Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding, Richard Levinson, and William Link (based on the novel by Michael M. Mooney)
As with many trends, the disaster film movement of the 1970s outlasted its greatest successes by a while, and in 1975 it entered its second phase, when it was still being flushly-financed and still, to some extent, making money, but had also very clearly passed its peak. You can argue that the 70s disaster genre was never actually "good"—bearing in mind that I won't listen to you—but the first half of the fad produced several objectively-popular, objectively-beloved films. As for the second half, though, what isn't remembered with a sneer is barely remembered whatsoever. Few are completely obscure—though some are, indeed, hard-to-come-by (thus, sadly, foreclosing my planned foray into the Japanese branch of 70s disaster cinema, with Japan Sinks and The Bullet Train)—but with few exceptions, the waning period of the genre is recalled as little more than an amorphous mass of undifferentiated content, and never with much fondness.
Now, this happened for all sorts of reasons: oversaturation and fatigue; the increasingly-clear limitations of the auteur, Irwin Allen, who'd carried the genre to its height; and it's certainly worth pointing out that 1975 was the year that Steven Spielberg created a new breed of blockbuster by merging New Hollywood aesthetics and thematic concerns with elemental showmanship, though (if you so desired) it wouldn't be completely inaccurate to characterize Jaws as a "disaster film" in its own right. So it probably wasn't as simple as "they were all bad movies," and while I certainly expect numerous bad movies in the weeks to come, it's somewhat uncharted territory for me. Even for today's film, while I have an extremely vivid childhood memory of watching a movie about a dirigible blowing up, I don't know, it could've just as easily been 1971's Zeppelin.
Nonetheless, the only major theatrical disaster film of 1975 (besides Jaws, anyhow), Universal's release of Robert Wise's production of The Hindenburg, doesn't immediately announce "this genre is dead." It's hardly a classic, but hell, at least it's the 1970s' single best movie about rigid airships. (I would just say "airships," but someone could conceivably point to Black Sunday.) It's better than Zeppelin, either way, inasmuch as The Hindenburg isn't about a dumbassed Bondian scheme to steal the Magna Carta via dirigible. You can see this represents no impossibly high bar, and that "being definitely better than Zeppelin, and possibly better than Black Sunday" is not exactly unalloyed praise. Still, it's not not praise.
Hindenburg distinguishes itself amidst the genre entries of the 70s by being about an actual disaster—to some extent, the innovation of the 70s disaster film was coming up with fictional mass-deaths that you could enjoy as spectacle without feeling icky—but of course this places it in a bind. Two, really: the first is that while the immolation of the Hindenburg is undeniably awesome, which is why anybody ever decided to make a movie about it, it also involved real lives, and therefore it's obliged to treat its disaster with respect and gravity, rather than, for example, the mythic comic bookiness of a Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno. The irony is that both of those films come off as caring rather more about human life than this one, and the respect that Wise clearly wanted to impose upon it is at its most pronounced in the most questionable decision that he makes as a director throughout his whole movie. As far as his film's story goes, it invents a near-disaster halfway through to make sure you don't fall asleep and which, cutely (I think), involves the Hindenburg, despite being an aircraft, almost colliding with an iceberg, not unlike another famous doomed vessel. Meanwhile, the only historical figure who doesn't feel like somebody just plugged real names into the necessary functions aboard an airship without a whole lot of concern for the actual biographies involved is Joe Späh (Robert Clary), an entertainer who survived its crash. (Here's where I cop to some ignorance: I'd spent my entire life under the impression that everybody died, but it turns out the Hindenburg was merely the most sensational of the airship disasters, several of which were much deadlier. But there were numerous survivors of the Hindenburg, including, according to Wise—and far be it from me to contradict Robert Wise even if I have deep suspicions about this—the dog.) Otherwise, most of the movie's passengers are fictional. The hero, to be sure, is completely fictional—and even the guy based on the (speculative) prime suspect behind the Hindenburg disaster, who probably hews closer to his historical counterpart than anybody else in the film, still exists here under a fictional name.
And of course Hindenburg takes on the sabotage theory of the airship's demise, though, in fairness, it's hard to imagine bothering with any screenplay about the Hindenburg that didn't. (This particular screenplay being based on the 1971 novel by Michael M. Mooney, in its turn based on the allegations in A.A. Hoehling's 1962 book, Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?, which led to an amusing lawsuit against Universal that held that since Hoehling had forwarded his claims as historical facts, how could he now say he owned them?) Which brings us to that other circle that Wise's adaptation has to square, which is that almost every last character in the whole film is a Nazi. What this means for the movie is that the Hindenburg turns out to be positively swarming with secret (and not even that secret) anti-Nazi radicals, not least our hero—a colonel in Luftwaffe Intelligence—one Franz Ritter (George C. Scott), recently returned from Spain, and harboring even graver doubts about the Hitlerite regime than he started with.
