Ah, there’s nothing quite like a 1970s disaster movie. The Cassandra Crossing (1976) is an obscure entry in this genre, but it’s not bad for its type, weaving intrigue and post-Watergate cynicism into its disaster-in-progress setpiece.
When Swedish terrorists (yeah, you heard me) break into the headquarters of the International Health Organization in Geneva, one is infected with a deadly strain of pneumonic plague. He escapes, boarding a train bound for Stockholm before the ranking U.S. military commander (Burt Lancaster, naturally) can lock the situation down. In order to contain the outbreak, he reroutes the train to a quarantine zone in Poland, ordering it to continue without stopping so the passengers can’t disembark. To help him carry out this plan, he enlists Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris), a brilliant neurosurgeon on the train. Chamberlain’s medical skills are needed to treat the afflicted and mitigate the panic. He and his ex-wife, novelist Jennifer Chamberlain (Sophia Loren), work together to manage the situation—until it becomes clear the government may not have the train’s best interests in mind.
The Cassandra Crossing was written with a dog-eared copy of the Irwin Allen playbook nearby. Throw an all-star cast of Hollywood stars together in a perilous situation and force them to fight for their lives! Instant hit! Unfortunately, the all-star cast isn’t particularly interesting. Harris and Loren are serviceable heroes, Ava Gardner is a hoot as a spirited, flirty heiress, and Martin Sheen is fun as her outrageously garbed gigolo lover. But with the exception of Lee Strasberg’s a touching turn as a Holocaust survivor who breaks down when he learns the train is going back to Poland, there isn’t much depth to the character. When the passengers finally rally together to save themselves, there aren’t many worth caring about all that much.
Still, the film slots in nicely alongside peers in the genre, most notably the more espionage-heavy Avalanche Express. Director George P. Cosmatos is perhaps too fond of his shot composition, full of dramatic angles and slow pans, but it does contribute to a distinctive, memorable look. By and large, it’s pretty disposable, but it’s the right kind of disposable, a diverting Technicolor adventure.