Showing posts with label David Hemmings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Hemmings. Show all posts

28 September 2016

JUGGERNAUT - the Physical Effect


David Edgerley Gates


I think it was the screenwriter William Goldman who said people love seeing how things are done. He meant in particular, how to pull off some dangerous and possibly illegal maneuver. The classic example is RIFIFI, the heist sequence - 30 minutes without dialogue.

JUGGERNAUT is about defusing a set of booby-trapped bombs aboard a cruise ship at sea, and it manages to ratchet the tension up nicely, thank you. Released in 1974, and directed by Richard Lester, the picture headlined Richard Harris and Omar Sharif. It was shot on board an actual ship, in the North Sea, and in bad weather. They used FX for explosions and stuff, but this is before CGI, so the pyrotechnics are happening during the shoot, not after the fact. The first big set piece is the bomb disposal crew, Brit Special Services, parachuting out of an orbiting C-130 Hercules into the open ocean and scrambling up the side of the ship on rope ladders. They lose a guy in the drink. Then our sodden heroes go belowdecks, to try and figure out how not to blow themselves out of the water.

One of the main reasons I like this movie so much is that I tried to do something similar in a story called "Cover of Darkness," which was likewise about saddling up for a dangerous job, but more to the point, the story was about the nuts and bolts. It was carried by physical action, not dialogue, and it was very hard to pull off. A lot of it took place underwater, in scuba gear, so there wasn't any talking. This is the kind of thing movies can do really well, but it's nowhere near as easy to do in narrative prose. You're using the equivalent of movie vocabulary, without anything to break up those long descriptive paragraphs. Somebody hits their thumb with a hammer, you don't even get to hear them curse about it. Trust me, this is work. Rolling the stone away from the door.



Those physical details in JUGGERNAUT, though, are seamless. Close watertight doors. Check. The gears engage, the tumblers lock. Go to infrared. Check. The visible light spectrum shuts down. Isolate the power source. Check. Richard Harris threads an alligator clip carefully past a trembling switch and shorts out the electrical contacts. His team listens in on headsets, and follows the route he maps out, step by step. There are half a dozen devices to disarm, and Harris is breaking trail for the others. If he puts a foot wrong, it's his last mistake.

Now, you had me at cut the red wire. I'm a sucker for all the generic tropes of demolition stories, going back to THE WAGES OF FEAR. But for reasons I don't understand, this picture was a dud at the box office. Maybe it was too cerebral, the suspense generated by things not going off, when any minute they could. And it seems so economical, no wasted motion, no down time, all meat and potatoes.

Then, besides, Richard Harris and Omar Sharif, you've got Anthony Hopkins and David Hemmings, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, cameos by Freddie Jones and Roshan Seth and Jack Watson, Cyril Cusack and Michael Hordern. And to top it off, two enormously affecting performances by Roy Kinnear and Clifton James, who all too often play caricature. It baffles me, I kid you not. Richard Lester didn't always bring home the bacon, though. HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and HELP, A FUNNY THING and THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and then a truly astonishing, transcendent picture like ROBIN AND MARIAN goes straight in the toilet. You can't account for it, the intangibles.

Dick Lester shooting JUGGERNAUT

This doesn't change the essential thing, which was my starting point. JUGGERNAUT is about the accumulation of small incident, the trembling switch, the red wire, the single detail. Skip one little piece of the puzzle, and you're a smear of atomized remains on the bulkhead. That's existential, all right. No room for conversation.

I admire how coherent JUGGERNAUT is. It takes a technical problem, and lays out its component parts. Whether it's in fact
Clifton James
presenting an accurate picture is beside the point. You buy into it completely, at least for the duration. I understand that there are always going to be hardware guys, like me, who look for solution to target. And then there are people who look through or beyond the schematic, to the emotional context. As it happens, I think JUGGERNAUT has that, too. Clifton James, confessing his infidelity to his wife. Shirley Knight, after Omar Sharif throws her under the bus. And again, Roy Kinnear, who shows such grace, and a touching largeness of heart.


But let's be honest. Even though the characters are terrific, the picture isn't character-driven. It's compelling because it takes you through a process, and it's all of a piece. The clock just keeps ticking.