Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1977)

(UK/Italy/West Germany - 1977)

Directed by George Pan Cosmatos.  Written by Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Katz and George Pan Cosmatos.  Cast: Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, O.J. Simpson, Ingrid Thulin, Lee Strasberg, Lionel Stander, Ann Turkel, Lou Castel, John Phillip Law, Ray Lovelock, Alida Valli, Tom Hunter, Stefano Patrizi, Carlo De Mejo, Fausta Avelli, Angela Goodwin, Renzo Palmer, John P. Dulaney.  (R, 129 mins)


Disaster movies were one of the signature genres of 1970s cinema.  Though the concept wasn't new and dated back to the early days of the movies to SAN FRANCISCO (1936) and 1950s hits like THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) and ZERO HOUR! (1957), and would continue later with the likes of ARMAGEDDON (1998), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2008), the subgenre really exploded in the 1970s.  Starting with box-office blockbusters like AIRPORT (1970), THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) to less-popular but still entertaining later offerings like the sniper-in-a-football-stadium TWO-MINUTE WARNING (1976), the Goodyear Blimp-blowing-up-the-Super Bowl BLACK SUNDAY (1977), and the mad-bomber-terrorizing-amusement-parks ROLLERCOASTER (1977), disaster films showcased then-state-of-the-art special effects depicting catastrophes both natural and man-made, and a large cast of stars both current and from Hollywood's golden age.  The incredible success of these films spawned countless imitations, from exclamatory made-for-TV disaster movies like HEAT WAVE! (1974), FLOOD! (1976), and FIRE! (1977) to drive-in exploitation like THE BEES (1978) and AVALANCHE (1978) to the inevitable foreign-made ripoffs with films like TIDAL WAVE (1975), which inserted new footage of Lorne Greene into a Japanese disaster movie; the Italian oil fire thriller OIL (1977); the Canadian city-on-fire thriller CITY ON FIRE (1979); and the Italian/Brazilian co-production KILLER FISH (1979), which involved an emerald heist, a laughable tornado, and a river filled with hungry piranha.  It's unfortunate that most of these films lacked the hyperbolic punctuation that the TV movies used--think how much better KILLER FISH would be if it was called KILLER FISH! 

In addition to the mandatory "faces in boxes" poster design, disaster movies frequently featured supporting roles for an off-season or retired sports star, usually from the NFL, such as Rosey Grier in SKYJACKED (1972), O.J. Simpson in THE TOWERING INFERNO, Alex Karras in WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980), and then-Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini in the aforementioned KILLER FISH, as well as college football star Mark Harmon in BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979).  Other such stunt casting included the likes of fake evangelist-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner in EARTHQUAKE (1974), singer Helen Reddy in AIRPORT 1975 (1974), and game-show host and frequent TONIGHT SHOW guest host John Davidson--the Ryan Seacrest of the 1970s--in THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 (1979).  Audiences grew tired of the increasingly silly and often shoddy spectacles (how can we forget 1978's THE SWARM or 1979's METEOR?) and the demand for these things vanished.  Kinji Fukasaku's mega-budget Japanese epic VIRUS (1980), featuring such stars as Glenn Ford, George Kennedy, Henry Silva, Sonny Chiba, and Robert Vaughn, was perhaps the most ambitious disaster film of them all, but couldn't find a US distributor even with a sappy Janis Ian theme song, and was cut by nearly an hour and drastically re-edited before going straight-to-video in 1984 (Fukasaku's complete 155-minute version is a masterpiece).  By the time so-called "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen, the man behind THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, and THE SWARM, unveiled the volcano epic WHEN TIME RAN OUT, the title could've applied to the genre itself, especially when it was expertly parodied that same year by AIRPLANE!, from the gathering of stoical, serious actors known for their stern gravitas (Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack), right down to the casting of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as himself, moonlighting as a pilot named "Roger Murdock."  Disaster movies, at least in their 1970s incarnation, were done.

