Juggernaut Jones

Our Freddie Jones tribute screening consisted of THE ELEPHANT MAN and JUGGERNAUT. I can’t discuss his role in the latter without heavy spoilers, but I would argue that the film, though beautifully plotted, is spoiler-proof because its real pleasures go well beyond the what-happens-ness of the narrative.

But the spoilers start right now.

I was able to get Fiona to rewatch JUGGERNAUT because she’d forgotten most of the what-happens, and because I sold it as Freddie’s only title role. We see cops Anthony Hopkins and Kenneth Colley (a Ken Russell favourite) interview various suspects or potential informants as they try to catch the pseudonymous title terrorist. (One scene shows them backstage at Swan Lake, presumably interviewing the dry ice specialist about his protechnics expertise, but alas we don’t meet him.) Freddie Jones, Cyril Cusack and Michael Hordern play the characters we do meet, so there’s a small whodunnity aspect to the story. But as with a Maigret mystery, whydunnit is much more important and interesting.

Hopkins interviews Cusack in prison, giving the scene a little SILENCE OF THE LAMBS pre-echo, but with Hopkins in the opposite part. Cusack plays a charming IRA bomb man, evidently a bit of a psychopath, but mostly just old: “I don’t really care who gets blown up.” No longer full of passionate intensity, he apparently now lacks all conviction and his only reason for not teasing Hopkins with false leads is that he can’t be bothered.

Director Richard Lester told me they started the scene at the usual time, and when they finished it he looked at his watch and it was 9.20 a.m. or something. A wonderful feeling for a man who liked to move fast!

Michael Hordern is working at a dog track (because robot rabbits and bombs are part of the same skillset) and is annoyed that his name’s on the terror suspect list. He only does criminal stuff abroad, and his last job was for HM Gov and they promised to take him off the list. “You can’t trust anybody these days,” says Colley, before promising to take him off the list if he helps. Hordern does a shifty look. He’s only really here because Lester loved his work and because we need another suspect. The rule of three.

Freddie’s character, Sidney Buckland, is a retired bomb disposal man, living in a little suburban home with his nice wife, watching telly and seemingly quite relaxed and helpful to the police. If this were a whodunnit, which it is, we’d immediately finger him for the perp, which we do. But Jones plays his scene with so little intensity — not always a naturalistic actor, but he can do it when required — that he gets away with it. And his lovely wife, Kristine Howarth, is so warm and sweet, she’s the best character witness you could ask for.

The thing that makes the pay-off satisfying is that Buckland is the former colleague and guv’nor of Fallon, the hero (Richard Harris), the man who has the job of defusing the bombs. When Fallon recognises the style of the bomb as belonging to a wartime German job he defused with Buckland, the cops realise Buckland is their man (the original bomb’s designer being dead). So this is satisfying in narrative terms but also makes the situation worse, especially for the hero: the man he has to outsmart is his friend and defusion guru.

(The movie doesn’t worry about why 47-year-old Jones is retired — the real one worked until the age of 90 — but I guess acting is different from bomb disposal — or is it? — or how he and 44-year-old Harris could have been defusing doodlebugs thirty years earlier — evidently both characters are older than they look.)

Fallon has narrowed his options down to two wires, red and blue. He can’t tell which one deactivates the bomb and which one will set it off. Oh, and there are several bombs, all below the waterline on an ocean liner in heavy seas. No way to evacuate, and any mistake will kill everyone. Fallon has already lost his best friend Charlie Braddock, on this job, and he’s a tired, angry fellow who despises the establishment he works for.

Catching Juggernaut means they can ask Buckland which wire to cut. It’s on a timer and it’s going to go off in minutes. If Harris cuts the right wire he can convey to his team, each stationed at their own device, which one he cut and they can duplicate his action (if all the bombs are the same).

Freddie/Buckland walks to the mic, I think maybe the only tracking shot in the film. (To make the film feel like it was unfolding “live,” Lester shot casually, mo st scene s covered from one position with two or three cameras, one on a master, the others punching in to catch closeups and details.)

So, by radio, Fallon asks Buckland which wire he ought to cut. He appeals to their friendship, he acknowledges Buckland’s mastery, and he reminds his mentor what the fear and tension of the job are like. It’s an impassioned performance and a sensible approach that WOULD work, if you were dealing with a fellow human being with a spark of empathy left.

Lester cross-cuts between the two wires in macro-close-up, each forming a diagonal for maximum graphic punch.

Buckland tells Fallon to cut the blue wire.

Fallon thinks about it. Then cuts the red wire. The bomb doesn’t go off. “It’s red, lads!” he shouts. Job done. The audience can wipe its sweaty hands.

This ending is really impressive and nailbiting cinematically bravura. Still, something about it kind of bothered me as a kid, and I thought about it, worried away at it, and it got even better.

First, there’s the fact that Buckland steers Fallon wrong, even though he’s already been caught. Killing his friend and all those passengers and crew will achieve nothing, now. He’s never going to get his half million ransom, and his probable sentence for mass murder will be, if possible, even harsher than his sentence for extortion by terror would have been. It’s a completely nihilistic and self-destructive act. Therefore a good gesture for the antagonist to make at the end of a story, I guess.

But what about Fallon? We have to assume that something about Buckland’s delivery of the simple lines, “It’s blue,” and “Cut the blue wire,” tells Fallon that his old friend is not to be trusted. He detects the trap and avoids it.

Now this clip IS a spoiler.

What I realised was bothering me is that Fallon, on impulse, cuts the red wire, without telling anyone. His team, listening in, think he’s cutting the blue. If he’d guessed wrong, they have all cut the red wire, thinking he’d been killed by the blue, and they have all been blown up also.

(Of course, if he’d guessed wrong, they’d probably all drown anyway.)

