The Cassandra Crossing!!!

A plague-infected train is hurtling toward... a shitty model!
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1976
Director: 
George Pan Cosmatos
Starring: 
Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen, OJ Simpson, Lee Strasberg, Burt Lancaster
The Setup: 
Bio-outbreak on a train hurtling toward a rickety old bridge.
Discussion: 

A reader who has made a few recommendations so far—and been dead right on every one of them—couldn’t believe I’d never seen a film produced by Sir Lew Grade, who I had to admit I had never heard of, but is apparently known for a certain brand of over-the-top schlock. Well, that has now been rectified with this, which is both a bioterror film and disaster film with a soupcon of blaxploitation thrown in for flavor.

Let’s begin with our requisite all-star cast: Sophia Loren! Richard Harris! Martin Sheen! Burt Lancaster! John Philip Law! Ava Gardner! Lee Strasberg! And of course: OJ Simpson. And it’s directed by someone named George Pan Cosmatos. So it’s Italian in origin, and you know what that means. We find all of this out during a long, languid helicopter ride over Geneva, finally coming in to focus on the building of this international health organization.

These orderlies are wheeling a patient in when they whip out machine guns and start blasting! Why, I don’t think they were really orderlies at all. They break into a top-secret biolab—the Italian sensibility making this all heightened and very exciting—and there’s a shootout. One of the stray bullets hits some nasty-looking yellow fluid, which spews out all over the invaders. One of them is caught, but the other escapes and gets on this train. A train ultimately headed for… THE CASSANDRA CROSSING [you have to hear every instance of this in a low-pitched, overly urgent voice. Thank you].

So now we start to meet our arriving passengers. Ava Gardner is Mrs. Dressler, bitter wife of a billionaire, who arrives in the company of her boy toy, Martin Sheen as Robby Navarro, who wears the flouncy clothes of a dandy and has longish hair he must constantly keep out of his eyes. Lee Strasberg is Herman Kaplan, Jewish old man who is all up in everyone’s business and travels with a suitcase from which he is attempting to sell watches and trinkets. There’s also a whole cavalcade of peace-lovin’ hippies, who are no sooner abroad when they’re gathered in a small compartment and singing a folksong, “I’m On My Way,” which I think may have been this film’s attempt at a hit in the “Morning After” vein, as we do hear pretty much the entire thing. Then there’s Richard Harris is high-level biologist doctor Jonathan Chamberlin, and well, what a happy coincidence to just happen to have a high-level biologist on hand! Also present is Sophia Loren as Jennifer something, who has had several rich husbands, and has written a thinly-disguised novel about each of them. Turns out Jonathan was married to Jennifer twice before, and her new book, which she brandishes quite sadistically, is all about Jonathan. And then there’s OJ Simpson as a priest[!?], who takes a compartment with an annoying young girl, who I’m quite sure is the same little girl from the giallo Trauma.

Geneva health headquarters is taken over by military man Burt Lancaster as MacKenzie, who lets the concerned blonde doctor, Stradner, know that the United States has been developing a deadly biotoxin in their lab in Geneva. This biotoxin is to be used as a weapon—after all, weapons are pretty much all the United States ever wants to develop, right? It’s not lost on Stradner that the US is developing it in Geneva because it considers Europeans to be fairly expendable.

Meanwhile, the infected guy is seen bonding with Dressler’s dog, then interacting with lots of children, and finally snotting all around the big bowl of rice that’s about to be served to all the passengers. Meanwhile we have two sadistic older women in fucked-up intimate relationships—it IS an Italian movie, after all. Jennifer taunts Jonathan about her book, forcing him to read it, which he does, then speaks contemptuously to her, then kisses her. I don’t get it. Meanwhile Mrs. Dressler is all castration, all the time, with poor Robby. By the way, pretty much every shot of Martin Sheen as Robby is cause for laff party, and he’s only getting better. Meanwhile, MacKenzie freaks about the high-level passenger list—Dressler is the wife of a billionaire, recall, and Jonathan is a well-known doctor—but knows that they have no way to contain everyone on the train, should they stop it. So they decide to divert it toward Poland via—THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. Stradner continues to make morally superior, rueful faces.

