Whatever the size, your TV is still just a TV

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I was looking forward to seeing Juggernaut on TCM not too long ago when I saw it show up on the classics channel’s schedule.  Even in this cable/download/Netflix age of constant program recycling, the movie rarely shows up on TV, maybe because it had been such an instant and complete flop when released theatrically in 1974.  Still, this UK-produced film has always been one of my pet favorites, a flick I have long felt died an undeserved death, and I was psyched at the chance to see it again.

In synopsis, I admit the movie doesn’t sound like much.  Or perhaps I should say it sounds way too familiar.  A nutcase has put seven bombs on an ocean liner and threatens to sink the ship unless he’s given a ransom of £500,000.  The ship is far from land, no other vessels are close enough to render assistance, and the North Atlantic is too stormy for the captain (Omar Sharif) to get his 1200 passengers safely off in lifeboats.  A bomb disposal team led by Richard Harris is airdropped to the ship to try to defuse the bombs while the police back in England – led by a young not-yet-a-star Anthony Hopkins – try to run down the mad bomber (veteran Brit character actor Freddie Jones).

(FYI – the film was loosely inspired by a real-life bomb threat against the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1972 in which the British government airdropped a team from the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service to the ship 1000 miles out at sea to find and disarm the explosive.  Thankfully, the threat turned out to be a hoax.)

Because of their similarities, Juggernaut always brings Speed (1994) to my mind.  Juggernaut has passengers trapped on an ocean liner booby-trapped by a disaffected bomb disposal expert; Speed has passengers trapped on a bus booby-trapped by a disaffected bomb disposal expert.  But the similarities are all superficial.

Made 20 years apart, the two movies say a lot about how commercial cinema changed over that time.  Speed generates its suspense from the gimmick of a bus threading through packed freeways which can’t drive slower than 55 mph without setting off its bomb.  Its thrills are all visceral, at one point incredulous (getting an antiquated GM bus to jump a 50 foot gap in an unfinished overpass), and ultimately gratuitous (the bus is driven to the L.A. airport so it can have unlimited running room, yet it still manages to plow into a 747 for no other reason than to provide the movie with a – literally – explosive if meaningless finale).  Audiences minded not a bit either the movie’s incredulous or gratuitous elements, and the $30 million movie did a monster $121.2 million domestic.  In fact, these over-the-top constructs are probably why Speed works better on TV than Juggernaut.  Inarguably, Speed has a lot of visceral excitement.  In fact, it’s got nothing but.

Juggernaut doesn’t.  There’s hardly a gut-level thrill to be had.  No chases, no shoot-outs.  Even the airdrop sequence is a bit on the ho-hum side.  But what Speed doesn’t have that Juggernaut does is intensity.  That’s a much harder sensation to create; one which I found, in my disappointing revisiting of the movie on TCM, doesn’t always lend itself well to TV.  The problem is that in this new age of the home theater, home theaters are more “home” than “theater.”

We’ll come back to that point in a sec.

Juggernaut is the thinking man’s Speed.  Just look at the cast.  Although UA tried to sell Juggernaut as an ensemble-style disaster flick, it’s anything but.  Instead of the usual The Towering Inferno/Earthquake/Airport 197whatever mixed bag of big name stars and big name has-beens, backing up Harris and Sharif is a deep bench of high-caliber Brit acting talent.  Not a lot of glamour in that rank, but “just” a lot of damned fine acting:  besides Hopkins and Freddie Jones are Ian Holm, Shirley Knight, David Hemmings, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern, Julian Glover, Jack Watson, the great Roy Kinnear, and slipping past immigration, Yank character actor Clifton James.

And there’s Alan Plater’s screenplay which eschews the usual disaster flick melodrama to ground both its plot and its characters as firmly in the real world as possible.  There’s no Charlton Heston-esque steely-eyed hero here.  Richard Harris’ Fallon is, at first, a cocksure bit of swagger, but after his close #2 is vaporized by one of the bombs, he collapses with a bottle of the captain’s booze into a mix of angry frustration and grief, snarling, “Pay the man his money.”  Freddie Jones’ “Juggernaut” is no ranting madman (a la Speed’s scenery-chomping Dennis Hopper), but a worn-out, tossed-aside civil servant whose threat is as much revenge against a system that too soon forgets its heroes as it is about money…maybe more so.

