The Forgotten: Richard Lester's "Juggernaut" (1974)

Bombs on an ocean liner endanger lives and enable a political discourse in Richard Lester's savage, savvy seventies thriller Juggernaut.
David Cairns
Inspired by the Richard Lester retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, August 7-13.
When the great Omar Sharif died recently, the BBC's coverage of the sad event included clips from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, of course, and then cut to Richard Lester's Juggernaut just as the voice-over commented on the declining quality of Sharif's later films, causing me to splutter into my cocoa and pen angry letters to Auntie Beeb in my mind, for Juggernaut is a fantastic example of seventies British cinema. It's what I remember seventies Britain being like. The Christmas scene in Ken Russell's Tommy has the same effect on me, but that's because I was a kid in the seventies.
Brown and orange color schemes, older men with long hair, and grim political discussions that went over my head but seemed to portend explosive doom: that was the United Kingdom in AD 1974. In Juggernaut, the titular and pseudonymous terrorist plants a series of bombs on an ocean liner and demands a ransom. The ship being in stormy seas, evacuation is impossible, so Captain Omar has to welcome aboard a team of explosives experts airdropped in, led by Richard Harris and David Hemmings, while on dry land detective Anthony Hopkins tries to catch the man responsible.
Often mistakenly pigeonholed as a disaster movie (up until act three the heroes are still trying to prevent disaster: I won't tell you what happens), Juggernaut is instead a suspense film, which Lester saw as an excellent delivery mechanism for a discussion of the problem of terrorism: do you negotiate, stonewall, fight back? Does the government best fulfill its obligations by sacrificing those lives immediately in peril, rather than encouraging further attacks by seeming open to discussion?
Lester took over the film just over two weeks before shooting started: the producers had fired their second director, and he reasoned that as third choice he could have quite a lot of control, since they were by now rather desperate. Known as a fast and efficient filmmaker, he enlisted TV playwright Alan Plater to rework the dialogue, brought his friends in for the smaller roles, and managed to shoot the movie, an elaborate, multi-location drama with pyrotechnics and much ocean-going action, in just over six weeks instead of the scheduled ten. He liked to get back to his gardening (still does).
This frantic pace was facilitated by the director's view that, as the story was supposed to be happening in the present, none of the camera-work ought to look pre-planned. He aided in the necessary roughness by operating the camera himself, "and I'm not a very good operator."
The film did get knocked for intercutting the scenes on the ship (with Shirley Knight from Petulia and Roy Kinnear from everything) with the action on British soil. Does this spoil the claustrophobia? I don't think so, and it not only lets in different perspectives on the central problem, it facilitates Lester's intricate montage. When "Juggernaut" calls to declare his scheme to shipping company manager Ian Holm, we cut from Holm to the ship, seeing the bombs being discovered and cordoned off, something which must be happening on a later timeline, then back to Holm, then, as the villain declares that a demonstration explosion will prove his sincerity, and one is timed to occur "as I am speaking to you," we nip back to the Britannic (corny name, I suppose, but the ship is also a microcosm of British society, with its antiquated feudal power system and servant versus leisure class) just as the detonation goes off. We've jumped through time as well as space during a single conversation, but it feels completely natural and unobtrusive. (Sixties Lester was always typed as showy; seventies Lester hides his artfulness inside more artfulness and somehow makes his new wave technique seem classical.)
And as the flames flicker from the exploded funnel, the screen fades to orange which becomes the surface of a vast abstract painting that fills the screen, and then a tiny Richard Harris pops his head up in the bottom of frame: defusing a "pitiful little bomb" in an art gallery, you see. "If there's one thing I can't stand it's enthusiastic amateurs."
The pithy, sardonic dialogue is lovely: is this Lester's only Hawksian film? It even includes those real-life moments when characters begin a wise-crack but can't think of a way to finish it. "I may be stupid but I'm not... bloody stupid," ends Hemmings, weakly. And Sharif is as fine as the rest, playing a cold fish character with no sneaky attempts to ingratiate himself with the audience. Lester found him professional, pleasant, and fantastically interested in every aspect of the shoot. Possibly because he'd never seen a director work so fast.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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