Film review of the disaster drama The Hindenburg (1975) starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.
Director: Robert Wise. Universal/The Filmmakers Group.
Cast & credits
Producer: Robert Wise.
Writers: Richard Levinson, William Fink.
Camera: Robert Surtees.
Music: David Shire.
Sets: Edward Carafagno.
Spec. Eff: Albert Whitlock.
George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Roy Thinnes, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning, Richard Dysart, Robert Clary, Rene Auberjonois, Peter Donat, Robert Oppenheimer, Katherine Helmond.
An account of supposed events leading up to the disastrous explosion in New York in 1937 of the German airship Hindenburg and the personal lives of those onboard, including the Nazi Officer in charge of investigating a bomb onboard (Scott) and his former lover, a wealthy Countess (Bancroft) who is suddenly fleeing Germany for unknown reasons.
The brief but largely successful run of the seventies disaster drama reached its nadir in the middle of the decade, with The Towering Inferno and Earthquake (both 1974).
The Hindenburg came a little late to the show and was the more intelligent and questioning addition to the genre but unfortunately not the best.
Director Wise was a sage man for Universal to place at the helm of this production. The aegis behind such colossal money spinners as West Side Story (1961) and The Sound Of Music (1965) had also turned his megaphone wielding genius to smaller but more scientifically penetrating fare as The Andromeda Strain (1970), a film that satisfied the mind with its efficient stop-watch accuracy, discussion and deliberation.
Here, he uses archive to maximum effect at key moments. As soon as the film opens, the viewer is plopped straight into 1937 with the old Universal Pictures logo spinning perennially in front of us. We even have a Universal News reel to further set the scene.
For the estimable finale in which the infamous airship explodes, the jaw-dropping real-life footage narrated by journalist Herb Morrison is merged seamlessly by special effects maestro Whitlock with Wise’s recreation of events inside the stricken airship, hence the shift to black and white when infamy unfolds, upping the authenticity value to maximum.
Universal even rope in esteemed production designer Carafagno from the Golden Age of Hollywood (he helped create the mighty sets for Ben Hur, 1959 no less), imparting a thorough recreation of the luxury of the ship, including the steel skeletal innards that only tipping or dog owning passengers saw. We are also afforded a peak inside the workings of an extraordinary mode of transportation rarely glimpsed these days but in the 1930’s seen as the way forward. The kitchenalia of the non-electric cigarette lighter, the steadiness test with a up-standing pen, the intricacies of landing.
There are smart moments; during the opening scene, we see the vanity of the Nazis. Scott talks at length to Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, but we see only that man’s portrait, fittingly caught in a moment of proud self awareness.
From the outset and throughout, the portent of disaster hangs like a clingy fog. Before the opening credits have finished, the airship vanishes into the clouds it’s demise just around the corner.
Later, her passengers are terrified by a brief electrical display of St. Elmo’s Fire although Bancroft is aroused by it. At Lakenhurst, New Jersey the light bulbs on the display that illuminate the ‘Gust’ reading are blown out and no one apart from German Captain Durning seem concerned this could affect the landing.
But despite Wise utilising the meticulous, investigative style that made The Andromeda Strain such an enjoyable experience, such cinematic hypothetic reductivism is not the right approach for a blockbuster action film. This is not the most exciting addition to the genre, proceeding at an irritatingly leisurely pace. Tension and action are eschewed for just under two hours which would try the patience of even most saintly of cinema patrons. Despite the impressive production values, this is a long Atlantic journey to nowhere.
There is a curiously heavyweight and talented cast in front of the cameras. Even for a disaster drama, we are being treated. It slightly unbalances a film that already hangs precariously in the air with the accumulated limitations of a moribund script and general listlessness, but Scott and Bancroft are a marvellous sight to see sparing off each other.
There is a pantomime air to her when Nazi officials rifle through the underwear in her luggage and she uses her title to protest to Scott, a previous paramour. When he orders an even deeper search, slashing the lining of her suitcases if necessary, she smiles broadly but says nothing. Its sly moments like these that perk up an otherwise dull film (it also hasn’t escaped this my notice that, dolled up as she is, Bancroft bears more than just a passing resemblance to Nazi-era film director and actress Leni Riefenstahl).
Scott, who had only a few years previously turned down an Oscar for Best Actor (for Patton: Lust For Glory, 1970) for the ceremony cheapening a profession he took seriously, is gently imperious, an organised and clever interrogator.
The support is affable too, including Durning as the unflappable captain and Atherton as the twitchy bomber and Thinnes as an officials Nazi who is assigned to help Scott.
The statesmanlike beauty of Shire’s music, sedately throbbing in the background as may have happened onboard the ship, further underlines the 1930’s feel.