very funny but he’s also more engaged and intense than in a lot of his work and he pals up very effectively with David Hemmings as his second in command. His final confrontation with Juggernaut is a memorable moment indeed and Lester is wise enough to wrap the film up very quickly, pausing only to linger over Harris striding down some steps, swigging from a bottle and imagining himself doing a lap of honour.
Juggernaut is an underrated film and no-one undervalues it more than MGM who have released it on one of their typically thoughtless discs. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio – roughly 1.66:1 – and is not anamorphically enhanced. Picture quality varies from scene to scene. Sometimes we get a very pleasing level of detail and some striking colours. Sometimes it seems washed out and too soft. Occasionally we get both during the same scene. Basically, the presentation shows a lack of interest on the part of MGM. The Dolby 2.0 Mono soundtrack is generally adequate although a little quiet, making it hard to hear some of the cherishable asides which Lester is so fond of.
There are no extras, nor even a proper menu. Instead we get some of those irritating icons which MGM now use to save money on bilingual menus. The film is fully subtitled in several languages.