Monday, May 16, 2011

"The Cassandra Crossing" Review: No Xing

"The Cassandra Crossing" is a 1976 disaster movie that's hard to enjoy and easy to laugh at, for a variety of reasons. The story: many people board a train for what sounds like a fun little trip from Geneva to Stockholm. The passengers, however, don't know that there is a terrorist onboard (as it is now, terrorism was "in" back then).

This terrorist isn't deadly because he's going to blow up the train. He's deadly because he just ran a raid on, basically, the World Health Organization and got infected with a lethal disease there. Now, his getaway plan risks the lives of all the passengers, many of whom live surprisingly soap-opera lives.

As with many disaster pictures, a sweet ensemble cast was gathered: Richard Harris is the lead who's paired with Sophia Lauren. Ava Gardner is in a relationship with a sleazy Martin Sheen. They don't save the experience, but they try. OJ Simpson, Burt Lancaster, and Lee freaking Strasberg are in the periphery of all the "action" here.

The movie, British-made, just lacks sense and logic. Once everyone is aware of the health problem, the American military takes control of the whole situation. Am I really supposed to believe that a terrorist situation/plague crisis aboard a train from Switzerland to Sweden is going to be handled by Burt Lancaster?! No, no, no.

It doesn't help that the supporting plots are far from gripping. Ava Gardner is lovely, but she's having a very dull affair with her traveling partner, Sheen. Martin's secret is that he's a heroin runner & user. None of these facts pull us in to their story. Also, I don't know about any big Geneva-Stockholm heroin connection, so it's weird to see that subplot in this film at all.

And Sheen actually seems to be acting terribly, especially in scenes that suggest he's in withdrawal. I think it's just that heroin (and other drug) problems have been done so many times by 2011 (or even 1998). I really think any viewer would expect more than Martin conveys. It felt like the ACTING! school version of H withdrawal.

Believe, all of this is made funnier and weirder by the fact that Sheen is being watched. He's under the keen eye of OJ Simpson, playing an FBI agent who disguised himself as a priest for this surveillance detail. Because 6'1" well-built American, black, Catholic priests blend so nicely on trains going from Central Europe to Scandinavia. I'm laughing so hard I can barely type this paragraph.

The movie did make some efforts at being "different." The train is re-routed for quarantine purposes. Re-routed, to Nuremburg. There, the train has special seals placed on the windows and exits. Medical personnel - from the US Army again, for some insane reason - come in to examine and treat people; yet they're mostly interested in determining the status, not helping people. They're also accompanied by armed guards.

Oh heaven, you see where this is going from a mile away. I think even if you missed every scene with Lee Strasberg in it, you'd know that someone aboard this train would be a concentration camp survivor. You'd know that person would flip out, probably causing an accident that makes everything worse.

Then, of course, comes the real icing on the cake: Richard Harris, our lead, has been on top of the situation all along, and realizes that this plague is neither very deadly nor contagious.

I, too, would've held 1970's Sophia Loren that way.
Lancaster wants the train sent to an isolated spot in Poland. Because US Colonels have unlimited power to direct trains in Europe. Yet the final bridge the train will cross has been out of service since 1948, and there's a good chance it will collapse when they use it.

So here we come to it - for fear of the world find out that the US is keeping germ warfare materials in a country like Switzerland, a train full of people will be sent to their probable bridge-collapse death. It's really one of the dumbest things I've ever heard.

Massive train accidents draw a lot of attention and investigation, so that's not really helping. Trains tend to cause impact injuries, not full-on explosions - so there may be plenty of bodies that have signs of the illness that the government wants to keep under wraps.

And, as the train draws nearer to Eastern Europe and Asia, there's a growing problem of all those... What were they called? Soviet Bloc countries? This would suggest that US Military involvement would be the last help requested by Sweden or Switzerland, or whatever European company owned the train.

Finally, killing off hundreds of citizens from all over the world sounds like the worst cover story ever. If it's discovered, you're in 3x as much trouble as if the biological warfare stuff came out. Good heaven, the bad guys in Rambo III had more credibility and depth.

Throughout the long 129 minutes of "The Cassandra Crossing," you have few moments of levity or emotion. There are very few characters to be interested in. Many passengers do freakishly stupid things that make you feel antagonistic toward them. And - if the train does crash, then it doesn't exactly wow you with its special effects.

Harris and Lauren are exceptions to all this, of course, but they can't save the experience.  Certainly not with Martin Sheen making me want to fast-forward nearly every moment he's up.


  1. Sounds hilarious, but not in a good way...
    It's got an awesome cast though, I might of watched it just for that if I hadn't already read this review!
    Shame to hear Sheen was bad though, he's usually pretty great although I suppose he's done his fair share of terrible films.

    Awesome review Thaddeus!

  2. Thanks so much, Jack! It's possible other people might like it, but I'd really want to hear why... Sheen's work is usually quite fine, so it's easy to give him a pass for this role...


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