by Glenn Erickson Jul 08, 2023

Finally, a chance to review this deserving suspense thriller. Incredibly realistic scenes on the high seas are a highlight of Richard Lester’s docudrama-styled tale of a mad extortion plot against an ocean liner with 1200 passengers. Forget Disaster Movie clichés and dumb dramatics — it’s a fast-paced struggle to save lives by bomb specialists Richard Harris and David Hemmings. Back in London, a young Anthony Hopkins tries to locate the man who calls himself Juggernaut. The exceptionally smart cast is topped by Omar Sharif, Ian Holm, Shirley Knight, Roy Kinnear, Freddie Jones, Clifton James and Roshan Seth. It’s the best seagoing thriller of its kind.

KL Studio Classics
1974 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date June 13, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, David Hemmings, Anthony Hopkins, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, Clifton James, Roy Kinnear, Caroline Mortimer, Mark Burns, John Stride, Freddie Jones, Julian Glover, Jack Watson, Roshan Seth, Ben Aris, Kenneth Cope, Simon MacCorkindale, Doris Nolan, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern.
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Production Designer: Terence Marsh
Art Director: Alan Tomkins
Costume design: Evangeline Harrison
Special Effects John Richardson
Film Editor: Antony Gibbs
Original Music: Ken Thorne
Written by Richard De Koker (Richard Alan Simmons) additional dialogue Alan Plater
Produced by Richard De Koker (Richard Alan Simmons)
Directed by
Richard Lester

Back around 1974 we remember opening a Daily Variety to see a glossy center advertisement for Juggernaut, featuring an extravagant painting of ship being attacked by frogmen, as if the movie were a sequel to the James Bond epic Thunderball. The cast wasn’t too stellar, although we liked Richard Harris in non-singing roles. We associated Richard Lester with comedy and music of the swingin’ London type: A Hard Day’s Night,  The Knack ….and how to Get It. Lately Lester had scored big with the two-part Three Musketeers adventure, in which the requisite action was given a heavy dose of slapstick.

The Variety ad made the movie look like a disaster film, and at the time we were fed up with disaster films … The Poseidon Adventure,  Earthquake, etc. We didn’t discover what a good movie Lester had made until it hit television years later. In no way a standard disaster opus, the suspenseful Juggernaut is given a marvelous low-key docudrama treatment. The stars contribute to an ensemble structure, with only a few actors’ showcase scenes. The top names are Richard Harris and Omar Sharif, but today’s audiences may be more interested in Anthony Hopkins and perhaps Ian Holm.


Juggernaut could have been a big picture for writer-producer Richard Alan Simmons, but he had his name removed from the credits. After coming on at the last minute to replace two directors who had bowed out, Richard Lester made changes that Simmons didn’t like. It’s possible that the film’s final Altman-esque feel, with character sketches rather then standard full characters, was partly Lester’s doing.

An extortion plot on a luxury liner has a drastic effect on a diverse group of characters. The Britannic sets sail from London and encounters a particulary rough passage. Its new gyroscopic compensators aren’t working, and few of the passengers feel fit enough to eat. Steamship line owner Nicholas Porter (Ian Holm) receives a threatening call: seven bombs are one board, timed to detonate unless a man identifying himself as ‘Juggernaut’ is paid $500,000 dollars. The bombs are in seven steel drums that were brought on board while other repairs were being done, and left in plain sight. The seas are so rough that putting the 1200 passengers into lifeboats is not an option. To prove his intent Juggernaut remote-triggers a dramatic explosion above decks.


The government dispatches a plane with Navy bomb expert Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris), his second-in-command Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings) and five more specialists, who skydive into the ocean and board the ship. Back in London, Scotland Yard Superintendent John McLeod (Anthony Hopkins) and his team seek Juggernaut by looking up suspects with bomb-making experience. McLeod must steel himself for the task — his own wife Susan (Caroline Mortimer) and his two children are on board the Britannic.

Ship’s Captain Alex Brunel (Omar Sharif) is dismayed when Porter chooses to stall paying Juggernaut’s ransom, as per the government’s request. An announcement is made on board. The passengers are frightened but handle themselves well. The officers downplay the threat, even if passenger Corrigan (Clifton James), an American mayor, sees through the calming lies. The ship’s ‘social director’ Curtain (Roy Kinnear) goes forward with cheerful games, parties and a dance, efforts that fail to lighten the mood. Also on board is Barbara Bannister (Shirley Knight), a married woman having an affair with Captain Brunel; she’s trying to cope with being completely ignored in the crisis.

