cassandra crossingTHE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976) – The Andromeda Strain meets the later Supertrain in this railroad version of the Airport movies. I’m sure we all know the formula of Disaster Movies, be they about natural disasters striking cities or manmade disasters striking mass transportation like airplanes, ships and trains.   

The Cassandra Crossing was a co-production of Carlo Ponti and Lew Grade. The film had a lot of potential but was ultimately doomed by oddball acting choices, a script full of holes and a train that clearly changes multiple times during the course of the movie. And I mean it even changes from electric to diesel multiple times as the film progresses.

cassandra crossing posterIn general, the storyline involves a genetically engineered plague covertly developed by government functionaries (think of Anthony Fauci and his ilk) despite international agreements not to conduct such research. Terrorists who want to steal the plague for their own use botch a raid on the International Health Organization (a pastiche of the World Health Organization), which results in a shootout and in two of the terrorists being exposed to the plague.

One of the exposed gunmen escapes and seeks shelter on a departing train, spreading the plague – for which there is no known cure – to the other passengers, instigating a crisis. If the infected aren’t contained, this plague could wipe out 60% of the population of Europe and eventually, the world. The government locks down all the people on the train and proceeds to care more about covering up where the disease originated than they do about public safety. 


SOPHIA LOREN, Carlo Ponti’s wife, stars as Jennifer Rispoli-Chamberlain, a famous writer whose latest work is a scandalous tell-all about the world-renowned physician she married and divorced twice.

RICHARD HARRIS plays that physician, Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain. He and Sophia are this disaster film’s designated troubled couple who rekindle their romance during the story.

BURT LANCASTER fills the role of Colonel McKenzie, a NATO officer who callously handles the coverup and plays God with the lives of the exposed train passengers as well as his own men. In typical fashion for such a role, he’ll agonize over the ugliness of the decisions he makes … but he still carries them out. Decisions like letting all the passengers die by the train plunging into the Cassandra Crossing due to its decrepit bridge.

INGRID THULIN portrays Dr. Elena Stradner, a WHO/ IHO doctor who tries to get Colonel McKenzie to care about human life rather than maintaining the government coverup. Eventually, a means of surviving the plague is discovered through her efforts, but McKenzie STILL wants all the passengers dead just to cover up the illegal bio-weapon research.

MARTIN “Eyes of a rapist” SHEEN is Robby Navarro, a mountain climber who is really an international heroin dealer AND junkie. He’s also the creepiest gigolo in cinema history as he uses his fabulously wealthy customer to move around the world at will.

        If you think it’s absurd for a junkie to be able to climb mountains, you’ll get even BIGGER laughs late in the film when Sheen tries to climb the side of the train even though he’s supposedly going through heroin withdrawal.

AVA GARDNER plays Sheen’s customer, Nicole Dressler, wife of an international arms manufacturer who doesn’t mind that his spouse travels the world with her various boytoys. Her character gets some snarky lines that she delivers well, and Gardner comes across as less pathetic than she did in Earthquake and City on Fire.

LEE STRASBERG costars as Herman Kaplan, a Holocaust survivor who becomes haunted by the parallels between his 1940s experiences and his current plight of being sent to certain death on another train.

LIONEL STANDER portrays the train conductor Max, and his grating voice is kept in check through most of the film.

The vile O.J. SIMPSON plays an Interpol agent masquerading as a priest while trailing drug dealer Martin Sheen. If O.J.’s presence in the cast is a deal-breaker for you, let me point out that he dies before the end.

Throw in the usual assortment of less famous actors as international couples and families of all ages as fellow passengers on the doomed train. You know how the supporting players’ dramas play out in these things.

Loren and Harris carry the film as they fall in love once again while heroically doing the best they can for the suffering victims of the plague. Harris correctly tags Burt Lancaster as the kind of prick his character really is.


The Cassandra Crossing is notoriously bad, and you can find dozens of reviews ripping it to pieces in more detail than I bothered to here. However, none of the reviews I’ve read address the BIG plot hole at the end of the movie.

After the spectacle of the train falling into the ravine as the rickety bridge collapses under weight it was never meant to bear, we are shown that Richard and Sophia at last succeeded in their effort to uncouple the rear half of the train cars from the engine, thus saving many passengers as well as themselves.

We even get shots of the stars who hadn’t died already hugging, etc in the aftermath of the calamity.

THEN, we cut to a scene with Lancaster’s Colonel McKenzie on the phone with his superiors, reporting that all the passengers were killed, and the resulting explosion from the train crash would have burned away all of the plague germs. Lancaster did not know about the efforts of Harris and Loren to save half the passengers, so I was wondering if we were in for a comeuppance scene for him, like a news report showing the boisterous Richard Harris exposing the coverup and the obscene body count.

But nope, we simply ride to the end of the movie on a somber note, with a final “trust no one” moment as Lancaster’s aide, Major Stark (John Phillip Law) secretly informs McKenzie’s unseen superiors that McKenzie and Ingrid Thulin’s doctor character will be kept under surveillance to ensure they don’t leak the story.

Okay, so THAT made me think we were in for a final shot showing the gunned-down bodies of Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, etc about to be put in a pile and burned, as if McKenzie and company had killed even the survivors. However, all the other reviews I’ve read refer to Harris and the others coming through it all alive.

But if there are survivors, especially Ava Gardner’s blabby character, the coverup is blown. Why don’t we get to see that? Did the original ending show even the rear train cars going into the chasm, followed by Burt Lancaster’s phone call? Did test audiences hate that ending, so a quick scene of the surviving stars emerging from one of the train cars was shot and edited in?

And considering that the government PUBLICLY announced that they were diverting the train from its scheduled route, how are Lancaster and his superiors going to explain why the train was routed over a bridge that couldn’t possibly bear its weight? That would STILL be a scandal and heads would roll (and be sued), even if the plague coverup still stands.

Unsatisfying ending to a loopy and sometimes just plain bad movie. If you want some solid laughs, assorted physicians and railroad employees have posted online reviews pointing out all the wild inaccuracies in The Cassandra Crossing.



Filed under Bad and weird movies

8 responses to “THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976)

  1. That is quite a star studded cast!

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