Release Date(s)1974 (June 13, 2023)
Studio(s)Two Roads/United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
Richard Lester’s Juggernaut is sometimes classified as another entry into the disaster movie cycle of the Seventies that included Airport, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake, but the reality is that it’s nothing of the sort. Juggernaut may be set on an ocean liner in peril, but it’s really more akin to the kind of adventure stories that Alistair MacLean was writing at the time. The narrative is far more straightforward than what MacLean would have done with the same material, and it doesn’t offer any of his trademarked twists and turns, but it still features a team of experts sent on a life-and-death mission into dangerous territory, all of whom have to improvise in order to survive. More importantly, the team is led by the most Alistair MacLean of heroes that wasn’t actually written by the legendary author: Lieutenant Commander Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris). His prickly world-weariness is pure MacLean, and it’s the glue that holds not just his team but also all of Juggernaut together.
Fallon is a bomb disposal expert who honed his skills defusing German explosives during World War II. When the ocean liner Britannic receives a bomb threat from a mysterious person who only identifies himself as “Juggernaut,” the ship’s owner (Ian Holm) just wants to pay the ransom, but the government pressures him to refuse. So Fallon’s team ends up being tasked with disabling the devices before the deadline, while the police led by Superintendent John McLeod (Anthony Hopkins) race against the clock to identify the bomber on shore. Unfortunately, Britannic is sailing in heavy seas, so the 1,200 passengers and crew members can’t be evacuated to safety. Worse, that means the only way for Fallon and his team to get on board the ship is to parachute into the stormy waters around it. The captain (Omar Sharif) does his best to keep things on an even keel, but tensions end up flaring as the deadline nears. Juggernaut’s impressive supporting cast includes David Hemmings, Clifton James, Roy Kinnear, Shirley Knight, Freddie Jones, Julian Glover, and Kenneth Colley, as well as an uncredited Michael Hordern and Cyril Cusack.
Juggernaut’s path to the screen wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing either. Producer Richard Allen Simmons wrote the original script, which was inspired by a 1972 bomb threat against the “Queen Elizabeth II” that resulted in members of the Royal Marines Special Boat Squadron, the SAS, and an Ammunition Technician Officer parachuting into the Atlantic from an RAF Hercules. (This real-life bomb squad never found anything on the ship.) To bring this story to life in the most realistic fashion possible, the production ended up chartering the former German cruise ship TS Hamburg, which had just been purchased by a Russian company and rechristened the TS Maxim Gorkiy. Before it went back into official service, they were allowed to take it out into the North Sea in search of the stormiest seas that they could find, with the cast, crew, and 250 extras all aboard. Unfortunately, there were creative differences with both the original director Bryan Forbes and his replacement Don Medford, so Richard Lester came in at the last minute to mop up. Lester brought along Alan Plater to rewrite the script, and that infuriated Simmons so much that he had his own name taken off the project, opting for the pseudonym Richard De Koker instead. While that’s understandable, Simmons considerably underestimated just how much Lester added to the effectiveness of the final film.
Lester is known for many things, but two of his most underappreciated qualities are his attention to detail and his knack for bringing distant worlds to vivid life. He was never so much concerned with authenticity in terms of the technical or historical minutiae as much as he was with making things feel real. A Hard Day’s Night was purely fictional, with John, Paul, George, and Ringo playing characters with the same names, but the milieu that Lester created feels so authentic that it seems like a documentary no matter how surrealistic that the action may get. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was hardly a historically accurate film, but Lester left real fruits and vegetables to rot on the set and attract the hordes of flies that are seen in the finished film. Robin and Marian was pure historical fantasy, but it reveled in the same kind of blood, sweat, and shit that Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones had brought to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. All of these ancillary details provide the texture that makes the worlds feel real.
Lester wasn’t the one responsible for the notion of shooting Juggernaut aboard a working ship on stormy seas, but he leaned into the idea wholeheartedly and crafted a remarkably authentic-feeling film. Some of the technical details regarding the ship itself and the defusing of the bombs aren’t accurate, but that never matters because the atmosphere is so believable. Of course, some of the interiors were shot later on soundstages instead of on the actual ship, but Lester and his cinematographer Gerry Fisher filmed those scenes with the same kind of unsteady camerawork and it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two. Many of the scenes set ashore were also shot on location, and even when a set was built for ship owner’s flat, it was built on location so that the real cityscape could be glimpsed through the windows in the background. There aren’t any cycloramas or rear-screen projections in Juggernaut, and that really helps with the authenticity.
Lester’s attention to detail extended to the characters as well. The script didn’t provide any background information about most of them, but he cast actors for each role who could embody them without needing much in the way of exposition to do so. Lester limned the relationships between them quickly and sometimes elliptically, but they’re all still instantly relatable while they’re forced to confront their own mortality. Whether it’s Fallon and his assistant Charlie (David Hemmings), Corrigan (Clifton James) and his wife, or Mrs. Bannister (Shirley Knight) and the ship’s captain, everything rings true. Yet the most affecting relationship ends up being the one between Mrs. Bannister and the ship’s purser (Roy Kinnear). Despite the prickly interactions that they’ve had with each other, they really do understand each other in the end.
That understanding is conveyed non-verbally in their final scene together, as are many of the other keenly observed details that Lester used to show what life onboard the ship is really like. As the seas get rougher and rougher, the passengers start feeling its effects, but Lester didn’t bother to show the results of that directly. Instead, he filmed Kinnear’s purser cheerfully chowing down at dinner time, much to the disgust of his tablemates, and then immediately cut to a shot inside the kitchen where full plates of untouched food are being scraped into the trash. Lester filled Juggernaut with little touches like that from beginning to end, and that’s a large part of what makes it so special.