Fallon’s team arrives, and the defusing work begins — a task made difficult because the ship continues to pitch wildly in the high seas. Fallon finds that the 7 steel drums are packed with booby traps, of a kind he remembers once defusing with his old partner-mentor Sidney Buckland (Freddie Jones). Fallon considers himself the best, but he may have met his match.


This isn’t the kind of thriller where people ‘outrun’ explosions.

The best bomb-defusing movie is still the Powell-Pressburger The Small Back Room, a marvelous nail-biter. Juggernaut rates very high, with its emphasis on dry realism. There are no absurd chases or last-minute shootouts, as became the norm after 1993’s Speed. No comic strip villains are in play. Everyone must deal with a potentially catastrophic bomb in addition to the pressures of their ordinary lives.

The screenwriters don’t characterize authority figures as cardboard villains. Ian Holm’s frugal executive is willing to pay the ransom, and berates a government diplomat for lecturing him about ‘not negotiating with terrorists.’ Detective MacLeod recuses himself from the argument because his own family is on the ship. The American mayor is played by Clifton James, a New York actor who had just become a household face with his broadly played Southern Sheriff J.W. Pepper in Live and Let Die. But like most everyone on the ship, the mayor turns out to be sane and reasonable.

Richard Lester applies a documentary style that shows us the running of the ship in myriad details. The realism is outstanding — the ‘Britannic’ is a real ocean liner rented to the production company just before being turned over to new owners. It was purposely sailed into rough seas around Iceland, where we see its decks pitching wildly – from cameras on board and many aerial angles as well. A large cast of extras was on board too — most everything we see is real. The movie feels even more authentic than Andrew Stone’s impressive The Last Voyage, filmed 14 years earlier on another real ocean liner. Richard Lester’s film uses no visual optical effects.


Richard Lester may have been the one to ‘democratize’ the film, handing more footage over to incidental characters. The principal actors still make strong impressions. Lester favorite Roy Kinnear has a plum role as the clown-like entertainer Curtain, taxed with boosting morale in the face of death. His most touching moment arrives when he and Shirley Knight’s abandoned Mrs. Bannister commit to a quiet dance, a gesture that by chance brings the dead party back to life. Kinnear shows real heart under fire: asked to find something Good to say about the threat to the ship, he chirps,

“Well, there aren’t any icebergs!”

Also given special emphasis is Roshan Seth’s Azad, a lowly waiter with excellent balance, carrying trays of food on the pitching decks while fielding questions from nervous passengers. We appreciate Azad’s position as an outsider — he puts on a ‘humble Indian’ act to simplify interactions with the passengers, yet to his fellow waiters speaks like a straight Cockney.

The script drops hints about relationships but avoids soap-opera details. We never hear the full story about the ‘other three men’ in Ms. Bannister’s life. We also don’t know the exact tensions in the MacLeod family — poor Susan must deal with seasickness as well as the stress of the bomb scare, but there may be unspoken reasons for her trip to see a sister in New York. We disagree with critics that didn’t believe Susan’s mischievous son David (Adam Bridge) would have the run of the ship — it seems very credible that he might accidentally could interfere with the defusing mission.

Juggernaut can boast one truly unique sequence. The skydiving bomb team parachutes into the freezing high waves, and to board the Britannic must snag ladders dropped over her side. The fascinating event is at least partly real. How any of them successfully make it aboard is a miracle. Gerry Fisher must have had multiple cameras on every scene, all gathering great footage. If the actors are really climbing up a mock-up of the side of a ship, the matching for weather and light is remarkable.


The other tension-grabber scenes deal with the diabolical bombs. Richard Harris’s Fallon takes the lead, unscrewing a fastener. When it doesn’t set off his bomb, he radios the go-ahead for David Hemmings’ Braddock to unscrew the corresponding fastener on his steel drum. It’s slow and unnerving. The dialogue seems inconsistent — Fallon says to unscrew clockwise when all the screws come out normally, counter-clockwise. Only after several viewings have we decided that we were misreading the scene — Fallon is saying to unscrew the six screws in clockwise sequence.

However, a little later Fallon radios London about a relay in ‘the upper right quadrant,’ and Julian Gover’s bomb expert marks a chalk schematic with a relay definitely on the Upper Left. It doesn’t really matter. By the time Fallon must decide whether to cut a blue wire or a red wire, we’re as confused as he is.

