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The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

There’s something very 1970s about the all-star disaster movie. Dozens of A-grade stars, all looking a bit seedy (as if the enormous wage bill hadn’t left enough spare cash to employ their usual make-up artists), and all busy trying to outdo each other by ramping up the histrionics in every scene. The Cassandra Crossing is actually at the bargain barrel end of this strange little genre, but it still manages to cram in as many fading stars as Lew Grade’s budget would allow – Richard Harris, Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren and Martin Sheen to name but four – sticks ‘em in a train, has them argue for a bit and then shunts them off a cliff. What more could you want from two hours on a wet Bank Holiday afternoon?

But is it horror? Well, some reviewers don’t think so – however, it does feature a nasty infectious disease and some horrible deaths (think 28 Days Later with bad hair). And it’s ripe with ridiculous set-pieces, comedy dialogue and priceless mugging to camera – which is what at least 50 per cent of this survey is all about.

There’s also a madly violent opening, with shades of the equally ridiculous – but definitely horror – Holocaust 2000. Three terrorists break into the International Health Organisation in Geneva. Two of them are gorily shot, but one manages to make a break for it, covered in goo – which just happens to contain the nasty and completely incurable pneumonic plague.

The terrorist manages to get onto the Trans-Continental Express, where he sets about making sure that every other passenger is contaminated (rubbing up against them, spitting in their food, etc). Meanwhile the Americans, who have been blamed for cultivating the plague in the first place, decide that the best course of damage limitation would be to bring in wrinkly old Burt Lancaster and his performing wig.

Burt immediately leaps to the conclusion that the plague carrier got on the train (just one of many illogical but plot-forwarding conclusions that are leapt to throughout the proceedings, by people both on and off the train). As the passengers start succumbing to the disease, all the countries the line passes through refuse to allow the train to stop – so it keeps on moving. Eventually, Lancaster arranges for the train to stop, although he warns that anyone caught trying to escape is to be “shot and killed”.

And when the train does stop, things take a sinister turn. The bickering passengers, expecting medical aid, are instead confronted by soldiers in chemical warfare suits, who join them on the train and level their guns. The line has been diverted, and the train is now heading towards a rickety, unused bridge called the Cassandra Crossing (our first view of the bridge isn’t promising, as a slight gust of wind causes an enormous girder to fall from it).

The passengers may be at the wrong end of a bunch of machine guns, but it hasn’t stopped their annoying behaviour – Loren and Harris are a twice-divorced couple who never stop bickering; Sheen, the heroin addict toyboy of an ageing beauty, never stops bickering with his partner; Lee Strasburg, a light-relief comedy watchseller, is quite one of the most irritating characters to appear on film (cheers from the audience when he gets shot by the guards, jeers when they just manage to wound him). However, the group manage to put aside their differences long enough for a fightback against the guards (albeit one that ends in multiple tragedy).

 

“I can’t believe that one thousand people could be sent to their death by the World Health Organisation!”

Meanwhile, Lancaster’s plan to condemn a thousand ticket-holding tourists to an “accidental” death on the unsafe bridge has been discovered (“I can’t believe that one thousand people could be sent to their death by the World Health Organisation!”), and it has also been discovered that disease isn’t as deadly as first thought, and that there’s a fair chance that all those infected will actually recover. But is it too late, as the train barrels towards the Cassandra Crossing? Well, yes it is, for most of the passengers, as the film ends in an astonishingly bleak (and nastily realistic) train crash, which follows on from a bloody massacre by the guards.

Many of these disaster films are entertaining rubbish (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), but The Cassandra Crossing pushes the envelope to insane levels. The message it appears to be giving is “don’t trust the Americans”, which is quite ahead of its time, when you think about it. But thinking about it would probably cause the whole unlikely pack of cards to come tumbling down. As ridiculous entertainment, it is sort of great, but I would be hard pressed to explain exactly why.

Directed by: George P. Cosmatos; Cast: Sophia Loren - Jennifer Rispoli Chamberlain; Richard Harris - Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain; Martin Sheen - Robby Navarro; O.J. Simpson - Haley; Lionel Stander - Max, the Train Conductor; Ann Turkel - Susan; Ingrid Thulin - Dr. Elena Stradner; Lee Strasberg - Herman Kaplan; Ava Gardner - Nicole Dressler; Burt Lancaster - Col. Stephen Mackenzie; Lou Castel - Swede the Driver; John Phillip Law - Major Stark; Ray Lovelock - Tom; Alida Valli - Mrs. Chadwick; Stefano Patrizi - RR Attendant; Thomas Hunter - Captain Scott (as Tom Hunter); Fausta Avelli - Katherine; Angela Goodwin - Nun.

Last updated: February 17, 2010

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