On track for an all-star cast headed for disaster…
Things are not as clear-cut as they seem when a pneumonic plague infected passenger boards a Swiss train.
The Cassandra Crossing – Trailer, The Cassandra Crossing – Trailer and photos © AVCO Embassy Pictures
The Cassandra Crossing (1976), is on first appearance a disaster movie but proving instead to be a mixed bag of genres. This (for the most part) is s surprisingly cohesive, well-written story. The movie plot starts in one direction, then goes (randomly) to another and another in a zig-zag way, making it a more intelligent watch than others of this genre.
The developments in the tale, keeping you in suspense (or in stitches). As you wonder just how this apparent hodge-podge of a journey will end. The film encompasses a disaster-thriller genre in a dramatic, poignant and sometimes comic tale with romance, world politics, germ warfare, the horrors of World War II and a local prophecy. There’s something for everyone.
The film boasts a fantastic all-star cast. This includes a number of the cast alumni from recent disaster movies including Burt Lancaster, O.J. Simpson, Richard Harris and actress Ava Gardner. Others include Martin Sheen, Lee Strasberg, Sophia Loren, Ann Turkel and Lionel Stander. The opening haunting wistful melody and accompanying dramatic score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith.
The film music changes pace and tone dramatically in the opening scene. Three Swedish terrorists disguised as ambulance workers and a patient – complete with ambulance and siren – enter the International Health Organization in Geneva. This trio aims to sabotage the Americans secret illegal cultivation of a plague virus.
One terrorist is shot by a watchman. The others trying to escape terrorists break the sealed beaker containing this virus. Both contract the virus, with one man shot and injured, the other escapes. Interpol and American Military Intelligence are now involved.
The escapee boards a train from Geneva to Stockholm. The injured terrorist left at the scene becomes critically ill by the virus. He is hospitalised and quarantined and cared for by Dr Elena Stradner (Ingrid Thulin). A ticket for this same train was found in his belongings. The quarantined terrorist dies.
All these comings and goings observed by a mysterious man in black revealed as US Colonel Stephen Mackenzie (Lancaster) from Military Intelligence. He tells Stradner this virus was being destroyed and orders the dead terrorist burnt.
The Stockholm bound train leaves the station, the passengers read like a list of Agatha Christie suspects. Like a Christie novel, there’s only a handful or two
important relevant characters. As well as the plague-infected terrorist, there’s an elderly con-man, a priest, a prolific neurosurgeon, his authoress ex-wife, an arms dealer’s wife and her young dog handler.
There’s more (less relevant) intrigue added as two of these characters are not who they seem. With a known drug trafficker on board who is being monitored by an undercover Police Enforcement Officer.
As the train sets off, it’s time for that random appearance by a musical number. Here in much more than a disaster movie song and clichéd role, and performed by actress Ann Turkel and her 1970s jumper clad guitar playing buddies. Very catchy it is too.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, Stradner’s arguing that the ill terrorist is removed from the train. She insists he is quarantined before infecting others. MacKenzie tells her that it’s an airborne virus, with no antidote and 60% of the 1000 passengers will die. The train is now to be rerouted to an isolation camp for treatment and quarantine of the passengers.
Onboard there’s (luckily) Dr
Richard Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris) the world-famous neurosurgeon. He’s on his way to receive prestigious honour for discovering a medical wonder (that’s surprisingly not really relevant). His ex-wife and novelist Jennifer (Sophia Loren) “accidentally” meeting him on board.
This inevitably leads to some snide comments then flirty banter between Chamberlain and this woman who he married then divorced twice,. Jennifer has now written a potential best-seller, telling all about their relationship. Loren and Harris here proving themselves as a soap writer’s dream pairing.
This with some fantastically performed love-hate dialogue between the two. Their on-screen growing rekindled relationship is a delight to watch, in spite of their on-off explosive chemistry.
Ava Gardner’s Nicole is married to a German arms dealer. However, she’s having an affair with her dog handler, Robby (Martin Sheen). Robby is a young stud she met mountain climbing. But neither of these facts is important right now.
Gardner provides some of the best timed comic lines in this movie with a smirk or a deadpan way. Sheen as her toyboy lover, Robby Navarro shows more than one side to his character, with some of his more dramatic scenes both pointless and over the top. But he’s worth his weight in gold for his bedroom antics.
Meanwhile, O J Simpson’s priest is rousing the suspicions of a young girl. As he smokes and doesn’t say his prayers at dinner. Meanwhile, the infected terrorist is helping out small children (the same irritating child actor who appears far too much) and mothers and babies, coughing into food and attacking the singer and her lover (happily (?) after she’s sung her song) despite the terrorist being (and looking) critically ill. He doesn’t utter a word, not that he needs to. It’s all in his performance, daaling.
MacKenzie contacts Chamberlain on the train’s radio, telling him to find and isolate this infected passenger. Chamberlain accompanied by Jennifer, now hunt down the “20-year-old plus, bloated Swede” (their words not mine!) in the carriages.
Helping them in their quest are train conductor, Max (Stander) and con man Herman (Strasberg), who for plot convenience has knowledge of the Swedish language. The terrorist is finally spotted in the same room as they started from. All try (unsuccessfully) to transfer the now-dead terrorist and Nicole’s infected dog to a helicopter from a moving train by a wee basket. This is before the train enters a mountain range.
But oops… there’s a tunnel so they can’t, but the basket does contain the dog who is then taken back to be observed and tested in Geneva. The train now with just a few passengers – and coincidentally only one of the listed cast – infected.
The train rerouted to Poland heading for an isolation camp in Janov, via Nuremberg. The camp is only reachable by a dilapidated Nazi bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing by the locals. This is due to fears the bridge will collapse.
Stradner fears that the weight of the train may kill everyone… with Chamberlain and the passengers learning this, the film heads in another direction (or two).. with still enough time for him and Jennifer to reconcile and make love in the face of adversity…
This film was an interestingly told, less clichéd disaster film with a wonderful cast. It was a bold move to use a number of other genres within this type of film, with the film adding some more action and dramatic sequences.
At times the storyline is funny, touching and dramatic. This inclusion of humour a refreshing change to the usual doom is upon us dramatic overtones to the genre. The storylines giving each of the actors their time in the film to shine. Scenes showcased their talents in these genres, even if at times their inclusion in the storyline didn’t make sense.
The developing Military Intelligence storyline gave the film a chilling overtone throughout the movie. You felt all the characters might be doomed once the infected terrorist boarded the train. This is after MacKenzie is told to cover up the existence of the plague virus and the very idea of it, at all costs.
This leads to a chilling ending for all. The film leaving you with many questions unanswered, but those ending scenes are enough for a storyline for what could be an intriguing sequel. Many of the images of this film stay with you. These are led by poignant moments such as when a passenger faces demons from his past, or dramatic when Sheen’s character shows he’s more than Nicole’s pretty
The ridiculous scenes come primarily from those of Ava Gardner and her witty banter with young Martin Sheen as her young lover. One scene showing Sheen doing a handstand on her bed, in just his undies. Thus leaving you to ponder if Ava Gardner did this film one for the money and two for this show…
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
Ava Gardner Blogathon 2018, No 63
This post was added to Maddy Loves Her Classic Films Ava Gardner blogathon. With Ava Gardner also in Knots Landing and Earthquake. Martin Sheen also stars in my post on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and in Columbo. Lionel Stander in Hart to Hart. Ann Turkel in Knight Rider, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. O.J. Simpson starred in The Towering Inferno and Naked Gun. Burt Lancaster stars in Airport. Richard Harris stars in The Wild Geese, Juggernaut and Robin and Marian.