Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"The Cassandra Crossing", "Outbreak" and other older thrillers anticipates today's concerns about bioterror and radiological weapons


There are a number of “older” thrillers in the movies which highlight and somewhat parallel bioterror threats today.

One of my favorites was the 1977 film “The Cassandra Crossing.” I remember seeing that in a large NYC midtown theater (I think the Ziegfeld) on a weekday afternoon when I was taking comp time after doing an all nighter fixing a production problem at work at NBC in their computer systems. The film opens with stunning Alpine scenery, and winnows down to a scene in Geneva with European police cars. Pretty soon we’re dealing with a mysterious train to Stockholm whom g-man supposedly discover are contaminated with a plague-like disease supposedly planted by a terrorist wanting to protest WHO. At one point, the train is boarded up and sent toward a dangerous bridge crossing near a former Nazi concentration camp. But as the plot develops, there is suspicion that government officials may be responsible for the fiasco, and the plague may not be as deadly as feared. There is a spectacular train wreck scene at the crossing (after most passengers get out from detached cars) that makes the train look like toys. The plot reminds me of the “Ivins” fiasco at Ft. Detrich. Some threats are internal. The film is directed by George Pan Cosmatos, based on a story by Robert Katz, and was released by AVCO Embassy (now MGM), but was premiered on NBC for TV. The film has been compared to “Runaway Train” (1985), from Cannon, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
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But a more timely film might be "Outbreak" (1995), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, from Warner Brothers. An African Ebola-like virus called Motaba (like Marburg) accidentally gets transmitted to a small town named Cedar Creek in California, winding up under martial law. Curiously, one of the characters has been sent to investigate an outbreak of Hantavirus. A serum designed to treat the infection fails because of mutation, and the town is almost nuked. When I was substitute teaching with an honors chemistry class in northern Virginia in 2005, this movie was shown one day. (Also shown to the same classes was Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen”, about the Bohr-Heisenberg meeting in the shadow of Hitler, with all the ethical dilemmas about publishing what you know.)

Some other thrillers come to mind. One was the 1997 film “The Peacemaker” directed by Mimi Leder, the first film from Dreamworks. A nuclear warhead on a train goes off early in the movie.

But one of the corkers was the 1984 film “Red Dawn”, from MGM/UA, directed by John Milius, an “alternate history” genre film where Communists invade the US from south of the border. But the setup is pretty unbelievable, with the opening showing red paratroopers landing in a high school athletic field. A lot of the film is told in back stories, but nothing like this could go on out of sight.

An unpublished novel manuscript from 1988, which I called “Tribunal and Rapture” when I submitted it to an agent, has communists infiltrating the US East Coast (sort of following the WWII scares of history) and attacking a disco club with plutonium dust, foreshadowing the concern since 9/11 about radiological weapons. Something like this really could have happened during the Cold War if the Soviets had played it that way. Their own clumsy bureaucracy may have saved us as much as did Ronald Reagan.

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