Directed by: Robert Wise
Starring: George C Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Richard Dysart, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning
So, how do you make a disaster movie about a disaster that is over and done with in about 30 seconds? At least James Cameron had the advantage that the sinking of the Titanic took a couple of hours, but The Hindenburg went from proud symbol of Nazi Germany to a heap of ashes in a flash. How do you turn that into a two-hour film? Well, bring on the conspiracy theories, and pad the running time with musical interludes. This is a sedate film that looks better than it is.
The screenplay is based on a book by Michael M. Mooney who claims that The Hindenburg was sabotaged by a crewmember. From reading up on the Hindenburg disaster (over the course of several minutes) I gather that this is a quite speculative theory, unsupported by actual evidence. The day that such petty considerations are allowed to influence disaster movie plotting would be a sad day indeed…
George C. Scott plays Franz Ritter, a colonel of the Luftwaffe, who is brought in as security officer after threats have been made against airship The Hindenburg, which is about to leave on a transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to New York (or Lakehurst, NJ, to be precise). This is 1937, and Ritter has his doubts about the Nazi regime. He is however accompanied by a far more diligent Gestapo officer, whose mission seems to be assisting Ritter while also keeping an eye on him.
There are several among the passengers and crew who arouse Ritter’s suspicions. What’s up with the businessman who keeps checking his watch and recieves telegrams with obviously coded messages? Or the circus artist who sneaks around in the bowels of the dirigible, making sketches of its construction? Or the family man with the mysterious fountain pen…?
While Ritter’s investigation advances about as languidly as the airship glides across the skies, we’re also treated to various melodrama involving the less suspect passengers. For instance, Anne Bancroft plays a countess who helps Ritter trap a couple of itinerant card cheats. There’s also time for an entire musical number, ”There’s a lot to be said for the Fuhrer”, that wouldn’t have been out of place in The Producers.
The presence of George C. Scott and the nice production values add a touch of class to what would otherwise be an average 1970’s disaster film, only with less disaster than most. Scott has done more accomplished work elsewhere, to be sure, but he is good here as well, adding both a steely edge and a touch of humanity to Col. Ritter. But art direction and photography are the real stars of the film, making it look better than it actually is. The shots of the zeppelin gliding majestically through the clouds or towards a sunset at sea look fantastic. Other visual effects are a mixed bag but mostly decent.
There’s some cringeworthy dialogue, some unintentional (?) humour and a few absurd sequences (like Ritter having no problems whatsoever locating ”patch #4”, an unmarked canvas mending patch in an entire zeppelin full of them). But from a disaster movie perspective, the primary problem with The Hindenburg is the actual disaster/running time quotient. The film is 125 minutes long, which translates into 120 minutes of detective work, soul-searching and general socializing aboard the ship, and five minutes of fiery hell. Being the depraved disaster movie buffs that we are, we’d like a larger helping of fiery hell, hold the socializing, please. Despite the inevitable catastrophe drawing ever closer, the movie never generates much excitement or suspense. Scott and pretty pictures notwithstanding, it’s pretty darn boring.
However, when the ”fiery hell” part finally arrives, it is certainly interesting. Director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sound of Music – and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) makes the bold decision to cut to black-and-white at the moment the bomb goes off. This enables him to intercut staged scenes with the authentic, classic newsreel footage of the actual Hindenburg going down. It’s kind of odd, but surprisingly effective.