They contact Jonathan on the train and let him in on what’s happening—it’s kind of a good scene, because here he just wanted to take a trip and now he’s the only doctor for all these people and, by the way, is also more than likely to die himself. He and Jenny run through the cars trying to find the infected guy, which is a little funny at times, because Jenny will whip open the doors to people’s private compartments, stare at them imperiously, then just walk off without a word. Anyway, they find the infected guy. This leads to a big action scene where this helicopter lowers a basket and they try to load the infected guy into it, while he tries to fight them off. They do manage to get the dog, before they have to pull way up to barely avoid hitting a mountainside when the train goes into a tunnel [making me wonder if this somehow inspired the climax of De Palma’s Mission: Impossible]. Unfortunately the helicopter doesn’t crash, much as I hoped it would, and the pilots are seen flying off with the sniffly pooch—who is infected with BUBONIC PLAGUE, DUDE—snoozing on his lap. I don’t see why they couldn’t just dump Mr. Infecto off the train in the remote area and let the chopper pick him up later, but they didn’t listen to me.

Anyway, now MacKenzie gets on the public address system and tells the people on the train that there is a bomb threat, and that they’re being diverted to Poland via… TCC! He has a nice little line of indirection when he says “I assure you that there is no danger of anything happening to the train itself.” Oh whew—it’s okay if I die, I just wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to this nice train! It’s also a good way of saying something that sounds like there’s no danger, while actually not saying that at all. As a copywriter, I appreciate these things. Anyway, now a ton of passengers demand to get off the train, throwing several “Do you KNOW who I am?” scenes, including Robby, who thinks a little bribe might just do the trick.

SPOILERS > > >
Now Jenny—I was surprised to find that Loren is playing a real character here, not just making an extended cameo—apologizes for her book. Then Harris said that there’s a lot of truth in it and he has to face that, and then—looks like a third marriage is in the works! If their organs don’t liquefy first, that is. They then decide to go back to smoking, which I thought was a cute touch. Now the passengers are starting to get sick, including the hippie folksinger and the obnoxious little girl. Then Herman Kaplan has a fit that he can’t go back to Poland—the idea being that he was in a concentration camp there—and what’s more, the bridge of the title, which, as you may or may not know, is called THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, is a rickety old thing that was barely standing the last time he went over it, 30 years ago. In here there’s a funny moment where some lady walks in out of the blue, grabs her baby, who somehow ended up in Jenny’s hands, and blurts “Please! I must feed my baby!” By the way, every now and then OJ is seen, making you start to wonder… is he ever going to DO anything?

Okay, now something happens that’s actually handled quite well. They coast into a town, where a biohazard team is waiting. This is announced quite atmospherically by bright lights suddenly shining in from the outside. When everyone looks out, they see a line of guys in white suits holding machine guns. We have seen MacKenzie instruct the guy in charge that anyone who tries to get off the train must be “shot and killed.” They bolt louvers to the outside of the windows, trapping everyone inside, and collect all of the lighters and smoking materials. I can’t see any reason for that, except to supply a reason for a specific plot point that happens later. Anyway, Kaplan freaks that it all looks like a concentration camp—if you feel this whole angle is a little distasteful now, wait til we get to the end—and tries to escape, getting shot in the arm. Jonathan finally subdues and drugs him. The victims are loaded into big plastic capsules and carried off, and the train is sent once more on its way toward…

So Kaplan has told Jonathan and Jenny that the CASSANDRA CROSSING [sorry] is not exactly safe. Around this time we start getting views of the bridge, and it does indeed look pretty rickety! At about the 1 hour 20 minute mark, Sophia gets a good emotional breakdown scene. Accompanied by a big swell in music. Now, MacKenzie has been apprised that the bridge is a deathtrap—everyone who lived under it moved away—but he lies and tells Jonathan that it has been completely computer tested and is safe. At least Jonathan realizes he’s totally full of bullshit.

Then—SUDDEN BLAXPLOITATION! OJ turns out to be an undercover narcotics cop! I was wondering if he was ever going to do something here, but—really, is NOW the time to spring your secret operation? His target? Robby, Dressler’s kept boy! And it turns out Robby has some moves, and knocks OJ out and heads to the back of the train, machine gun on Dressler’s head! He wants them to stop the train and shouts “I’ll blow her head off!” if they don’t. You see, he’s freaking out because he’s withdrawing from heroin. I love the whole concept that he thinks if they stop the train in the mountainous wastelands of rural Poland, he’ll be able to score some horse! This gives Jonathan the opportunity to stand up to him and say “Do it! Shoot us all!” and reverse-psychology Robbie’s trippin’ ass until he gets the gun. Whew! Oh, but not before Robby just happened to shoot out the radio, leaving them out of contact with MacKenzie!