The other part is Richard Harris as Fallon. He really is the glue that holds the whole film together, in more ways than one. It’s one thing to show civilians having to deal with the possibility that they may not live through the night, but it’s quite another to do that with a veteran bomb disposal expert like Fallon. He veers from his initial apparent insouciance in the face of danger to understandable fear once the stakes end up being raised in tragic fashion, but he’s still a professional with a job to do. It may take a bottle to get him there (we are talking about Richard Harris, after all), but he’ll get that job done one way or the other. Harris is so good in the role that he’s even able to sell a massive, massive technical error that the script has Fallon make in the final stages of defusing the bombs, one that would have cost the lives of one of his teammates if he’d been wrong. A real expert of his caliber wouldn’t have made that mistake, but that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise nearly flawless film. Harris and Lester were both in top form with Juggernaut, aided greatly by the spirit of Alistair MacLean, and nothing else matters. However chaotic the production may have been, it’s smooth sailing for savvy audiences.
Gerry Fisher shot Juggernaut on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses. This version uses the same master that Kino had previously used for their 2014 Blu-ray, which was likely derived from a 2K scan of an interpositive. The difference is that this time it’s been encoded onto a BD-50 instead of a BD-25. The new bitrate stays at a rock-steady 40mpbs come hell or high water, while the older one averaged between 20-30mbps, occasionally dipping as low as 15mbps. Some of the fine details on the older disc did fall victim to the heavier compression, but they’re just a hair sharper this time around. However, with an IP as the source and Fisher’s tendency to use diffusion filters, the image has slightly softened details and grain structure either way. There’s still a bit of noise during some of the darkest shots in the film that’s baked into the master, but it’s less noticeable now than it was before. There’s also still a bit of black crush that isn’t particularly surprising given the source. Otherwise, everything is reasonably clean, with only some minor speckling and other small blemishes, plus some occasional density fluctuations. A fresh 4K scan off the original camera negative could definitely work wonders here, but Kino is still to be commended for doing whatever they could to improve the hand that they’ve been dealt.
Note that while some sources like IMDb do list the aspect ratio for Juggernaut as 1.66:1, this version is framed at 1.85:1 instead. While it’s possible that the film was projected at 1.66:1 in some markets, it would definitely have been shown at 1.85:1 during its North American theatrical release, and the framing never appears too cramped at this ratio. Interestingly enough, the packaging on Kino’s 2014 Blu-ray states that it’s 1.66:1, but that was just an error. The new packaging lists the correct ratio. (The old one also erroneously listed the running time as being 126 minutes, but hey, at least they got the release date right.)
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Some of the dialogue in Juggernaut is a bit less than clear, but it’s always been that way and it isn’t a reflection on this master. The only oddity is that there does seem to be a touch of warble in the score by Ken Thorne, but once again that was present on the previous release and may be an unresolved issue with the surviving sound elements. Regardless, there’s so little scoring in Juggernaut anyway that it’s not a big issue. The various bits of source music throughout the rest of the film don’t appear to exhibit the same problem.
Kino Lorber’s 2023 Blu-ray release of Juggernaut also comes with a new slipcover that duplicates the artwork on the insert. (The previous disc didn’t include one.) Kino has also added a new commentary track and a TV spot this time around. Otherwise, the rest of the extras consist of their usual collection of trailers for other titles that they offer:
- Audio Commentary by Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson
- TV Spot (Upscaled SD – :33)
- Trailer (SD – 2:54)
- The Groundstar Conspiracy Trailer (HD – 2:37)
- Gold Trailer (HD – 3:56)
- The Eiger Sanction Trailer (HD – 2:50)
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Trailer (HD – 2:33)
- Rosebud Trailer (HD – 2:41)
- Marathon Man Trailer (HD – 2:39)
- Sudden Terror Trailer (SD – 3:11)
- When Eight Bells Toll Trailer (HD – 2:50)
- Cuba Trailer (SD – 1:55)
The new commentary teams up the Dynamic Duo of Steve Mitchell and Nathanial Thompson—no Unholy Trinity this time, unfortunately, since Howard S. Berger wasn’t involved. Either way, Juggernaut is the kind of film that falls firmly within their respective wheelhouses, and they waste no time singing its praises while delving into its chaotic production history. Lester came into the production so late that he only had three weeks to prep and have the script rewritten. As was typical for the director, much of the final film ended up being discovered in the edit. Mitchell and Thompson also cover details about the cast and crew, praising the actors for their ability to show instead of tell. They were able to build their characters despite a lack of detail in the script. Naturally, they also spend a lot of time on Richard Lester, and point out many of the elements that he brought to the film. Interestingly, they do interpret the shot of the food being scrapped in the kitchen as being his statement on the wastefulness of luxury, but with all due deference, I think that they’re off base on that one. They’re overlooking the preceding shot of Kinnear chowing down. Regardless, this is a great commentary track should please any fan of Juggernaut. (And if you’re not a fan of Juggernaut, what’s wrong with you?)
There are plenty of companies that churn out endless re-releases of existing titles while adding little to nothing of value, but Kino Lorber is definitely going the extra mile with their own re-issues. It’s too bad that they couldn’t get their hands on newer masters, but it’s great that they’re still doing as much as they can by improving the encodes for the old masters, and adding new content like commentary tracks and slipcovers. These are definitely the versions to own. Is it worth upgrading if you already own their previous discs? That’s a tougher call. There’s definitely a slight uptick in video quality from the new encodes, and in the case of Juggernaut, the new commentary does add value. Whether or not that’s enough is up to you, but there’s always another Kino Lorber sale just around the corner...
- Stephen Bjork