This star studded flick feeds into my love of the disaster movie where we the viewers get to play spot the star while awaiting the final reel to see who is going to survive the epic tragedy ahead or who may leave this world a hero. Considering this came out when I was discovering actors that I began to know by name, Richard Harris fit the bill. Mom had taken me to see him in Orca at the theater and this would have been playing TV shortly thereafter with films like The Man In The Wilderness and The Wild Geese was just around the bend. When your still at an impressionable age, Harris quickly became a big screen hero. Leading lady Sophia was still in my future…….
Producers Carlo Ponti and Sir Lew Grade teamed up to bring us this George Pan Cosmatos scripted/directed big screen feature that sees a pneumonic plague victim seeking refuge on a train that’s headed from Geneva to Stockholm. It’s a far more serious result than anything movie goers got to see when watching the comedy Airplane!
Our list of passengers checked in by the good conductor, Lionel Stander include……
Sophia Loren and Richard Harris
Ava Gardner and Martin Sheen
Then we have Mrs. Richard Harris……Ann Turkel
Man of the cloth or man of action? …..O.J. Simpson
Paging passenger and on board acting coach , Lee Strasberg….. please see Ann Turkel at the next stop.
Tracking the plague carrier from “the bunker” is military figurehead Burt Lancaster who will monitor the trains movements and have it isolated. No one will be allowed to leave the train and anyone attempting to will be shot. The deadly strain of bacteria must be contained. Lancaster’s role here is one of political ramifications. Should word of the reasons behind the infected man reach the general public, it could be a very embarrassing situation for the good old U.S. of A. Serving as Burt’s second is John Phillip Law and as his conscience, a doctor looking to help the unfortunate on board the train, Ingrid Thulin who will continually spar with Burt over right and wrong.
Harris is a world renowned doctor (no fooling) who Thulin spots on the passenger list and it will be Burt vs. Harris in medical ethics. The train will be sidelined and invaded by cast members of George Romero’s The Crazies in white suits and gas masks armed to the teeth. Harris’ ex wife Sophia’s eyes well up as the bacteria spreads from one train car to the next while the wealthy Ava Gardner will learn that her boy toy Martin Sheen is actually on the run from someone on board and desperately wants off the train.
Not surprisingly it’s Lee Strasberg who will elicit the most sympathy as the plot evolves. The train has been rerouted to Poland. Strasberg’s inner demons will surface as he is a Holocaust survivor and history looks to be repeating itself from his vantage point. On the surface, Lancaster may be doing everything he can to solve this medical dilemma but, he’s rerouted the train across The Cassandra Crossing. The bridge is a relic of the war years and both Strasberg and Stander know crossing the pass will prove fatal to all those on board. Once Harris is convinced that Lancaster is dealing from a dirty deck of cards, he and the other stars of our story are going to rebel and “take the train.”
Bloodshed and carnage will result when Harris, sworn to save lives will be taking those belonging to the men in the white jump suits along with man of the cloth, O.J. Shoddy F/X will play a part when mountain climber Martin Sheen decides he can scale the outside of the train to reach the engine and the Horror Express like ending gives us a mixed bag of effects. Some laughable, some carried out with some great camera work from director Cosmatos who also worked for producer Lew Grade on the big budget Escape to Athena in three short years.
Harris was in his action hero years for this effort and of course Sophia climbed on board this trip thanks to hubby Carlo playing producer as he so often did in her career. There’s a good score in here from Jerry Goldsmith to heighten the tension over the two hour trip and for the trivia hounds, isn’t it interesting to see Burt Lancaster once again planning to derail a train as he did so magnificently in the 1964 WW2 classic, The Train. Problem is, Burt’s not the hero this time out but a representative of the establishment and political machine that operates outside the law behind the façade of all that is righteous. All that’s missing for Lancaster is a scene with his first ever leading lady, Ava Gardner, who bewitched him in the 1946 Noir classic and Burt’s film debut, The Killers.
While I may have poked some fun at The Cassandra Crossing here, make no mistake, I enjoy this film. It had been a while since I’d seen it but having turned up on blu ray as a double bill with The Domino Principle has given me the opportunity to once again board the train as it makes it’s way to the dangerous pass. On that thought, wouldn’t it have been pretty darn cool to be an extra on this set. Tight quarters as you take your place in one of the railway cars while the stars (Sophia) continually move around you in the aisles or sleeping car hallways.