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You have all been exposed to a highly contagious communicable disease.


The Cassandra Crossing


As an impressionable child, this was the most alarming movie in the world (well the most alarming I’d been privy to, at any rate). Albeit, revisiting it, I realise I must have only seen the first 40 minutes or so. I certainly don’t recall The Cassandra Crossing reaching the point where the oblivious, plague-ridden terrorist expires (having become a bit sweaty and blotchy: all very low-key). Which means, as an impressionable child, I was spared the increasingly absurd plot and character developments of George Pan Cosmatos’ parody-level disaster movie. One thing you can say for it in terms of plausibility, however; it’s largely fear of a virus that kills, rather than any nominal virus itself.

Chamberlain: In the meantime, what do you intend I fight it with? Aspirin?

As “fear the virus” texts go, The Cassandra Crossing would have Pasteur turning in his grave. This lab-grown strain of pneumonic plague doesn’t even need one of those new-fangled vaccines to stave off its ill effects; fortuitously, all but a few sick or elderly make a full recovery thanks to the miracle effects of the pure oxygen pumped into the train. Why, even the beloved, stricken Bassett hound shipped off for study is given a clean bill of health! Let’s face it, this was the movie’s trump card, upon which success or failure hinged. Kill the dog, and you kill any possible engagement the audience has with the picture. The correct decision – one of the few, but a crucial one – was made (doggie also really, really appreciates Martin Sheen attempting to force feed him water).

Mackenzie: If some half-assed terrorist group hadn’t tried to blow up this building in the name of peace, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

The premise, of terrorists breaking into a lab and unleashing merry hell, would be tapped much more successfully by Danny Boyle two-and-a-half decades later with 28 Days Later. Perhaps mindful that the WHO is unlikely – or not so foolish – to have biolabs at its HQ, it’s renamed the International Health Organisation here. Which, it seems, also admits common-or-garden patients! It’s just like a proper hospital (or health organisation doing what is says on the tin probably should be)! They botch their op, stumbling into a lab full of rats and explosive chemical tanks, but one of them escapes out the window and onto the nearest train (en route from Geneva to Stockholm).  Colonel Mackenzie (Burt Lancaster) is immediately on the case, protecting US interests (it’s their lab) and looking to quarantine the passengers but none too concerned should they all perish when traversing the titular-and-disused-for-almost-three-decades bridge (Kasundruv Bridge, designed by Eiffel).

This is also a conspiracy movie, then. Or a conspiracy within a conspiracy. The US government is conspiring to create deadly pathogens on neutral soil, but simultaneously, the movie is doing its bit in suggesting the transmittable virus is a thing (one Bechamp would be champing at the bit to dispute, were he not also in his grave), and woe betide us if the full power of an adversarial – or even a benign – nation gets behind a programme developing the same. There’s actually some scope here for a decent movie within the already tired-out ’70s disaster framework, but the plotting and execution are bargain bin.

Tom Mankiewicz, he of various Bonds and Supermans, has his name on the picture, as do Robert Katz and Cosmatos, so you can pick and choose whom to hold accountable. The director is the easiest target, as the project’s originator, particularly since his direction is often borderline risible. The Cassandra Crossing is as tatty as Lew Grade’s largely ill-advised excursions into movies tended to look, although, in contrast to most, it was a hit (depending on reports, his ITC stumped up at least half the budget).

Chamberlain: What sweaty pervert?

Indeed, while Airplane! is ostensibly lifting its plot from aeronautical disaster movies, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Zuckers prepped their picture after viewing this. Had they, however, they’d probably have given up and gone home, since the parody’s pre-packaged, front-and-centre. There are some hippies singing a song (Richard Harris’ wife Ann Turkel is one. She’s slightly mannish looking, but this is the Trans-Continental Express) as the train prepares to depart, and Lionel Stander’s conductor Max looks in on them benignly. The diseased terrorist (Lou Castel’s Eklund) staggers around the train in sinister knitwear, making a point of pawing any cute kids or mewling babies he comes into contact with on his way to the kitchen – Don’t eat the rice! – while hiding out in as many compartments as he can. He wants to put his mucky mitts on everyone! 

Harris is brilliant neurosurgeon Jonathan Chamberlain, who has “developed a process where defective brain cells can be rejuvenated in retarded children” (nice!) His ex Jennifer Rispoli (Sophia Loren) is a successful author plundering hubby for the bizarrely titled Brain Sell or Dr. Jekyll where are you now that we need you? Ava Gardner has come aboard with toy-boy Martin Sheen and his super coiffeur. Sheen’s all sweaty, but it’s okay; it’s only because he’s a junkie in withdrawal! 

Which is more unlikely, OJ working for Interpol – he’s after Charlie and his junk, and I don’t mean the Basset hound’s – or posing as a pastor? Never mind, he’d graduate to astronaut the following year. Acting teacher extraordinaire Lee Strasberg, fresh from Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II, plays the de-rigueur holocaust survivor – “So that’s what they call it now”, he offers, on being told they are heading for an isolation camp – sent into a scalpel-wielding fervour as he approaches Poland and lighting a noble-and-sacrificial match at the end. Strasberg rather unwisely cuddles moppets after coming into close contact with a plague carrier, but then, Chamberlain appears to have no knowledge of contagion. Or at least, he doesn’t warn anyone about it. Or perhaps he subscribes to the aforementioned Bechamp’s theories when he isn’t operating on “retards”.

Mackenzie: Good God woman! Do you think I would personally send a thousand people to their deaths?
Stradner: No. but I think you’d simply let them be killed. That’s almost worse.

Best – or worst – of all is that the movie shamelessly ditches the deadly virus plotline for an armed insurrection in the final act. Guards with orders to shoot to kill are aboard the train, refusing to stop it even when told of the danger of the bridge, and some brave passengers, led by the life-preserving surgeon – Kill! Kill! – are determined to overcome them. Wholesale slaughter ensues! And that’s before the rear carriages – occupied by the now-recovered plague sufferers – are uncoupled and the front ones plunge to pitiful-model-shots doom (along with lots of gratuitous shots of screaming and blood and impalements). Tom Cruise wouldn’t have stood a chance!

Stradner: You’re only an obedient link in the chain of command.

Curiously, the movie concludes on a disquieted MacKenzie leaving IHO while his junior, Major Stack (John Phillip Law), is ordered to place him and resident doctor Elena Stradner (Ingrid Thulin) under surveillance. What happens when all the survivors blow the lid off the plague carrier and attempts to do for them is left moot. Unless the order has already gone out to dispose of them. Or unless, per the novel, they’re then quarantined and brainwashed into forgetting the fate of the train.

Make no mistake, The Cassandra Crossing stinks. It does have a good poster though. For some reason, IMDB had it titled as the entirely erroneous Planet Horrors earlier this year (eh?); it’s since been amended. The assembly of past-their-prime and B-stars is much as you’d expect of the genre at the time. Harris is reliable, but he was starring in reliably terrible movies that made Michael Caine’s choice look good by comparison for much of that decade. Everyone here is at least upfront about it being a cash grab. The Cassandra Crossing occasionally rises to the level of so bad its good, but at over two hours in length, too often it is simply tedious.

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