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Following in the tradition of 1970’s disaster flicks, The Cassandra Crossing also boasts an all star cast as well as being better than most in this genre. Among the big names is Sophia Loren as Jennifer Rispoli Chamberlain, a wealthy writer twice divorced from Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris) who is on his way to Strasbourg to receive an award. Ava Gardner as Nicole Dressler the wife of a German arms manufacturer traveling with her young gigolo lover (a long haired Martin Sheen). Lee Strasberg as Mr. Kaplan, a holocaust survivor, and O.J. Simpson as an undercover federal agent disguised as a priest (irony of ironies). Swedish actress and Ingmar Bergman favorite Ingrid Thulin as Dr. Stradner, who works at the International Health Organization in Geneva. I guess that’s movie speak for the World Health Organization. Burt Lancaster as Colonel Mackenzie, and John Phillip Law as Major Stark.
The film opens with three Swedish terrorist radicals trying to set off a bomb in the US diplomatic section within the IHO. When the Marines stop them, two of the terrorists attempt to escape through a secured top secret lab. In the ensuing gun fire exchange, the terrorists become exposed to a bacterial plague. One of them escapes and makes his way to the train station and boards the Stockholm bound luxury transcontinental.
Colonel Mackenzie is immediately summoned to the IHO to assess the situation as well as damage control. There, he requests the assistance of Dr. Stradner, the head of infectious diseases to study the one infected terrorist who was caught. Once on board the train, it’s only a matter of time before some of the passengers begin to display symptoms of contagion.
By now the army has figured out that the terrorist must be on board that train. Once they’ve confirmed this information later in the film rather than stop the train and quarantine him and the 1000 passengers aboard, the train is ordered to change routes. Col. Mackenzie misinforms the passengers by making up a story that there’s a bomb scare but everything is under control and for their own protection the train is being rerouted and will not be stopping in Basel or Paris.
When Dr. Stradner notices on the manifest list that the renowned Dr. Chamberlain is on board the train, Col. Mackenzie makes the decision to inform Chamberlain of the real situation and have him seek out the plague carrier.
Later on, the authorities inform the passengers that the train will stop in Nuremberg where army medical personnel and supplies will board the train and will then proceed to another location to be quarantined.
Once in Nuremberg 43 armed guards board the train and passengers are warned that anyone trying to deboard will be forcibly stopped. Windows are slatted and sealed with enclosed liquid oxygen into the train.
At this point Chamberlain, his ex-wife and Kaplan realize the quarantine the military has in mind is permanent after they discover they are to pass over the Cassandra Crossing on their way to Poland. The Cassandra Crossing is a bridge that has not been in use since 1948. In fact, it’s considered so unsafe that locals who lived beneath the bridge have long since moved away for fear that the unstable bridge may one day collapse on them.
Meanwhile, the sick dog that was rescued earlier by helicopter from the train and taken to the IHO for observation is recovering. Dr. Stradner points this out to Col. Mackenzie hoping to dissuade him from following through on a drastic, criminal “solution” to the plague infested train
We can see that Mackenzie is torn about the order he’s been given regarding the fate of the passengers when he calls an unnamed superior explaining that the dog is improving, that it may not be necessary to keep the train from stopping. But it becomes obvious that Mackenzie is just another cog in the machine who must also accept orders with out questioning. After all, how would the army explain that they’ve been harboring germ warfare agents in a foreign, neutral country?
Dr. Chamberlain and the others now must plan how to get off the moving train or at least detach the carriages from the engine car. But this plan is further complicated by the 43 armed guards patrolling all the cars. One has to assume the guards have also been lied to for how else would so many people knowingly and willingly stay on board a train barreling towards a certain suicide.
The Cassandra Crossing is a tense, exciting and actually ..yes ..a fun ride with a first rate cast.
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