In what was one of the mid-20th century's most startling (and baffling) events, the massive German dirigible The Hindenburg was landing in the U.S. after crossing the Atlantic and suddenly burst into flames, killing roughly a third of the people on board and one ground crewman. No one has ever definitively proven what went wrong that day and this film presents a case for sabotage. Based on a detailed book by Michael Mooney, it fabricates a fair amount of storyline, but does boast some very authentic casting and some really impressive attention to detail in the art direction.
In 1937, a time of much espionage, George C. Scott plays a German colonel sent along on the airship to investigate any potential misdeeds among the passengers and crew. Roy Thinnes is a Gestapo agent, also on board, whose methods of investigation differ greatly from Scott's. The men clash at times and Scott even grabs Thinnes by the throat at one point.
A large spectrum of passengers includes: Anne Bancroft as a despondent, pot-smoking countess en route to join her deaf daughter in America, Gig Young as a nervous (and visibly drunk) advertising executive, Robert Clary as an excruciating Jewish entertainer, Rene Auberjonois and Burgess Meredith as untrustworthy gamblers, Peter Donat and Joanna Moore as a decadent Broadway writing couple and Alan Oppenheimer and Katherine Helmond who, with their three children, are returning to America after a visit to Germany.
Among the crew, William Atherton plays a shifty-acting rigger, Richard Dysart is the designer of the ship and Charles Durning is the captain. Scott entertains a sort of German Hercule Poirot stance, sizing up the people on board as the floating vessel billows its way towards its destination until, finally, he discovers the dastardly plans to blow the whole thing to smithereens. At one point Scott grabs Atherton around the neck as well! (Had the Countess been played by Ava Gardner, he no doubt would have half-strangled her, too, as he tended to do during their stormy romance during the filming of The Bible: In the Beginning…!!)
That the ship eventually explodes should come as no surprise to anyone unless he was born under a rock. We really will probably never know for certain what caused the baffling event. People have been debating it for more than seventy years.
Wise, a fine editor (of no less than Citizen Kane!) prior to becoming a highly accomplished director, was in a stage here of filming everything with a numb-inducing solemnity (see also the dire Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which began and probably would have ended the franchise were it not for the more energetic and colorful sequel a few years after! This is an ironic prelude to that film, which also employed many slow shots, paired with lush music, of a giant vessel either hanging stationary or careening around.)
The title vehicle is gorgeous to behold and is shown against varying beautiful landscapes, sunsets, clouds, etc... while some lovely, at times, majestic music by David Shire is heard. Virtually no detail went unchecked in recreating its look, inside and out. It is practically the whole show here since the human element gets short shrift. The scale model work and effects photography are exemplary for 1975 and the 25-foot long “miniature” that was used now hangs in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
The over-sized cast, with a couple of exceptions, is barely able to make the slightest impact, if at all, as the story covers not only the airship, but plenty of on the ground activities as well. Note how the poster (in the then-popular box format, featuring all the stars and using the same labeling method as The Towering Inferno – “The Captain,” “The Countess,” etc…) has some complete nobody in one of the squares! “The Smuggler.” WHO??
Scott, (who really needed his shiny, blotchy, bent nose powdered in his restaurant scene!) brings some much-needed weight to the film with his thoughtful, shaded portrayal. Atherton does a decent job until his preposterous final moment involving a dog, something that didn’t occur in real life. He also has a hair-raising repair scene on the exterior of the zeppelin. Thinnes comes up with a nice amount of smarmy menace in his character.
Bancroft demonstrates why she was the Mommie Dearest producers' first choice before dropping out, haughtily mouthing off in her period clothes and camping it up a tad bit much. She wears a huge, thick ponytail at one point that could not possibly be reworked into the scant bun she displays during the rest of the film. She does, at least, manage to hold the viewer's attention, which is more than can be said for some of the less colorful personalities present. Despite some big names, the cast seems to get lost in a pallid sea of banality. I’ve seen this film many times and still am always surprised to see people in it who I had forgotten because they are so vaguely drawn and colorless. Those who only know Helmond from Soap and Who’s the Boss? will be hard-pressed to even recognize her here.
Clary, who in real life was imprisoned by the Nazis, is nevertheless an acquired taste on screen. His brand of mugging and performing is not something that will thrill everyone. His piano-playing cohort Donat is another actor whose appeal has always escaped me. While he isn’t terrible in the film, someone with a bit more charisma and flair might have been able to put across his scenes a little better.
Moore is stuck with an unduly thick and fake looking blonde wig. The mother of Tatum O’Neal, she had previously been the wife of Ryan O’Neal and had a tumultuous life. Orphaned when a car crash (in which she was not involved) killed everyone in her family but her (her father dying within a year due to injuries), she later lost three fingers in a car accident of her own. Her marriage to O’Neal only lasted long enough for two children to have been conceived and born. Their bitter divorce helped aggravate a serious drug and alcohol problem and cost her custody of the kids. She died in ’93 from lung cancer.
