I love airships. I absolutely adore them. From the humble Goodyear blimp (and yeah, "humble Goodyear blimp" is a weird sort of statement) all the way to the newer designs that are gradually creeping back into public use, there is absolutely something about airships, aerostats, blimps, dirigibles, zeppelins, etc. that just send me into heights of ecstasy. Put an airship in a film and, no matter how bad, I'll give it at least one look-see.
So obviously, if I sat through "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade", "Madam Satan", "A Ticklish Affair" and others, I also sat through Robert Wise's 1975 film "The Hindenburg". It was one of those situations where, on paper, everything looks good. Robert Wise directing . . . featuring a cast which included George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning . . . a plot dealing with one of the most spectacular (and mysterious) disasters of the 20th Century . . . what could go wrong?
Well . . .
Okay, as I hope to subsequently prove, there are reasons to enjoy parts of "The Hindenburg". But on the whole the film equaled the original event only in the sense that both were disasters (the only difference being that more people died when the original zeppelin went down).
(At least I think so.)
Certainly there are far less exciting subjects for a motion picture than the events which occurred over Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937, and just as many explanations for what happened (or, rather, how it happened). In the space of one year I myself read two short stories by different authors: one saying the "Hindenburg" was brought down by alien technology, and the other saying sorcery was the reason.
For its basis, the 1975 film used Michael Mooney's book (not too surprisingly called "The Hindenburg") which focused on the possibility of (cue sinister music) sabotage by anti-Nazi elements which were operating in Germany just before World War II. As fodder for a motion picture this made a sensible approach as it meant that the film could be filled with scenes of actors intently investigating each other and searching for a bomb.
And certainly no one could complain about Robert Wise: the man who brought us "The Day the Earth Stood Still", "I Want to Live!", "West Side Story", "The Haunting", "The Sound of Music" and "The Andromeda Strain". But he was also the man who brought us "Rooftops", "Star!" and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture". Something seemed to happen to his skills in the last few decades of his career, making him one of the great mysteries among directors; and "The Hindenburg" serves as a prime example.
There certainly couldn't have been any problem with the people working on the screenplay. Individually Nelson Gidding, Richard Levinson and William Link could claim quite a bit of talented work within their resumes. But maybe I answered my own question with the use of the term people, rather than person. I have a rule of thumb which states that the more people who're involved in a creative project the less the chances of it becoming a success. Three people on a screenplay . . . even three talented people . . . might've been two too many.
(Putting it another way: Rembrandt was not a committee.)
Timing could be called one of the main problems with the film. In that I mean "The Hindenburg" was released during the "disaster movie" cycle of the early to mid-1970s and, subsequently, got lost in the shuffle.
Then there was also the problem of perhaps too many stars in the film (or, rather, instead of "stars" let's say too much attention being put on too many people). I personally tend to believe that the "Grand Hotel" concept only works if you're Edmund Golding and if you've got Greta Garbo in the cast. Otherwise you end up with a train wreck. There are times when miracles do occur (after all, it's been argued that 1967's "Casino Royale" was consciously designed to be a train wreck, which is why it did so well. And then there was Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express", which worked on all levels). The situation also tends to boomerang if you have a tendency to treat less than stellar performers as if they were all Oscar contenders. As fond as I am of people like Roy Thinnes, Robert Clary, Rene Auberjonois, Burgess Meredith and William Atherton,. they required so much of an effort to keep all of them in play that one's surprised the "Hindenburg" managed to get off the ground with all the subplots which it carried.
On the plus side, having all these ingredients means that there's usually one performance which can hold a viewer's interest. The bad news is that one shouldn't have to sit through 125 minutes of turgid cinema just to experience a few moments of joy.
As usual, George C. Scott is interesting to watch. Here he plays Franz Ritter: the Luftwaffe colonel assigned to act as security officer for "The Hindenburg" and make certain nothing happens. This unfortunately is poor dramatic construction. You don't pointedly set up a situation concerning the hunt for a possible bomb on board an aircraft and then have absolutely nothing go wrong. We take it for granted that Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, so Scott's character ends up looking like something of a shmoe. The situation isn't helped when Scott soon learns (A) there is a bomb on board, and (B) the identity of who planted it, but is willing to let the zeppelin blow up in the hopes that everyone will be evacuated beforehand. True, it's indicated early on that his character has serious private doubts about the Nazi Government, but his ambiguity concerning his duty only makes him come across as rather confusing to the audience. Of course you don't want Scott to be the bad guy, so he shouldn't employ the same sadistic tactics used by Roy Thinnes as Martin Vogel (Ritter's Gestapo assistance, and a coolly slimy performance by Thinnes). But a little more forthrightness on his part might've helped.