One of my favorite bits of dialogue comes after Jones is arrested, and the silky, slimy government minister who has arm-twisted shipping line exec Ian Holm into not paying the ransom tries to put the conscientious Holm in his place saying, “You would have us negotiate with people like that?”

Holm quickly spits back, “You make people like that!”

All of this happens under the guiding hand of director Richard Lester.

I still remember how surprised I was when I saw his name show up in the opening credits.  I thought, It can’t be that Richard Lester!

But it was.  Lester was a surprising against-the-grain choice, but it would turn out to be an inspired one (he was actually the third director brought on the project).

Thrillers – to my mind – usually require a certain tightly focused, driving thrust that was hardly Lester’s forte.  The movies he’s most known for have a kind of shambling, deliberately, delightfully unfocused quality to them.  He was a master of a certain kind of cinematic marginalia, the film equivalent of those witty little doodles you find around the page borders of Mad Magazine.  Plot was rarely as strong as all the delicious bits Lester hung on it.

Think of his breakout flick, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), intended to be a quickie capitalizing on the exploding popularity of The Beatles, but which Lester turned into a sophisticated blend of Brit grit and satirized rock glamour.  Hard Day’s Night presaged both Spinal Tap-type rock mockumentaries, and – with its visually free-flowing, non-linear music sequences —  MTV music videos.  Lester dumped most of Alun Owen’s screenplay and the movie ambles along largely carried by the insouciant charm and improvised, tossed-off, seemingly bottomless wit of the Fab Four.

Or take Lester’s biggest commercial success, the more lavish The Three Musketeers (1973) and it’s de facto sequel The Four Musketeers (1974 – I say “de facto” because the project was originally intended as one, long epic, but father/son producing team Alexander and Ilya Salkind cut the project in two without consulting cast or director, a move which ignited a raft of lawsuits about who owed what to whom).  For my money, Lester’s Musketeers is the best adaptation of the Dumas adventure classic due to its pitch-perfect blend of tongue-in-cheekiness, visual opulence, impressively choreographed swordplay, and rare fidelity to the source novel.  But all around Dumas’ solidly plotted swashbuckling orbits Lester-orchestrated anarchy:  mumbled one-liners looped in under the main dialogue (as Charlton Heston’s Cardinal Richelieu passes down a dungeon corridor, one emaciated caged prisoner politely greets him with, “Good morning, your grace”), bits of business tucked here and there about the frame (Michael York’s D’Artagnan confronts Simon Ward’s Duke of Buckingham in the rain, then, recognizing him, kneels on the cobblestones, Lester stealing a laugh by adding the splash of York’s knee into a puddle even though, in long shot, one can see there’s no puddle; a dungeon torturer bakes a potato in the same flame used to heat searing pokers).

Perhaps it was because Lester wasn’t the typical thriller director he was able to find the kind of grit and heart so many thrillers – including Speed – don’t have.  He junked the original screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons and brought in and worked with Alan Plater to turn out a story which feels credible and life-sized; he filmed his exteriors on an ocean liner he sent on a course through the foulest North Atlantic weather he could find to capture a real world feel.

But the centerpiece of the film is Richard Harris’ one-on-one duel with one of Juggernaut’s bombs.  It’s the kind of duel you don’t see much of in movies; a battle of minds – Fallon’s skill at defusing bombs against Juggernaut’s skill at designing them.  Lester and Plater capture the usually ineffable quality of intellects at work, one trying to decode what the other hath wrought, and here director and his screenplay are aided and abetted in fine form by cinematographer Gerry Fisher and editor Antony Gibbs.

Fallon’s is a job of fractions of an inch; simply trying to loosen a single screw is an act pregnant with imminent obliteration as any part of the bomb might be booby-trapped.  Fisher gets his lens so close the screw head fills the screen; each micro-move of Fallon’s screwdriver without setting off a blast seems a mammoth accomplishment.  There is no music in these scenes, no sound except for the whirring of the bomb mechanism, the background thrum of the ship’s engines, and Fallon’s own, hushed voice describing his actions by radio to his higher ups.  Lester, Fisher and Gibbs do their jobs so well that when Fallon is forced to use more muscle and the screw comes loose with a sudden clang of metal, it’s hard not to jump in your seat.