But wait—those sniffles [and minor coma] have cleared up, and now everyone’s feeling FINE! They’re just as spry as spring chickens, including the dog back at the lab, leading Stradner to double-up on her morally-shaming tone and dour faces to MacKenzie, who seems too tied to the rule book and won’t risk stopping the train, even though he might be sending a bunch of perfectly fine people to their tragic deaths at… But now [THE CASSANDRA CROSSING! …couldn’t resist] Jonathan is fighting BACK, and he enlists Robby, who, sure, may be in the throes of heroin withdrawal, but for that very reason has a lot of motivation to escape. Dressler tells him he doesn’t have to do it for her, and receives a big-time Dynasty moment when Robby tells her “It was never about YOU,” because he’s been using his status as her paid boy toy as a front for his drug smuggling! That’s a slap in the sagging face. Robby’s going to climb along the roof of the train [again, Mission: Impossible style], but freezes. He comes back in and says that they have agents on the top of the train—but we never see them, and in exterior shots we can’t see anyone visible, leading me to believe that he’s just covering up for his cowardice. Then Jonathan has an idea. He’s going to blow up the propane tanks under the kitchen car and separate the train. This solution is a bit harsh as it means that everyone in the front section will be sent to their doom at… but is surprisingly brutal as Jonathan is like “Well, yeah, but WE’LL live.” I appreciate that kind of honesty.

Now the movie starts GOING FOR IT, as Robby tries to slink along the outside of the train on the slats the guards installed [get ready for some BAD blue screen work] while Jonathan and company have a MACHINE GUN SHOOTOUT with the biohazard guards! Robby eventually gets machine gunned, and we see his corpse strewn on the rocks. Guess that plan isn’t gonna work. So Harris has filled the kitchen with gas and—well, remember how the guards confiscated all the matches and lighters for no reason? No reason except to provide tension at THIS plot point?

Meanwhile we have been seeing shots of the Cassandra Crossing, and note that, despite all the talk of how everyone living below moved away, what’s actually there is a river with extremely narrow banks where there is no space for anyone TO live. Now comes the really distasteful ending with Kaplan, who, you’ll recall, has been enduring some kind of personal hell as every little thing seems like his personal return to the concentration camps. Well, this shoots into the red zone and beyond as he walks into the kitchen, where the flammable gasses have been released, and steps resignedly into his own personal GAS CHAMBER!!! Personally I found this whole angle really quite ugly. It’s one of those things that is maybe supposed to be sympathetic, but just comes off as in hideous taste—especially as he’s just been a Jewish stereotype up until this point, what with his clinging to his jewelry and trinkets that he’ll let go at a very shrewd price. Ugh. Anyway, he sets off the explosion [because of course he couldn’t bear to part with his gold lighter], and Jonathan is able to separate the back section of the train from the front.

Now comes a huge letdown as it turns out this whole time that the train has actually been hurtling toward—A SHITTY MODEL! The front section goes over and the bridge immediately breaks [I want to see plates falling and rivets popping first] and all of a sudden you’re just watching this model train set come crashing down from a height of four feet. All this build-up to THAT? You’ll also notice that the surrounding countryside of the model in no way matches the surrounding countryside of the bridge we’ve been seeing up until now. What a gyp. But I must say the rest of the shots make up for it by going gonzo with bodies flying around the cars and compartments crushed, etc.

Then MacKenzie received further harsh moral rebuke from Stradner, whom he then essentially begs to keep silent about this whole mess. She’s obviously headed straight for the Geneva Enquirer, however. Then we see a ton of people get off the saved part of the train, so I guess Jonathan DID save a large portion of the passengers, much as I liked his “Fuck all them” ethic. Then everyone [that survived] is happy and it’s over. Talk about “history is written by the winners.”
< < < SPOILERS END

It was good fun—a little Jewspoitation notwithstanding—and you know, if you’re going to have an inherently ridiculous disaster movie, why not have one that GOES FOR IT? This one has the all-star cast and the blending of genres and hallway machine-gun shootouts, but the best thing about it is bringing the amped-up, hyper-emotional and atmospheric Italian sensibility to the disaster film. This makes things like the original lab break-in quite exciting, and offers nice effects like the chilling moment when the train windows suddenly light up from the floodlights outside. It was quite fun and not too bad, quality-wise… for a disaster movie, that is. It’s ain’t Sophie’s Choice. But if you like disaster movies and have gone though the more mainstream official canon, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING awaits!

Should you watch it: 

You betcha, it’s way good fun.