The Hindenburg

THE HINDENBURG gaslit audiences in 1975, who expected some bang for their balloons bucks, catastrophe-primed by the destructoramas of Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Since this $15,000,000 opus had a history tie-in, starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft and was directed by vetted epic helmsman Robert Wise, how could it miss? Ask the Luftwaffe. For critics, it was a king-sized woof of hot, stale air; no doubt many were convulsed by the movie’s last line, from reporter Herbert Morrison’s famed radio broadcast, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed“. Well, it’s not that bad; most of the acting is okay and some of the special effects looked fine at the time, yet overall, the moth-eaten dialogue, shallow characters, dull subplots and especially the bungled finale, can’t help but summon a sneer or six. Call it “a Universal disaster”.

What goes up must come down: in this case in New Jersey

Written like something belonging in the year it was set, the dull and padded script mixes historical characters with representative fictional folk, has us meet them and quickly decide who will hold our interest and who will make us want the blimp to hurry up and explode already. It goes on a conjectural limb about why the pride of Nazi Germany’s aeronautical arm blew into fiery pieces while docking in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937.

Hey, toots, ve’re getting paid, so vutt ze hecken, ja?

Pretty shots of the doomed dirigible (models and matte work) cruising over twinkling cities and North Atlantic icebergs alternate with bland chatter aboard, the actors gamely trying to make it interesting enough to generate the tension required to make the ultimate blazing payoff worth the prattle. George C. Scott had stayed afloat through five flops in a row, so even if this script stank and critics carped, the box office success was welcome: he plays the Luftwaffe officer tasked with security. Anne Bancroft sleepwalks through her jaded countess/vamp role, wondering why she signed on for such a cliche-hobbled part. William Atherton and Roy Thinnes, respectively a suspect crewman and Gestapo mole, do decent yeoman work. Whose idea was it put the ‘irrepressible’ (code for ‘excruciating’) Robert Clary in the mix? Weren’t there any mimes available?

A not bad sequence with death-defying crewmen repairing a tear in the fabric works well, and the sound crew does good work with all the engine noises. Advances in special effects in the more than five decades since this came out have reduced their “cool” quotient here considerably: on the small screen (sorry, a big TV still ain’t a theater experience) they too often look their age. Then, after all the buildup, Wise and associates made the choice to switch from color to black & white and blend the familiar (to us doddering ancients, anyway) real footage of the explosion and crash with mocked-up material, and doing “dramatic” freeze-framing to further add to the artificiality. Ever hear an audience of 1,000 people do a collective “Oh, c’mon” ?

Nonetheless, at Oscar time it was given “Special Achievement Awards” for Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing (there were no other nominees, not even Jaws for visual effects, WTF!) and was rote nominated for Cinematography (Robert Surtees), Art Direction and Sound, all suspect defer-to-the-studios-bottom-line bids. The nifty ad art promised what turned out to be what we used to call “a gyp”.  *

Enough hydrogen-expecting crowds showed up to make its $45,800,000 take the year’s 11th biggest, trouncing vastly better olden-days rousers like The Man Who Would Be King, Barry Lyndon and The Wind And The Lion.

Herr Scottenfuhrer, attaching a bomb to this vehicle is redundant

With Charles Durning, Richard A. Dysart, Burgess Meredith (semi-controlled), Gig Young (his 2nd to last film, he was barely functioning), Rene Auberjonois (just go away), Peter Donat, Allan Oppenheimer, Katherine Helmond, Joanna Moore, Stephen Elliott, Joe Turkel, Norman Alden, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Arch Johnson. The script was cobbled together by Nelson Giddings, Richard Levinson and William Link, based on Michael M. Mooney’s alternative-history novel. 125 minutes.

* Special effects maestro Albert Whitlock on his admiration for director Robert Wise: “the kindest, most appreciative man I’ve worked for in the whole history of my very long career.  He was understanding of our problems, patient about the delays and tremendously appreciative when we finally – if ever – did come up with something which he felt was good for him.”  

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