(Speaking of Nazis, a mention here of David Mauro who provides a brief performance as Josef Goebbels. Obviously no one is ever going to play Goebbels as a sympathetic character, so it's always a contest to see who can top who in terms of sheer malice. Mauro doesn't win any points for scenery chewing, but he's nicely egotistical here.)
If "The Hindenburg" had focused on one particular subplot then my vote would've gone for the one involving Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as a pair of dishonest gamblers who're traveling on the zeppelin in the hopes of fleecing the passengers. They were certainly more watchable than Robert Clary as a French acrobat who makes the rather questionable move of delivering very vocal anti-Nazi sentiment on a German airship with frickin' swastikas on the frickin' hull!
It can be said that Charles Durning has never disappointed his fans, and if his work in "The Hindenburg" didn't particularly shine among his performances then one must put it down to being lost in the shuffle of characters. As Pruss, the captain of the zeppelin, he does manage a mildly suave sort of charm (thoroughly convincing as the sort of person one would want in command of an airborne behemoth like the "Hindenburg"), and he also succeeds in wishing he'd had more to do in the film.
I've always liked William Atherton, and here he nearly manages to outshine Scott in his role as Karl Boerth: one of the zeppelin's riggers, and a man with a rather personal agenda. Atherton's natural expression usually lends itself very well to his comedic roles. Here it serves to give him just the right mixture of near-maniacal "cool" as he drifts about the cavernous workings of the airship, calmly watching Scott and the others almost as if he were a vulture perched on a cliff top. The bad news is that the script (and probably this review as well) telegraphs way too early the character's involvement in the plot. The good news is that, with such a revelation out of the way, Atherton is free to engage in verbal sparring with Scott.
And now we get to the real . . . perhaps the only reason to sit through "The Hindenburg".
I don't think the world has yet realized what a treasure it lost when Bancroft passed away. But maybe if the world sat down to see her drift like a diamond through "The Hindenburg" the notion would sink in. Here she plays the Countess Ursula von Reugen . . . a German noblewoman (and former love interest of Scott). At times beautifully imperious (Bancroft could raise a nose with the most aristocratic of them), she also glows softly (and, on occasion, teasingly. One very interesting scene has Scott confronting Bancroft in her cabin, with Bancroft managing some rather nice things with a negligee. Among other things, the scene definitely nailed down the inescapable fact that Mel Brooks was one of the luckiest SOBs in shoe leather). Whether she's archly dealing with customs officials, or using her own gambling skills against Burgess and Auberjonois, Bancroft is easily the most interesting and well-developed (ahem!) character in the movie. The only off note in an otherwise endearing performance is the necessity of the script to throw in a detail concerning a deaf daughter being educated in America.
On technical points "The Hindenburg" tries very hard (and kudos to cinematographer Robert Surtees for trying his best). Unfortunately the very subject matter of the film also worked against it. As I said, I love airships. But I should also point out the main problem with putting large airships in a film. No matter how good your model work or CGI is, the end result is never going to be convincing. Even a full-sized reproduction wouldn't have helped, and the simple reason for this is because large airships can't help but look like a special effect. Even looking at actual footage of the "Hindenburg" in flight makes you think you're seeing some sort of model. That's just the way they photograph. But I do give Surtees his due for still managing to choreograph an admittedly well-made model as best as possible (the model, by the way, was so good it's on display to this day at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum).
David Shire, who managed to provide the 1974 version of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three", Coppola's "The Conversation" and Richards' "Farewell, My Lovely" with some rather nice soundtracks, tried to underline "The Hindenburg" with a score which was apparently meant to invoke the sense of traveling leisurely through the sky on what was essentially a flying luxury liner. The good news was that he succeeded. The bad news was that the story perhaps called for a bit more sense of rising tension, or impending doom.
Historically Gidding, Levinson and Link played somewhat fast and loose. No big surprise (we are, after all, dealing with a theory as to why the "Hindenburg" exploded, as opposed to actual proof), but for the sake of drama the screenplay depended on characters who were amalgamations of real people, or outright inventions. There are times when this can work (Gilbert's "Sink the Bismarck!" immediately comes to mind, along with Sturges' "The Great Escape"), but one has to want to consciously want to stress action over historical accuracy, and "The Hindenburg" doesn't quite deliver. Not at least until the last fifteen minutes . . . and here Wise and his team manage one of their most interesting moments in the film by not only depicting the disaster, but in the way they incorporate the classic newsreel footage of the actual event (along with Herbert Morrison's famous radio commentary). A bit more imagination of this sort might've helped keep "The Hindenburg" airborne. As it was, the film met the same fate as its namesake: an attempt at a grand palace that tragically ended up in flames.
Except for Anne Bancroft.