If you’ve watched enough movies and TV shows, the idea of the ‘ticking bomb’ should be familiar to you. You know: there’s a bomb, it’s got to be defused, usually by snipping either a red wire or a blue wire, and there’s only a few minutes or seconds to do it in.
Normally, you’ll find this in a single episode of a TV show or maybe in the final act of a film and it’ll usually be just a regular cop or soldier doing the disarming, rather than a heroic bomb disposal expert – typically they‘re running late. Equally rarely will the ticking bomb scenario last the length of the entire movie or TV show or the bomb be any more complex than just that red-blue question.
In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of Danger UXB and occasionally The Unit really focusing on bomb disposal on TV; in the movies, even Speed didn’t dwell on disarmament, only evasion, and Quatermass and the Pit didn’t have a bomb, only a spaceship everyone thought was a bomb.
Juggernaut (also known as Terror on the Britannic), released in 1974, is perhaps the only instance of a movie that deals exclusively from beginning to end with the defusal of a single bomb and that features a heroic bomb disposal expert at the centre of the action.
Set on board a luxury liner travelling across the Atlantic, the movie sees Richard Harris try to disarm seven identical and highly complicated bombs designed by a man calling himself ‘Juggernaut’. The first film to develop the ‘red wire/blue wire’ dilemma, it’s a tense piece directed by Richard ‘Superman II‘ Lester, with dialogue by Alan ‘Beiderbecke‘ Plater, that while featuring an all-star cast is in reality a mesmerising monologue by Harris and a musing on the nature of death. It’s a movie you should own.
Here’s the very 70s, slightly judgemental trailer narrated by a bored American man.
The movie falls into four basic acts: the unveiling of the threat and the introduction of the characters; the transport of the bomb disposal experts to the Britannic; their attempts to understand and defuse the bomb while the police back in Britain try to find ‘Juggernaut’; and the eventual capture of ‘Juggernaut’ and the final understanding of the bomb by Harris that leads to the red-blue dilemma. Each of them is tense in its own way, with the second act the most action packed, but it’s the defusing where the tension really piles on.
Like many ‘disaster movies’ of the 70s, Juggernaut features various stars in a number of key roles. There’s Harris, of course, as the hard-drinking, nihilistic Navy bomb disposal expert Fallon; there’s David Hemmings as his number two; Anthony Hopkins is the police officer on the mainland hunting ‘Juggernaut’; Omar Sharif is the captain of the Britannic, Ian Holm the representative of the company that owns the Britannic; Roy Kinnear is the entertainment chief on the ship; and there are a number of potential famous Juggernauts, including Freddie Jones, Cyril Cusack and Michael Hordern.
However, being a British movie of the 70s, unlike its Hollywood counterparts, Juggernaut is essentially an incredibly bleak movie. From its miserable, stormy Atlantic setting to its equally miserable British homebase, it’s incredibly grey, filled with squalid little rooms, seedy men in seedy dives, and people having the least fun in their lives – and that’s just the tourists before they’ve even discovered there are bombs on board their holiday ship. Much of it is set in the confined, dark lower decks of the ship, with Harris by himself, talking to the other on radio, making it very much a one-man show at times.
Once the naval experts are at sea, things become even bleaker, with numbers of them being killed – and the tourists aren’t exactly feeling too peachy about their situation either. Central to the bleakness, though, is Harris, who during this time has a virtual monologue as he muses on the bomb, the bomb designer and the constant presence of death in his life. When he admits temporary defeat, Harris does anything but react in the way expected of a hero as Sharif tries to talk him back into defusing the bomb.
Even at the end of the film, when the bombs are defused, there’s very little joy for Harris or the audience as the camera zooms out to the lonely, haunting theme tune – Harris has won nothing except a few more days of life and has lost much over the course of the movie.
As well as the dark ruminations and gallows humour of Harris and the questions on the mainland of whether it’s acceptable to pay the ransoms demanded by terrorists and extortionists, the film is notable for its tense bomb defusion scenes that don’t fall back on just the simple wire-cutting.
Here’s where the tension piles on as we’re walked through all the problems that might face someone trying to defuse a bomb built by someone doing their level best to kill them: trembler switches, spring-loaded bolts, photo-electric diodes, tricks, distractions and more. Lester isn’t even afraid of having entire scenes in the dark to increase the tension.
Eventually though, it comes down to that red-blue dilemma. It’s worth remembering however that just as Lord of the Rings invented just about all the things that are now clichés in fantasy literature, so can’t really be called derivative, so Juggernaut essentially invented this over-used plot device, one of its many flashes of genius. Even so, it does it with a great deal of aplomb and skill that other movies can still learn from.
Bleak as the night, Juggernaut is an excellent, tense, but poorly known film, superbly directed by Lester and acted by Harris. You should own it.
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