We bombed in mid-ocean

by Gerald Peary

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, p. 5
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Among the brilliant minds encountered by Poe’s prototype detective, Auguste Dupin, was an eight-year old schoolboy, whose uncanny skill at ascertaining whether an opponent held concealed an odd or even number of marbles won him both “universal admiration” and all the marbles of the school.

As Dupin explained at solemn length in The Purloined Letter, this enterprising lad was more than “lucky.” He was the perfect master of the most elementary principle of deduction: empathetic reasoning, thrusting oneself into the mind of the opponent. By shrewdly approximating the mental strategies of his adversary, the boy would, more often than not, “guess” correctly, tilting the 50-50 random predicting of odd or even to his own mathematical advantage.

At the tense conclusion of JUGGERNAUT, a similar puzzle confronts Richard Lester’s sleuthlike bomb disposal expert, Fallon (Richard Harris), but on a grand and potentially apocalyptic scale. Which wire to cut, red or blue? One wire split will deactivate the system of interlocking bombs placed in the hold of The Britannic, the threatened oceanic liner. Yet the wrong wire severed could trigger an explosion sending Fallon to his Maker (a Deistic clockmaker, no doubt) and a thousandfold passengers and crew to the bottom of the sea.

What will Fallon do? He began this venture as cool, crisp, and possessed as any polite English detective, puffing his Holmes pipe and undoing the bomb with the deft expertise of a safecracker on the guards’ night off. As much as anyone aboard The Britannic, on which the Anglican uppercrust sail the Great White Way, Fallon himself is meant to recall The Titanic on its smug maiden journey—before disaster, the iceberg, the juggernaut, struck potently in the night.

For Fallon also, the night turns crazy. His own Watson, partner Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings), is blown to bits and pieces on the job, an irrational and unjust end to a beautiful male friendship. And his own Dr. Moriarty, alias Juggernaut, the Mad Bomber, looms victorious. For a time, Fallon is shattered—but also miraculously humanized and transformed.

Reeking of alcohol, recklessly spewing cigarette smoke into the belly of the bomb, Fallon faces the deadly machine with new determination. Red wire or blue? As Poe’s schoolboy, Fallon holds a thin-dime psychological advantage over the apparent arbitrariness of the situation. He knows the Mad Bomber, this Juggernaut, who built the lethal contraption—they were once comrades, now estranged. Also he possesses a precious clue to unravel: Juggernaut’s message, “Cut the blue wire! The blue wire!”

Fallon’s ultimate decision propels a dandy, totally satisfying conclusion to JUGGERNAUT, Richard Lester’s crack detective story wrapped in the strange commercial guise of yet another “disaster” picture. Lester abides by the post POSEIDON formula of packing a ship with problem-laden sinking stars and starlets (like EARTHQUAKE, or GRAND HOTEL UNDER LAVA), but his sharp narrative tale comes first. Though JUGGERNAUT’s nominal lead, Omar Sharif, walks The Britannic deck, posing uncomfortably as the Captain, Lester keeps his camera am much as possible down in the hold, where man meets bomb. In fact, Lester could brag that “I shot the Sharif” hardly at all.

If Lester can be forgiven for slighting Captain Omar (who seems too weirdly preoccupied by Lawrence of Arabia, or Lara of Russia, or some other ghostly presence to be useful), he should be criticized soundly for keeping his woman characters roped off from the action. Barbara Banister (Shirley Knight) lives up to her other woman soapopera name by spending the whole movie in lukewarm heat, prowling after the Captain’s body and soul. Susan McLeod (Caroline Mortimer) passes her time frowning, and with an eternal headache. Neither woman seems to care if The Britannic sinks or swims, they are so irrelevant to the central crisis. Richard Lester should have known better. Even Shelley Winters, heroically puffing underwater in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, is more progressive.

Thematically, JUGGERNAUT continues the paranoid position papers of its Philadelphia ex-psych-in-exile director, a further investigation by Richard Lester into the omnipresent lunacy of the world. As he has done so often before, he utilizes the universal symbol of sanity, the solidly pedigreed British citizen, as whipping boy to demonstrate that every model of human propriety hides (ineffectually) an obsessed, destructive loony underneath.

What better behaviorist catalyst for this revelation of character than a well-placed bomb? In JUGGERNAUT, the explosives are stifled, Pandora’s Box is closed, before more than a touch of craziness escapes. Yet peer quickly and discover the Juggernaut, the mad Jack-in-the-Box, is not only Fallon'a dark alter ego, but you.

More directly pointed was the hardly seen, unpopular THE BED SITTING ROOM. Richard Lester’s complete Story of Man. There, no miracle disposal team interfered to repress the Truth. The big bomb erupted, the Hydrogen Bomb, and a bunch of banana brains—jumping, running, and standing still—emerged to inherit the earth.