These films always had eclectic casts populated by actors you'd never expect to find working together (THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 managed to get Alain Delon, Charo, Jimmie Walker, and Sylvia Kristel in the same movie), but the British/Italian/West German co-production THE CASSANDRA CROSSING provides a bizarre mix of international A-list, Hollywood old guard, Eurocult regulars, and one vacationing football star nearing the end of his playing days.  It's not often you see people like O.J. Simpson and Martin Sheen mixing it up with the likes of THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE's Ray Lovelock and FISTS IN THE POCKET's Lou Castel.  Like many of its genre brethren, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING offers multiple problems for its heroes to conquer and is actually two disaster movies in one:  first a terrorist exposed to a deadly plague stows away on a Geneva-to-Stockholm train, then the US military tries to contain the disease by intentionally diverting the train to an unsafe bridge in the hopes that it will collapse, killing all the passengers and making for a nice, convenient cover-up.  There's a level of cynicism in THE CASSANDRA CROSSING that doesn't exist in other disaster movies.  The US government is the villain here, and it's interesting that it's represented by Burt Lancaster, who starred in the same year's TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, a bile-soaked screed of a conspiracy thriller that depicted the US President's own cabinet members sending the newly-elected and earnestly naïve Commander-in-Chief (Charles Durning) to his own execution when he decides to go public with his predecessors' classified memos that will expose the truth about America's Vietnam policies.  He's advised against it by those in his inner circle, old men who tell him "This is just how it's always been," and he pays the price for breaking tradition.

In CASSANDRA, Lancaster's Col. Mackenzie is dispatched to the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva after three Swedish terrorists (Castel, Stefano Patrizi, and Carlo De Mejo) infiltrate the building and the resulting shootout ends up exposing them to a strain of pneumonic plague that's been developed--illegally and in secret--by the US government and stored in a lab on the premises.  De Mejo is killed by a guard, Patrizi is wounded and captured, and Castel escapes.  Mackenzie, his aid Major Stack (John Phillip Law), and WHO-based Dr. Stradner (Ingrid Thulin) get no information out of Patrizi before he dies, and Mackenzie orders the body burned.  Castel, the lead terrorist, makes his way to a nearby train station and sneaks aboard the express going to Stockholm.  It's here where CASSANDRA, for a while at least plays out as your standard issue '70s disaster epic.  The major players onboard are renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris); his romance novelist ex-wife Jennifer (Sophia Loren); requisite elderly con man Herman Kaplan (Lee Strasberg); hippie lovebirds Tom (Lovelock) and Susan (Ann Turkel); a grandmother (Alida Valli) and her granddaughter Katerina (Fausta Avelli); wealthy Nicole Dressler (Ava Gardner, also in EARTHQUAKE and CITY ON FIRE), wife of a German arms magnate, along with her heroin-addicted, drug-dealing boy-toy Robby Navarro (Sheen); and Haley (Simpson), an incognito-as-a-priest Interpol agent tailing Navarro.  The script by Tom Mankiewicz, Robert Katz, and director George P. Cosmatos (who would go on to Hollywood blockbusters like 1985's RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and 1993's TOMBSTONE) spends a little too much time on the soapier elements of Jonathan and Jennifer's inevitable rekindling of their romance (they've already been divorced twice), but once the terrorist makes his way through the train, quickly infecting many of the passengers, things pick up considerably.

Oddly, the plague part of the film is resolved rather quickly.  Chamberlain, in conference with Dr. Stradner, concludes that in a highly-oxygenated environment like a train, the disease will eventually run its course and people will recover unless, like the terrorist, it was directly absorbed into the bloodstream.  The terrorist eventually dies, but those onboard who are afflicted soon find themselves on the mend.  That's not good enough for Mackenzie, who orders the train to be diverted to a quarantined area--a former concentration camp--that will require it to cross a condemned bridge that hasn't been used since WWII.  Of course, his intention--his orders--are to bury this incident by any means necessary, as the US was illegally developing deadly germ warfare in Geneva and keeping it secret.  Mackenzie has the train met in Nuremberg by a team of 40 Army officers in HazMat suits led by Col. Scott (Tom Hunter).  Scott's job is to keep everyone onboard and kill anyone who tries to get off the train.  So, about midway through the film, with the plague story wrapped up, the action now centers on Chamberlain leading a passenger revolt against Scott and his goons and stop the train before it reaches the Cassandra Crossing.