It seemed like, to create suspense, the film had Fallon do something pretty stupid. He should at least have announced what he was doing. But that would have been messy, would have spoiled the neatness of the tension-relief scheme.

But maybe Fallon didn’t care. Maybe he just made a perverse choice, not worrying about the consequences. Perversity and rebellion are big parts of his character. And maybe Buckland is a model for the man Fallon might turn into. So maybe Fallon’s action, which saves the ship and everyone on it, was also a completely nihilistic and self-destructive act.

Fallon doesn’t look relieved or happy that the ship doesn’t explode.

He goes on deck and looks out, not at where the ship has been, but back at its wake.

He has the air of a gambler who has lost everything. But is disappointed to find he’s still there.

BUCKLAND: I can’t explain what they did to me, not in official police jargon. […] They teach you how to dismantle bombs, save lives. But they didn’t pay you enough so you learn how to design bombs, taking lives. Pays much better. And then one day you’re old and they give you a miserable pension. I’m still good at my job.”

JUGGERNAUT features Professor Albus Dumbledore; Doctor Yuri Zhivago; Dildano; Dr. Hannibal Lecter; Polo Bollen; Bilbo Baggins; Sheriff J.W. Pepper; the Cheshire Cat; the Mock Turtle; Eva Braun; Thufir Hawat; Major Breen; Chief Insp. Gregg; Pandit Nehru; Admiral Piett; Lord Tarquin of Staines; Cuthbert Clare; Hopkirk (deceased); Control; Roj Blake; and Manimal.

12 Responses to “Juggernaut Jones”

  1. Chuck V. Says:

    I think when Jones says “Cut the blue wire” a second time, after not having heard an earth-shattering kaboom, is the tell that let Harris know he was being lied to.

  2. That makes sense, sort of, but there could be other explanations. And unless he really doesn’t care, Fallon ought to be telling everyone what he’s doing…

  3. revelator60 Says:

    You’ve put your finger on one of the elements that raises Juggernaut above the standard thriller it might have been if different filmmakers been involved.

    My favorite Freddie Jones performance is in the TV version of Pennies From Heaven, as Mr. Warner the headmaster, who’s introduced as a harsh ogre but gets to recite that heartbreaking monologue in his last scene.

    His most over the top performance might be in the Sherlock Holmes episode “Wisteria Lodge,” where he plays a police inspector who for once is almost as smart as Holmes. His overplaying knocked Jeremy Brett’s overplaying off-balance.

  4. Then again, there’s his mad, birling Scottish shrink in The Man Who Haunted Himself.

  5. Matthew Clark Says:

    A great, all star disaster movie. Which I bet, Irwin Allen went to bed at night dreaming if he could only make one half as good.
    Was this a come back movie for Harris? He’d stopped drinking and was showing that he could behave himself during a production?
    And, is that John Bluthal making an unaccredited, comic cameo appearance, similar to the one he did as a car thief in “Hard Day’s Night”? Here, as a blind street vendor whose small table of knickknacks is knocked over as Hopkins’ police car rushes up to park on the sidewalk?

  6. The film was apparently begun before “group jeopardy” was a thing, and so got typed as a disaster movie without the disaster, which is silly, and far from anyone’s mind when they were making it. “A straight suspense picture” is how Lester saw it, and he was interested in the political question of paying terrorists.

    (The film always strikes me as biassed a little towards Ian Holm’s humanist take, but I note that extortion by terror has basically ceased to exist since governments ruthlessly declined to negotiate with hijackers and bombers.)

    Lester says he never had a problem with Harris (or any of the other hard-living actors he worked with) but I’ve heard there was one day when JH didn’t show up (the studio tank shoot, where he was supposed to climb a rope ladder in a wetsuit: he said sod that, apparently. Artful dubbing makes it seem like he’s in the scene: “Come on, lads!” his disembodied voice exhorts).

    Rule #1: if it looks like Bluthal, it probably is.

    Rule #2: even if it doesn’t, it probably is.

  7. What I realised was bothering me is that Fallon, on impulse, cuts the red wire, without telling anyone. His team, listening in, think he’s cutting the blue. If he’d guessed wrong, they have all cut the red wire, thinking he’d been killed by the blue, and they have all been blown up also.

    Sorry, but your objection makes no sense to me. Since we see that cutting the red wire is the safe choice, if Fallon’s team cut the red wire then nothing would blow up.

  8. The key part is “IF Fallon had guessed wrong” — then he would have blown up when he cut the red wire. Then his team, thinking he had cut the blue wire, would have cut the red and also blown up.

    Since Fallon guessed correctly and then informs his team to cut red after he has already done so, everything ends happily. But had he been wrong it would have been a right old mess.

  9. chris schneider Says:

    I’d love any “group jeopardy “ film that included a Stevie Smith allusion — namely, Shirley Knight talking about “Not Waving, But Drowning.”

    My knowledge of Freddie Jones is not enormous. Still, I do treasure his performance in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED!

  10. He really elevates that one. It’s a startlingly emotive role, not the kind of thing Hammer usually came up with — they let a production manager write the script and, through sheer inexperience, he wrote a proper acting part.

  11. Jeff Gee Says:

    Maybe the strangest, least satisfying post-movie diner discussion I ever participated in concerned “Juggernaut,” with one fellow insisting Harris HAD said he was cutting the red wire before doing so. “If he didn’t say it, it would have been nuts.” We actually returned to the movie a couple days later and paid for his ticket. Conclusion: “He said it, but they didn’t show it. Bad editing. Probably cut for time.” 40 odd years later and I am still amazed.

    2nd run theater, so the ticket was $1.50. But still.

  12. Ha! Well, there’s a fellow who didn’t like to admit a mistake. I mean, the original argument was about whether the line was IN THE FILM, right?

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