Film review, by Jason Day, or The Hindenburg (1975), the dramatic reconstruction of the airship Hindenburg’s explosion in 1937. Starring George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft. Directed by Robert Wise.
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A dramatic, romantic reconstruction of the events that led up to the notorious Hindenburg disaster in 1937. In the film, sabotage means a bomb explodes, igniting the hydrogen in the airship and leading to the deaths of more than 30 of those on board and one person on the ground. Incredibly, 62 people onboard the ship survived.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Popular on release but panned by the critics, Sound of Music maestro Robert Wise’s famously meticulous attention to detail clouded his usually sound judgement, as he happily filmed a script that focused on what was even back in the mid-seventies a controversial theory that the fabled flagship of German airborne superiority was deliberately blown up by anti-Nazis.
There was no firm evidence for it during the initial investigations of the disaster and no new information about that to this day. The most probable cause was an electrostatic charge that ignited the highly flammable hydrogen that helped the craft fly, but simple, boring physics and the chemical properties of gasses don’t lend themselves well to drama…but great conspiracy theories!
The disaster drama, hugely popular in the 1970’s, achieved the zenith of its success as a genre in 1974 with the epic, simple and sublime The Towering Inferno in 1974. No such complications like political sabotage in that movie (although there was in one of the two novels it was based on), the action caught fire thanks to cheapskate builder Bill Holden and tricky-Dicky Chamberlain’s dodgy wiring and lazy work ethic.
By 1975, people were all Airport and Earthquaked out and switched instead to films about everyday, working class heroes like Rocky (1976) and sophisticated satires and politically-slanted fare like Network and All the President’s Men (both also 1976).
The Hindenburg just caught the tail of their meteoric success and raked in an appreciable amount of cast at the box office. Critical feelings were less than favourable but, as an elegant drama (with a smidgen of disaster spectacle, right at the very end) it is relatively diverting, superbly cast and acted.
In the leads are Scott and Bancroft, the least Germanic of German people and rather proudly doing absolutely nothing to mask their accents and Americanness, similar to most of the largely US cast.
They turn in effortlessly classy, sexy performances. What wit there is in the script, they grasp hold of and run with.
Bancroft, enraged that her aristocratic status is lost on the Nazi officials wanting to search her luggage, flirts outrageously with Scott for special treatment. They are friends but, unmoved by her kittenishness, he orders the officials to search her possessions with the utmost vigour, ripping open the lining of her cases if necessary. Her reaction is marvellously judged; she beams a wry, sideways smile, knowing this would be his response.
It’s just a shame Wise’s mammoth film dawdles when it should grip the viewer. Did he spend so much time planning his only foray into this genre that he neglected to watch any other disaster flicks and take away one very important lesson: make it entertaining.
Disaster dramas are an odd thing. A bit like horror movies, they are not always taken seriously. So-called popcorn pieces that ask a big ask of an audience: to watch and ‘enjoy’ people suffering as they battle for survival.
It’s the human condition, red in tooth and claw, writ large on the silver screen people, all wrapped up in splendid production values and amazing effects and stunt work.
With The Hindenburg, the impression is that Wise was unwise to leave the disaster entirely until the very end of his film. We have a lot of (not especially interesting) incident and protagonists to sit through as Scott commences a rather drawn out airborne investigation.
Wise spent more than a year collecting film footage and photographs of the airship; given that most blueprints for it had been destroyed during WWII, this was of huge advantage when it came to production and special effects design.
Wonderful, but where Hindenburg is opaque and sputters along, Towering Inferno roars ahead by cracking on with what people want, tantalising and tempting audiences with action almost from the beginning. It proved how, difficult though it is to do all of that, if you get it right, millions around the world will see you film.
When it does happen the disaster is well-staged, mixing (unusually but successfully) actual archive footage filmed by news crews at the time, is impressive and enthralling. The immortal words from journalist Herb Morrison, “Oh, the humanity!”, are used and instill power into this sequence.
It’s reputation as (very probably) the greatest disaster movie stands to this day. Within the genre, The Hindenburg has largely been forgotten and isn’t treated to umpteen TV screenings, unlike Towering Inferno that is regularly seen.
Cast & credits
Director: Robert Wise. 2hr 5mins/125 mins. The Filmmakers Group/Universal. (PG).
Producer: Robert Wise.
Writer: Nelson Gidding.
Camera: Robert Surtees.
Music: David Shire.
Sets: Edward C. Carfagno.
George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Roy Thinnes, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Charles During, Richard Dysart, Robert Clary, Rene Auberjonois, Peter Donat, Allan Oppenheimer, Katherine Helmond, Joanna Moore.