Make no mistake, the bulk of THE CASSANDRA CROSSING is, like most of its disaster contemporaries, silly and illogical.  Many of the actors on the train don't seem to be on the same page as far as what kind of movie they're in:  Harris, Sheen, and Simpson play it straight and serious (as seriously as O.J. dressed as a priest can be taken), while Gardner, perhaps still amused by being cast as Lorne Greene's daughter in EARTHQUAKE, is glib and snarky at all the wrong times.  Loren doesn't really have much to do other than look glamorous in soft focus, which Cosmatos ensures since her husband Carlo Ponti was the producer (Loren's introduction, where she's given numerous close-ups from various angles, is a bit excessive and obviously done to please Ponti).  Strasberg's con man character keeps trying to sell phony watches, while you could make a drinking game out of how many times Valli helplessly says "Katerina!" to no one in particular after she gets separated from the little girl.   And my God, I haven't even gotten to the song. 

Any self-respecting '70s disaster movie had the mandatory maudlin theme song, like "The Morning After" from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from THE TOWERING INFERNO.  Both of those songs were sung by Maureen McGovern and both won Oscars for Best Original Song.  THE CASSANDRA CROSSING gives us a fine Ennio Morricone-esque score by Jerry Goldsmith, but also offered co-star Turkel--who was married to Harris at the time--singing something called "I'm Still on My Way," and she sings it early in the film, as she and Lovelock and some other hippie pals are jamming in one of the train cars.  And just when you think it can't get any sillier, train conductor Max (Lionel Stander) takes a break from his duties to just hang out with them.  It seems unnecessary to mention that their efforts were not rewarded with a Best Original Song Oscar.  It's easily the worst scene in the film, and one that completely stops it cold and one that I never knew existed until I saw it on Turner Classic Movies some years back.  For decades, I only knew the version that aired on NBC and in syndication, which mercifully cut that scene out entirely.  Also absent from the television version are some gory bits from the finale, as the train indeed crashes and a good chunk of the passengers die horribly violent deaths:  watch for the train rail cutting through a car and impaling a passenger right through his gut, yet another example of this film's unrepentant mean streak.

THE CASSANDRA CROSSING isn't the best of its type, but it's maintained a well-deserved cult-following over the decades, primarily for its unusual international cast and because it works very well as an entertaining thriller.  But if you approach it from the angle of Lancaster's Mackenzie, there's some unexpected depth to the film.  Of course, an old pro like Lancaster knows just how to play the various subtleties and nuances, and perhaps there wasn't anything in the script and he simply took it upon himself as an experienced actor to make something out of nothing.  At the conclusion of the film, after telling Dr. Stradner "I know you see me as some kind of monster," and essentially saying he did what he had to do, you can see the sadness in Lancaster's eyes and it's the first moment in the film that Mackenzie seems remotely human.  And in that moment, Lancaster makes us see that, like Stack and Scott and those under him, he's just a part of the machine.  Lancaster nails it when he's about to leave the building.  Stack offers to take him to a nearby bar and buy him a drink.  Mackenzie says nothing, putting on his coat and unconsciously reaching for his uniform service cap, stopping himself, and going for his fedora instead.  It's not that he isn't worthy of wearing it.  No, he was a good soldier who followed orders.  He's just too sickened by those orders to wear it, and by rejecting it, he retains some semblance of humanity.  And as Mackenzie leaves the room without saying a word and heads down a long hallway to the exit, Stack can be heard on the phone with an unknown superior: "He's leaving right now.  Yes, he and the doctor are both under surveillance."  Mackenzie is as expendable as the people killed in the bridge collapse and he likely isn't making it to his next destination.  In that closing scene, using no dialogue, Lancaster's aging face perfectly illustrates a career military man who served his country only to be made a fall guy who knows shit rolls downhill and it's coming straight for him.  In that respect, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING--or, more accurately, Lancaster's sequences in it--makes for a fascinating companion piece to TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, where he played another soldier who just followed orders issued down a corrupt chain of command until his conscience could no longer allow it.


  1. Excellent write up and analysis, particularly of the great Lancaster.

  2. One of my favourite trash films, but yes, Ann Turkel can't sing, and whenever I watch it, I fast-forward her song. No wonder they cut it. It almost ruins it.