A contagious new disease takes over a train travelling across Europe. An all star cast confronts what proves to be a problem with unexpected complications in 1976's Cassandra Crossing. Burdened with cheesy special effects and some hokey plot devices, there are nonetheless some eerily prescient aspects to the film and the fantastic cast, headed by Richard Harris and Sophia Loren, can't fail to be captivating.
Two terrorists are infected with a U.S. engineered version of the plague after they break into WHO headquarters in Geneva. One of the terrorists is captured, the other stows away on a train bound for Stockholm. U.S. Colonel Steven McKenzie (Burt Lancaster) takes over operations to contain the disease and orders the train rerouted to Poland.
An improbable mixture of celebrities and government officials make up the train's occupants. Richard Harris plays John Chamberlain, a renowned neurosurgeon who takes charge when it becomes clear people are contracting a strange illness aboard the train. Sophia Loren plays his thrice divorced ex-wife and despite their bickering it's easy to guess their relationship status by the end of the film. Ava Gardner plays the wife of a German arms manufacturer and she's brought her boytoy, played by Martin Sheen, aboard the train with her.
There's more to Sheen's character than meets the eye but their relationship is amusing, Gardner playing up the mischievous and horny diva with gusto. She fondly talks about Sheen as her "mountain climber".
Also aboard the train is O.J. Simpson, dressed as a priest but right away he's clearly a suspicious character (for reasons aside from the fact that he's O.J. Simpson). Finally, Lee Strasberg plays a travelling watch salesman who amusingly tries to sell watches at every opportunity. But his character takes on a more disquieting quality when he learns the train is being redirected to Poland. It turns out he's a Holocaust survivor who'd once been on another train to Poland, an experience he's not eager to repeat.
The similarities only become more ominous when steel shutters are bolted to the train's windows and men in gas masks come aboard to confiscate his watches. He pleads with them, telling them his whole life savings is in the watches and Strasberg is good at conveying a man desperately trying to stop men bent on degrading his dignity and humanity in the form of robbing him of his livelihood.
A dog aboard the train is sent back for testing and a doctor in Geneva (Ingrid Thulin) is startled to find the dog makes a complete recovery. Despite this, she and Richard Harris can't convince Burt Lancaster to stop the train from going over an old bridge called Cassandra Crossing. Everyone talks about how the bridge is unstable yet it's not certain the train won't make it across--I liked how this created a shade of uncertainty about whether Lancaster is consciously sending the occupants of the train to their deaths or if it's the wishful thinking of bureaucratic cowardice.
A few intense sequences are diminished by bad blue screen effects, like a scene where Martin Sheen attempts to climb along the outside of the train, but Richard Harris' intensity sells the situation pretty well.
Cassandra Crossing is available on Amazon Prime.