Swine Flu on a Train
If you mention 70's disaster movies you're most likely to hear the names "The Towering Inferno", "The Poseidon Adventure" and even "Earthquake". One which might not instantly spring to mind is "The Cassandra Crossing" from 1976 which is the tale of a train where all the passengers have been exposed to a plague like virus and are lurching towards an unexpected fate. As with most 70's disaster movies "The Cassandra Crossing" features a multitude of stars such as Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, Richard Harris and Sophia Loren but it lacks the tension, urgency and basically thrill of its more well known counterparts making it not a terrible movie, just an inferior one in comparison.
When a terrorist infected with a deadly plague like virus boards a train he unwittingly exposes all the passengers to the disease. Having contacted the virus in a botched attempt to blow up the European Health Organizations Offices, the U.S. government who had been breeding the virus send in Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster - Ulzana's Raid) to handle damage limitation which means destroying the train in an accident over the disused Cassandra Crossing. But when the passengers, including Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris - Robin and Marian) and his ex wife Jennifer Chamberlain (Sophia Loren), who having been infected miraculously start to recover, have to find a way of stopping the train before it's too late.
Before even getting to the storyline "The Cassandra Crossing" has one major issue which is that it is seriously dated, not just in the look but in the actual production as well. The opening scenes which focus on the terrorists trying to blow up the European Health Organization building is actually quite laughable, the bomb they plant looks like an old radio with a couple of wires stuck on and the sterile yet slightly futuristic surroundings makes it look like a low grade sci-fi movie. All it needed was a couple of wobbly walls and it would truly have looked terrible. Yes it was made back in the mid 70's but compared to other disaster movies from the era it certainly hasn't faired so well.
The actual storyline is very much your typical disaster set up, a group of individuals end up combining to try and save themselves from impending doom. It certainly isn't anything new and follows the traditional pattern where we get to know all the individuals and their individual storylines before they finally group together to try and save themselves. The fact that the threat is two fold, that if the virus doesn't kill them then Colonel MacKenzie's plans will adds little to make "The Cassandra Crossing" feel original, nor does setting it on a train. It really ends up being a very formulaic disaster movie which in all honesty is not that exciting.
One of the reasons why "The Cassandra Crossing" is not very exciting is that it is very uneven and for the majority of the movie nothing really interesting happens. Then in the last 20 minutes or so they try to ramp up the atmosphere and tension with the passengers dramatic attempts to save themselves. It's just wrong and there is too much emphasis placed on building the stories of each of the individual characters rather than the immediacy of their situation. Yes the characters are reasonably good such as the young toy boy played by Martin Sheen with the rich older woman played by Ava Gardner, the nice old man who is a petty thief and the Dr. with his ex wife. But by the time the immediacy of the situation appears the chances are you could have lost interest in the movie.
Despite the unevenness of "The Cassandra Crossing" and the misplaced attention the characters and performances are quite enjoyable. Richard Harris and Sophia Loren as Dr. Chamberlain and his ex wife respectively make a decent stab of being the lead characters that end up commanding the individuals in their attempts to survive. Ava Gardner puts in a glorious performance as the over the top rich woman Nicole Dressler and a young Martin Sheen is quite funny as her toy boy Robby. The real stand out performance comes from Lee Strasberg as Herman Kaplan the friendly old pick pocket; in his small role he delivers probably the most enjoyable performance of the movie.
On the opposite end of the performances you have O.J. Simpson who having already appeared in "The Towering Inferno" finds himself in another token role. Plus there is Burt Lancaster who is seriously under used as Colonel MacKenzie. But the worst performance comes from Ingrid Thulin as Dr. Elena Stradner who spends most of the movie over acting when ever she is called upon to deliver any dialogue.
What this all boils down to is that "The Cassandra Crossing" is by no means a great 70's disaster movie and in comparison to the more well known movies feels quite inferior. It suffers because of the uneven storyline which fails to really make the situation feel urgent and despite some reasonable performances from the likes of Richard Harris and Sophia Loren never really ends up being very memorable. It's not a terrible movie but is not great either.