And then Fallon has to work in the cramped interior of the bomb; a compressed space jammed with glittering counters, whirring paper tapes, light sensors, trembler switches and – as Fallon says – a dozen triggers.  Fisher somehow gets his camera inside that claustrophobic electronic jumble.  His most virtuosic display:  after one of Fallon’s men is killed, Fallon finds the booby-trap – a tripwire no thicker than a hair hidden in a gap between two contacts I would guess to be no more than 1/32nd in width.

But there on TCM, all that sweating intensity I had remembered from the big screen… evaporated.

On a 40-foot screen, Fisher’s brutal close-ups were just that:  brutal.  They were close-ups with purpose:  Fallon’s world is one in which the littlest things – hair-triggers, micro-movements – can have devastating consequences.  But that massive screw head wasn’t so massive on my big screen TV, and as it diminished, so did the whispery, intimate gravity of Fallon’s mental chess match against bomb master Juggernaut.

Now, I grant, my big screen TV isn’t one of those mural-sized, wall-hanging monsters, but this isn’t just about size.  Oh, size – in this case – does matter.  But so does place.

Movie watching, in a theater, is a submissive experience.  It’s a form of hypnosis, really.  If you don’t think the character of the viewing space changes the experience, go to a church service in a small chapel, and then go to one in a cathedral.  The cathedral makes you feel small (as it’s supposed to), enhancing the authority of the liturgy and the man in the pulpit delivering it.  The experience dominates you rather than the other way around.

Movie-going used to be about that; about giving yourself over to the experience.  Everything about it – the large, dark auditorium; your attention focused solely on a screen floating in blackness, big enough to fill your field of vision; the electricity of sharing that experience with hundreds of fellow viewers you sensed in the dark more than saw – took you out of your own reality and into the one on the screen.

That doesn’t happen at home.  It can’t.  It’s your home.  You know you’re in your home, and that familiarity works against submission.  Even if it didn’t, I can’t remember ever watching a movie at someone’s home where it wasn’t a stop-and-start affair:  bathroom breaks, snack breaks, walk-the-dog breaks…all of that sure as hell breaks the mood, the trance.  You can’t get soaked up by that big screen TV because it’s never going to be big enough to overwhelm you, to make you forget you’re slouched on your sofa with your significant other standing in the doorway wondering aloud, “Why you’re watching this crap again?”

I would argue it’s even getting harder to have that experience in movie theaters.

For a generation growing up attuned to interactive experiences, willing submissiveness – and the patience required to maintain it for two hours or better – isn’t their forte as the little blue glows of texting phones nestled in their laps testify.  I find it a little unnerving that theaters need to remind the audience to the fact that they are not in their living rooms, and that blabbing on the phone or to each other, bawling babies, intrusive ring tones etc. are – surprise, surprise – not acceptable movie-watching behavior.

But then theaters themselves contribute to the trance-breaking, offering at-your-seat food-and-drink service.  I’m not sure how well Juggernaut would hold up in today’s multiplexes if you had to watch it while the guy behind you chomped and burped his way through his dinner while the lady next to you tried to figure out her tab with the serving staff.  Speed, on the other hand, could easily survive that, as can – and have — all the actioners since then which have cloned its over-the-top, non-stop, check-your-brain-at-the-door, wall-to-wall action template.

And so I was disappointed when I saw the movie on TCM.  Oh, the writing, the acting, the directing – everything — was as good as I remembered.  But the intensity wasn’t there — couldn’t be there — in my living room on my big-but-not-big-enough screen TV.  It occurred to me, ruefully, that a certain kind of movie-making as well as a certain kind of movie-watching might have had its day.

As Juggernaut’s closing credits rolled, I remembered Norma Desmond’s line from Sunset Boulevard (1950):  “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.” 

Bill Mesce

4 Comments
  1. Adam says

    I recently set up my system with an HD projector and blu ray. Big difference. When you have to turn out the lights and wait for that large electric screen to descend… There’s a ceremony to it that’s missing from simply switching on the TV. It’s brought new life to my
    old collection of movies, and is in some ways better than going to the local theater.

  2. pork says

    Yes, the irresistible comparison between the movies and church. My favorite example of the loss you experience on TV is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is just background noise at Christmas. I once took 9 people to see it in a theater and EVERYONE cried. Even with a movie everyone knows is great, you can’t give yourself over to it at home.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Bingo!

  3. Remy Martin says

    I own a 10 year-old bulky 29-inch TV. I have no money to buy a new one but I don’t mind, because I believe that it’s the story and the watcher’s passion that truly matters.

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