If you come here regularly, you know that I pay tribute to both 1970s disaster movies and to handsome hunks. However, the two topics scarcely ever converge because for some odd reason, these films rarely have any hunks in them! Meandering through this movie in a subordinate role is the closest thing I could find to a hunk, Colby Chester. Probably best known for playing Jill Abbott’s divorce lawyer on The Young and the Restless back when crazy Brenda Dickson had the role, he is cute even now as a salt ‘n pepper daddy type, but never really got very far in movies. He did land more than a few TV guest roles, however. Love that name, too!
Another familiar face in the cast (who isn’t even listed on imdb.com as being in it!) is that of Susan French. French began as a theatre actress before moving to TV in the mid-60s and then to supporting film roles. She’s probably best known as the old version of Jane Seymour’s character in Somewhere in Time (“Come back to me…”) She has a line of dialogue or two, playing a wealthy, haughty passenger on the Hindenburg and is shown many times. Ironically, she was also a passenger on Karen Black’s damaged 747 in Airport 1975! (And Thinnes was the co-pilot in that one, too.)
Of course, the most infamous person in the cast is Young, who is clearly intoxicated even when he isn’t meant to be. He’d been fired from Blazing Saddles (in the Gene Wilder part!) due to his alcoholism and would soon be replaced by John Forsythe as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels for the same reason. A handsome young man in the 40s and 50s, career disappointments and personal demons would eventually lead him down a destructive and very sad path. Just three years after this movie, he would marry a German actress forty-four years his junior and in a matter of weeks shoot her, then himself, to death.
For the big finale, the film suddenly turns black and white. This is so that Wise could interpolate actual archival footage of the Hindenburg explosion. On the one hand, it adds to the film because it’s spectacular, if unsettling, to see, and it’s unlikely that any recreation at that time could top it. And the new footage matches reasonably well with the old, though it can certainly be discerned. On the other hand, it feels like a cop out. It’s as if Wise decided not to create his own effects and stage his own stunt sequences and instead just ran the old footage with a few new bits interspersed. The entire finale, while decidedly eye-popping, is very murky and disjointed. It’s hard to see what’s happening and to whom, at times. Our eyes, used to color, have to adjust to the already bland characters in monochrome.
During the course of the movie, the script spends too much time on the ground and with various military and government officials for the passengers to be fully fleshed out and worthy of any concern. Rarely has it mattered so little who gets out all right. In real life, the stories of survival were otherworldly and people suffered tremendously during the event. The stories of burning and broiling among those who died and, in some cases, lived are horrible. Here it’s all so slipshod and slapdash with the possible exception of Dysart’s emergence from the tangled inferno and Donat’s use of his hands. So negligible are the characters’ fates that, instead of being shown what happens to each of them, a narrator blurts out a few, but not all, of their statuses (i.e. - "Survived", "DEAD", "DEAD") after the fire as some grainy pictures pop up on screen.
It's a striking story and the film does succeed in presenting the elegant setting and also in setting up a reasonable amount of suspense. It fails in creating any particularly compelling people or a rewarding resolution for them. Maybe the writers didn’t want to offend any potential survivors or their offspring? It could also be that audiences had little concern for an airship bearing the swastika and containing a hefty amount of Nazis. It also has to be said that while it’s sort of fun to watch people like Stella Stevens, Richard Chamberlain and Michael Caine ward off flames and heights, when it’s a real situation, the guilty pleasure begins to have the accent on the guilt. James Cameron later proved, however, with his massive hit Titanic that audiences would go (and go!) to see a fact-based disaster film while being fully aware of the outcome as long as they cared about the people involved.
Then there’s Roger Ebert who pointed out that most disaster flicks are entertaining because the catastrophe occurs pretty early in the picture and we experience the survival along with the participants while, in this case, the final twenty minutes or so are spectacular, but are swift and scant payoff for having sat through a lot of tedium beforehand. Other (less polite) critics made reference to the massive gasbag, comparing the film as being about the same in long-windedness and pace!
Due to its inherently disastrous circumstances, this is always lumped into the disaster movie genre when, in actuality, it's really more of an all-star whodunit (or is about to do it) style of mystery, but without interesting enough characters (or, in some cases, actors) to pull it off. It's a bit of a hybrid, featuring none of the best attributes of either genre, but floating by on the merits of its attention to detail and its overall craftsmanship. The film was nominated for three Oscars in the categories of Set Decoration, Cinematography and Sound and was granted two special Oscars for achievement in Sound Effects and Visual Effects.
To demonstrate how really careful the casting was, I’m linking to a wonderful page that shows the real life passengers and crew paired with screenshots of the actors who either played them or played people inspired by them. The author, Dan, has done a terrific job with this page. The main concession to 1975 seems to be that most of the men, when it came to their hair, eschewed the 1930s center part for the more up to date side part. Otherwise, many of the actors suggest the people they are portraying rather well, or at least some thought was put into it.
Lastly, I came upon this shot of Mae West at one of the premieres with Robert Wise. For some reason it cracks me up that Mae would be present for a photo op at a movie like this. I have no reason to think it’s funny other than the fact that I just do! Maybe some of you will find joy in the moment of the picture as well… Perhaps she could have made a cameo appearance in the movie to liven up the joint. And as a final note on the film, I think it comes off better on a second viewing. I just don’t know how many people are going to want to subject themselves to two go-rounds of it!