DIRECTOR: Robert Wise
May Contain Spoilers!
1975 was the mid-point for the decade which mastered the disaster movie, but many critics, almost all who reviewed this, felt that the only disaster on-screen here, was the film itself. Robert Wise is a masterful film-maker, with an attention to detail and a catalogue of classic movies under his belt, including the revolutionary science fiction classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Sound Of Music (1960) and West Side Story (1962).
But I first came across him as young child with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and later the 1970’s sci-fi film, The Andromeda Strain (1974). The through line through all of Wise’s work is his detail, his classical direction and a sense of weight and respect for the work.
What we also get a lot of, is the attention to detail producing cold and sterile films driven by performance which often fail to gel. So, it’s fair to say that whilst Robert Wise was a beautiful and skilled film-maker, he was poor at directing his cast. But that said, with The Hindenburg, the “story” of the ill-fated Zeppelin Airliner of the 1930’s, his cast weren’t all that bad. Yes, they failed to engage on any significant emotional level but they were not as detached as they could have been.
The Zeppelins were a graceful ridged hot air balloon, for those who don’t know or can’t remember them, but they were also filled for the most part with hydrogen, highly flammable and contained with a collection of material sacks! The Americans had just developed and patented Helium at this point and were filling their airships with this much safer gas, but were unwilling to share this with their German, or Nazi counterparts.
Enter George C. Scott, a Luftwaffe colonel who was attached to The Hindenburg after threats were made to blow it up. His job was to discover who was planning the destruction of what was one of the biggest propaganda tools in the pre-war Nazi arsenal at that point.
The sting is, that this basically makes Scott, a Nazi intelligence officer, the hero of the piece as he shares his bunk with Roy Thinnes, probably best known as David Vincent from the 1960’s TV series, The Invaders. Thinnes is a member of the Gestapo and is after the same thing as Scott and the pair are at loggerheads trying to investigate the passengers and crew before the doomed liner’s explosive landing in New York.
The problem here is that there’s almost no tension. This should be a race against the clock type of situation, with rival Nazi’s battling each other to make the arrest but instead, their rivalry is summed up in a short scene in which Scott loses his temper with Thinnes after an off-hand remark about his dead son.
What is good here, is that the culprit is revealed just after the half way mark and Scott knows who his is, why he’s doing it and seems to be prepared to let him go through with it, though it’s not clear. It is set up that Scott is not a “Nazi” through and through, but he is loyal. So it seems to be left somewhat ambiguous as his motives for leaving the culprit free to plant his bomb.
It may be because it is not the bombers intention to blow the airship up with the passengers on board, but as Airships are unreliable and their timetables are dictated by the weather, it’s hard to time an attack precisely. But it also may be that Scott is playing for time, but it is not entirely clear. What is clear is that Scott is essentially the good guy with a Swastika which is never going to be the easiest sell, certainly not in 1975, just a generation after the war.
But the attention to detail is good, with an accurate reconstruction of the Zeppelin in every detail though this is a film which has taken a typical amount of dramatic licence, with events such as the torn tail fin repair during the flight added for dramatic effect, though something similar had happened on another liner.
Wise’s visual style is surpassed here, with decent effects conveying beautiful, well choreographed and edited action as well as visuals. All bar a few matt lines, then Hindenburg was flying again and the film does manage to capture the lost majesty of such vessels, no matter how impractical they would turn out to be. The Airship era was the as Concorde’s, lost, in effect and in the case of the Zeppelins, incredibly dangerous, but the idea of looking up and seeing something as vast in scale as the Hindenburg drifting over head is just to tempting and unlikely to ever happen again. We will have to settle for the Goodyear blimp I suppose!
In many ways the film is let down by the film itself. It’s mediocre, with a solid cast simply wasted on a drab mystery but surrounding that is the real film. The visual spectacle of this lost mode of transport brought to life once more and its devastating end conveyed in the best way possible, by the real footage of the day.
And this is the real gem of the movie. The film opens with a 1.33:1 Universal Logo from the 1930’s and goes straight into a Pathe Newsreel. Whether this is and original Newsreel or a narrative building facsimile, I’m not sure but I would suspect the latter. Then it opens up very gracefully but with no bells and whistles into the Panavision format (2.35:1) and we’re in full colour.
At the moment of the explosion which would destroy the airship, the film leaves Colour until the epilogue featuring the recording of Robert Morrison’s “Oh, the humanity” speech, and intersperses the devastation with real footage captured at the time and new footage filmed by Wise with his cast.
But it’s the real footage with sells this scene and this film was the first time that I had seen this when I was child and its impact is devastating, if you haven’t seen it before, which most of us have by now. The actual devastation, the explosion, the disintegration of the outer skin and the framework crashing down only takes about 30 seconds so Wise decides to freeze the image as it happened in order to both stretch out the drama and allow time to show the cast reacting and escaping etc…
It was clearly Wise’s intention to make a drama about the Hindenburg, which is evident throughout as heart is in documenting events rather than dramatising them via his cast and the source material, which was Michael M. Mooney of the same name. He was clearly more interested in his own research recreating the event and this has left us with a film which is all but forgotten now, as it was savaged by critics at the time of its release.
Was that criticism fair? No. I like it. It’s not the best human drama by any stretch of the imagination but it is an interesting look at the lost era of Airship travel rare in feature films. Another key problem here is that in the end, as the film admits, nobody knows what really happened. There are lots of theories, with sabotage being one of them, static build up and other accidental causes being others, but this film take the stand throughout that it was sabotage and then makes this addition at the end.
You can see why people were less than happy at the time. On another note, with Robert Wise taking on Star Trek four years later, with The Motion Picture (1979), after re-watching this I am left wondering just how much of the Hindenburg made it on to the U.S.S. Enterprise. The dining cabin is surrounded by images of previous Zeppelins, something which would later feature in Star Trek, starting with The Motion Picture and the design of the secondary hull seems to have incorporated some Zeppelin elements, namely the blue windows the hull’s lower levels.
I would recommend this, if not for anything but the details and the outstanding visuals, taking into around the blue screen limitations of the day.