Released between Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and Four Musketeers (1974), Juggernaut (1974) is something of an oddity in the director’s career. There had been nothing in his career to suggest that he would make—or would even be interested in—a suspense thriller, and, though Juggernaut is a bit more than a simple thriller, that’s undeniably the genre into which it falls. It is, after all, a story about a madman/terrorist having planted a number of bombs on a passenger ship, and the race against time to defuse those bombs before 1,200 people perish in the briny depths. By just about any definition, that’s a suspense thriller.
In a way, Juggernaut is also very typical of the disaster film of that era, à la The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) etc.—except that it’s considerably more cerebral and less expensive, which may be why it’s more cerebral. The film doesn’t appear obviously cheap—except perhaps in the scene where one of the stars meets his explosive demise—but it’s definitely shy on the effects work and focuses more on the characterizations. In itself, that’s more remarkable for what the film lacks, since most disaster films at least try to be full of characterizations. (That can be said for most “star-studded” multi-character films dating back to 1932 and Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel, for that matter.)
That the characters here seem a good deal more real and less worked in as plot contrivances (think Shelley Winters in Poseidon Adventure) is a variant, but more interesting is the film’s status as an allegory about the state of Great Britain at the time. It’s not accidental that the name of the imperiled ship is Britannic. The film is clearly meant to reflect the malaise into which the “Swinging England” of only a few years before was sinking—and the desperation with which people were trying to ignore that the hopefulness of the 1960s was well on its way to turning into a massive hangover.
This tone is evident from the very beginning, with the half-hearted, dreary attempt to give the departing ship a cheerful send-off. Everything is forced and phony and no one is having a good time, no matter how much they go through the motions—and many of them don’t even bother to do that. The irony here is that Lester himself had been one of the chief architects of the “Swinging England” mood. Here he is nearing the end of that era, making what is perhaps the sourest film of his career. When you consider the bitterness of his revisionist war picture How I Won the War (1967) and the bleakness of his post-apocalyptic black comedy The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), calling this his sourest film is no small claim. Yet, I think that’s correct. There are no flights of fantasy here and no good-natured social satire. Even Lester’s regular go-to guy for comedy, Roy Kinnear, isn’t funny, and his vaguely comedic scenes all fall flat—purposefully, I think.
At the same time, Lester is a canny enough showman to deliver the suspense—and he’s surprisingly good at it. Or maybe it’s not that surprising, if you think of the bombs that need defusing as a very lethal variant on all the damnable machines in his other films, all of which seem designed to flummox anyone attempting to use them. Really, all that’s changed are the stakes. In many respects, this is a brilliant variation, and it works, but it doesn’t result in a film that can actually be called fun in any sense of the word.