Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Hindenburg (1975)

The 1970s was the decade of the disaster movie so it was probably inevitable that sooner or later someone would make a movie about the Hindenburg disaster. Robert Wise got the job and The Hindenburg came out in 1975.

It posed a few challenges. Movies like Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure dealt with disasters that unfold over a long time period. A lot of the running time of those movies was taken up by the disasters. The Hindenburg disaster took minutes. So how do you fill a two-hour running time? The obvious answer was to turn it into a suspense movie by introducing the idea of a possible plot to blow up the giant airship. Most of the movie can then be occupied by efforts to uncover and foil the plot.

The second problem was the same one that faces anyone making a movie about the Titanic. The audience knows how the story is going to end, they know that disaster cannot be averted. The Hindenburg solves that problem by focusing not on the disaster itself but on the why and the how. The central character is German Air Force intelligence officer Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) who has been given the job of security officer. His job is the make sure that the Hindenburg’s voyage is completed safely.

The third problem is that the story will have to be told mostly from the German viewpoint. Therefore the movie goes to elaborate lengths to convince us that Colonel Ritter is a Good German who hates the Nazis. The movie covers itself even more thoroughly by persuading us that the Zeppelin company who built the Hindenburg is also run by Good Germans who hate the Nazis.

Richard Levinson and William Link provided the story. These were the men responsible for the superb 1970s Ellery Queen TV series, and Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. They should have been capable of coming up with a decent plot, and in fact the core plot is reasonably good.

The Hindenburg is about to take off on a flight from Frankfurt to New York. An anonymous letter is received, claiming that the zeppelin is going to be blown up. For prestige reasons the flight can’t be cancelled but elaborate precautions are taken. The airship is searched thoroughly and as well as Ritter there is a Gestapo man assigned to help his investigations during the flight.

With a saboteur loose on board there was the potential for mystery, suspense and action but the potential isn’t realised. The identity of the saboteur is revealed too early and is in fact blindingly obvious right from the start - nobody else has a motive.

This makes the other passengers rather uninteresting since we know they’re not involved in the conspiracy. They’re just there to play out subplots to pad out the running time. And at 125 minutes this movie is much much too long. These other characters are also very poorly developed. There’s a pianist who is only there so he can sing an anti-Hitler song in a musical interlude with is embarrassing, heavy-handed and out-of-place. It belongs in a Mel Brooks movie. Some of the other characters serve even less purpose.

The one character who should have been interesting is the German countess played by Anne Bancroft. She and Ritter have a history. There should have been some romantic tension between them, but it doesn’t happen. It’s a pity. Bancroft is very good (probably the best thing in the movie) but the script doesn’t give her enough to work with. We really need Ritter and the Countess to care about each other, to give the movie at least some emotional content.

There are some good character actors here (including Gig Young and Burgess Meredith) but the only one who impresses is Charles Durning as the captain of the Hindenburg, largely because he’s the only character with a slight amount of depth.

Roy Thinnes is OK as the movie’s token Nazi, Gestapo agent Martin Vogel, but the character is just a standard movie Nazi.

Wise makes the odd decision to switch to black-and-white once disaster strikes. This was so he could intercut actual newsreel footage with new footage. It’s jarring and it totally destroys the suspension of disbelief. The viewer loses interest because the movie no longer seems real. The disaster, rather than being the climax of the movie, becomes a sort of epilogue.

The special effects are mostly good. It’s a handsome-looking movie. The zeppelin model looks great. The shots of the Zeppelin’s interior are effective and atmospheric.

Nothing could have saved the Hindenburg but the movie could have been saved. The script just needed a lot more work. The minor characters needed to be fleshed out just a little. The major characters needed to be more fully developed. And a bit of action here and there wouldn’t have hurt - surely the hunt for a saboteur could have generated at least one action sequence. A bit more urgency was needed. The basic plot idea was however perfectly sound.

The Hindenburg really is strictly for disaster movie completists.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I can't argue with this - decent cast, but not much else. And the change to black-and-white is really annoying; I can only assume that they didn't think they could do the whole disaster convincingly (maybe they didn't have the money?)