The creative Richard Lester was likely resented for taking over their films after production disputes. He took Richard Donner’s place to finish Superman II and proceeded to reshape the movie with extra slapstick comedy. For Juggernaut it looks as if Lester wanted to perk things up in the first two reels or so. He adds at least twenty ‘wild line’ asides and funny remarks, presumably from dockworkers, ship refitters, etc.. Some are accented throwaways that we understand only because they show up in the subtitles.

We don’t know if director Lester came onto the show with some prep time, or if he had to start improvising as soon as he arrived. The presence of Roy Kinnear suggests that he may have shuffled the casting about. There are indeed highly recognizable actors in very short roles. Were the scenes with Michael Hordern and Cyril Cusack cut down, or were they planned as tiny cameos?  We also expect more than just a glimpse of Jack Watson and Julian Glover. Lester uses Ben Aris’s ‘The Walker’ as a ‘Where’s Waldo’- type Red Herring: each time the camera gives him special attention, we wonder if The Walker will be revealed to be Juggernaut.

“Haven’t I told you about death? It’s nature’s way of saying you’re in the wrong job.”

But the main characters are also mostly sketches. Star Richard Harris delivers a couple of strong character scenes, getting drunk and indulging a detached morbid humor. It appears to be Fallon’s coping mechanism, to continue defusing bombs. But he’s the only one who gets to stand his ground and orate. If director Lester added writer Alan Plater to provide lighter banter dialogue, he may have been the source for Fallon’s constant quips. Everybody else is given colorful characterizations, yet we ‘know’ them only through a few giveaway remarks, like Mrs. Bannister’s mention of other lovers. David Hemmings’ bomb man is clearly devoted to Fallon. Big executive Ian Holm (a long way before Bilbo) has an office across from the Houses of Parliament, but he also personally dotes on his young children. Anthony Hopkins had been in films for 15 years and got some attention in The Lion in Winter, but I’m wondering exactly when he ‘broke through’ — there were so many good performances before Silence of the Lambs.


Of special note are the bomb suspect interviewees. Cyril Cusack’s political prisoner cuts off MacLeod’s appeal right away — he no longer cares who lives or dies, and won’t even chit-chat to receive a proffered pack of cigarettes. The always-interesting Freddie Jones would later play a key role opposite Anthony Hopkins in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. A dedicated bomb defuser like Fallon, Jones’ Sidney Buckland resents the fact that the only way he could make a living later on, was to help the government make bombs. Buckland looks morally defeated — he risked his life out of principle, only to become part of ‘the killing business.’

Viewers hungry to see something real should be impressed with Juggernaut. The actors and extras trying to keep their footing on the tilting deck are real — it looks terribly easy for someone to slip and be pitched overboard. The overall feeling of reality ends up being more exciting than hyped action scenes might have been. Juggernaut is terse and pared-down, but its every minute is quality thriller content.



The new Blu-ray of Juggernaut is another KL Studio Classics repeat-upgrade of a previous release. The encoding may be more precise even if the same source master was used; I don’t remember the show looking this clean or smooth. We’re impressed by cameraman Gerry Fisher’s approach — the realism comes with the many images taken in bad weather, in heavy overcast. Deck scenes look cold and windy, and the sequence with the frogmen in the choppy water is almost intimidating — swimming in that sea looks impossible. The obvious reality on view convinces us that launching lifeboats would have to be a last resort.

Editor Antony Gibbs is occasionally caught cutting to optical blow-ups to shorten scenes to their essentials, but the quality of the blow-ups is excellent. The audio track sounds better than before, but we’re still grateful for the removable subtitles — the majority of Lester’s throwaway wild lines wouldn’t be understood any other way.

Frankly, the cruel ‘cold equation’ of Juggernaut’s extortion keeps us from thinking about narrative loose ends. ‘How many confederates helped Juggernaut get those drums on board?  Will they be caught?’  The show doesn’t hang around for extended wrap-up formalities. People presumably move on to the next crisis in their lives, hopefully not as critical as a terror bomb. Was that a good commercial strategy?  Perhaps early word-of-mouth would have been more positive if the director added a sentimental moment or two, but the chosen finale is consistent with the film’s overall style.

Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson have become Kino’s go-to resource for a wide range of film commentaries. They keep the banter light and conversational, but also offer considerable insider background on the production. The advertising trailer and TV spot hit on the stars and the danger, but fail to make Juggernaut come off as the Newest Movie We Have To See. I think the ‘giant action’ poster made the show look too juvenile, too generic — perhaps what was needed was an arresting, abstract approach, a claim to Adult suspense thrills ‘like we’ve never seen before.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio commentary by Steve Mitchell & Nathaniel Thompson
TV Spot, Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
July 4, 2023

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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