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Friday, May 11, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

By 1976, movie studios were probably running out of forms of public transportation to set disaster flicks on. The world had already seen movies about boats in trouble, airplanes in trouble. Even buses and zeppelins in trouble. Right around this time, somebody must have said, “Hey, what about a train in trouble?” With this spark of inspiration, “The Cassandra Crossing” was born. Either realizing that disaster movies were starting to become a little passe by 1976, or realizing that a train only presents so many story opportunities, the filmmakers also threw in a story about a plague and a government conspiracy. This resulted in one of the darker films of the seventies disaster movie fad. The approach wasn't popular with critics or audiences. The film is more-or-less forgotten today.

Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain, world famous neurosurgeon, boards a train traveling from Geneva to Stockholm. He's surprised to find his ex-wife, famous author Jennifer Chamberlin, is also on the train. This is not the only surprise. Earlier, three terrorist infiltrated a lab where chemical weapons were being created. One man, infected with a dangerous new strain of plague, escaped. He's aboard the train now. Once the government finds out, they put the train into quarantine. The Colonel in charge of the case decides to send the train over the Kasundruv Bridge, also known as the Cassandra Crossing, a notoriously old and unstable arch bridge. The hope is the train will crash, everyone on-board will die, and the whole scandal will disappear. But the passengers on-board fight back.

“The Cassandra Crossing” doesn't have the same feel to it as most other seventies disaster flicks. The opening scene, of people sneaking into a secret facility, shooting guards and trying to escape unscatched, feel like something out of a crime movie. In fact, a lot of “The Cassandra Crossing” feels that way. One of the supporting characters turns out to be a drug runner and heroin addict himself. An undercover FBI agent is pursuing him. There are many scenes of people being held at gunpoint. Jerry Goldsmith's score also sounds better suited to a gritty crime film. It's full of sinister tones and odd, electronic noises.

This crime movie atmosphere eventually shifts towards something more conspiratorial. It's heavily implied the U.S. government is illegally manufacturing germ weapons. Col. Menkenzie puts a group of innocent people to death in order to cover up his involvement in this. It turns out the virus naturally works its way out of the body but he still insists on murdering the train's passengers. In scenes that recall George Romero's “The Crazies,” soldiers in white hazmat suits descend on the train. They are faceless voices of authority, with no interest in protecting the public. They point guns at harmless citizens, even firing at them when they try to leave. Before the movie is over, they are gunning down the train passengers. When the heroes eventually lead a rebellion against the soldiers, it's a natural reaction to a government that doesn't care about their well-being. And there's no happy ending either, proving what a grim world this film takes place in.

“The Cassandra Crossing” was an international production and that shows in the cast. Sophia Loren, as Jennifer, is top-billed. Richard Harris, previously of “Juggernaut,” plays Dr. Chamberlain. Loren and Harris' early scenes are characterized by a light humor. They have really nice chemistry together, making a believable and cute couple. Martin Sheen shows up as the drug runner. He's been manipulating an elderly lover, played by Ava Gardner, making her second appearance this month. Sheen is sweaty and suitably rat-like as the untrustworthy character. Weirdly, he gets a redemptive arc. Gardner gets her best moments after Sheen reveals his treachery. Burt Lancaster, in the polar opposite of his role in “Airport,” plays a villain who becomes more and more cowardly and pathetic as the film goes on. He's a deeply unsympathetic character.

After over an hour of being a conspiracy thriller, “The Cassandra Crossing” moves back into disaster movie mode. The train goes over the titular bridge, which then collapses. Owing to the film's grim atmosphere, our heroes do not get everyone off first. As the bridge breaks apart and the train cars fall into the canyon below, the people inside scream. One man is impaled with a steel bar. Another woman screams in horror as she's crushed to death. The destruction in disaster movies is usually fun to watch. The carnage here is graphic and intense enough, the miniatures and special effects realistic enough, that there's no enjoyment factor. Genre expectations demanded a disaster and the movie delivered, without pulling any punches. The choice is off-putting but also quite bold.

So “The Cassandra Crossing” is a very unusual disaster movie. A hard-R in a genre defined by PG ratings, it freely mixes different genres and tones, swinging back and forth between comedy and harsh violence, crime subplots and geopolitical conspiracies. (Director George P. Cosmatos would go on to make “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Cobra,” so those are clearly topics he enjoys.) The result is not the most consistent film. However, it's a pretty interesting one, at least from a cultural perspective. Oh, and did I mention that O.J. Simpson co-stars as the undercover cop that's after Sheen? And that he's specifically undercover as a priest? That's another weird disconnect in a film full of them. [7/10]

[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks*
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*Kasundruv Bridge is pretty famous within the film

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