The German authorities have caught wind of a scheme to destroy the Hindenburg—a fairly easy thing to pull off due to Germany's unfortunate reliance on flammable hydrogen, something the first act reminds us of so often that it starts to feel like a message movie about the importance of helium for airship safety—and thus Ritter is dispatched to accompany the zeppelin upon its three-day journey, and root out any saboteur. He quickly determines that the Gestapo has their own man on the case, Vogel (Roy Thinnes), posing as the Zeppelin company's photographer. Everyone else, however, is at least a possible suspect, from Ritter's old friend, Countess Ursula von Reugen (Anne Bancroft), whose junker estate on the Baltic has been expropriated by the Nazi government, to Späh, who's recently visited the Moscow Circus and for some reason keeps making really detailed drawings of the zeppelin interior, to the American ad man, Edward Douglas (Gig Young), who keeps sending mysterious coded messages, all the way down to the Jewish family aboard, though if you doubt Ritter's dissident bona fides, he naturally has a scene where he finds out they're smuggling diamonds, and couldn't possibly give less of a shit about it.
I tease Hindenburg for the pains it goes to on behalf of its Nazi airship full of anti-fascists, but it's not like the effort is wasted: it's probably only a pleasant fantasy to imagine that Germany was this replete with committed internal opponents, but it does, after all, give the movie something to actually do for two hours before reaching its foregone conclusion, tossing a new red herring our way every few minutes over the course of the first of those hours, plus allowing the script to make a lot of digs at how, well, Nazis suck. This was something generally taken for granted in the 1970s, but it's nice enough anyway, reaching its apex when pianist Reed Channing (Peter Donat) and Späh put on a little light performance for the passengers and crew, which rapidly reveals itself as bitter satirical novelty music about how the Nazis should be wiped off the face of the Earth. (The Hindenburg's piano had been removed for the 1937 season for the purposes of weight reduction; I know Wise knew this, but this is surely acceptable license.) It even winds up serving several other purposes, too, letting us somewhat enjoy the slow, gentle elegance of airship travel alongside the cast in a mostly-accurate recreation of the Hindenburg's spaces courtesy production designer Edward Carfango and set decorator Frank McKelvy, and it even comes perilously close to capturing a genuine sense of how the late 1930s must've felt, with an apocalypse looming over every tomorrow. The screenplay is sometimes a little too eager to rub your face in how far ahead of its characters the audience is—the Countess's lost demesne is Peenmünde, Ritter was at Guernica, and I'm surprised Dresden or Hamburg (or Dachau) don't come up in this film's simulacrum of "casual conversation"—but, on this count, it really only sets a foot wrong with the loopy Milwaukee psychic that, for some ungodly reason, the screenwriters invented to get their plot rolling, who randomly predicts the Hindenburg's destruction (but also, for example, that Bette Davis will get the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind).
So, altogether, what we have is a film blatantly patterned on Airport that dispenses completely with Airport's pointless bullcrap as well as most of the genre's crowd-pleasing inanities. (If Späh were in an Airport film, he'd be in it five times as much and be at least five times as irritating.) Instead, Hindenburg focuses soberly upon the mystery, and even manages to surprise you with it by having Ritter actually solve the mystery a good hour before you could have possibly expected him to. It's at turns a fascinating thriller, then. The downside is that it's a dry fascination, heavily dependent on the basic appeal of watching a detective go about his work (even if he does work for Hitler), and upon that mid-film reversal. Hindenburg's supporting cast may be as sprawling as any disaster flick's, but they're a deeply uninteresting bunch—even for a disaster flick—rarely rising even to stereotyped characters.
Maybe that's because the other thing it abandons from Airport is an all-star cast—a movie where by far the biggest star is George C. Scott was never going to claim to be an "all-star" anything, and as much as I like Scott, his only goal here seems to be to anchor a pulp story about airship saboteurs. He does this reliably enough, adopting an effective pose of tetchy irritation throughout, but it's not the keenest performance, and it has no apparent interest whatsoever in any of the threads of humanity the screenwriters half-heartedly weave into Ritter, with what should be a whole kettle of contradictory emotions roiling away inside him about the recent death of his adolescent son, who met with a fatal accident in the Hitlerjugend while running around meting out beatings and vandalism to German Jews. Bancroft has even less to do and does as much with it, mostly existing to serve as the film's most important vessel for channeling late 30s ennui (and she gets this done primarily through the expedient of simply having her character swan around smoking opium). Likewise, the very small and very straight roles filled by character actors like Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois could've plausibly been filled by anybody. The only person offering more than the minimum demands of the material is probably William Atherton, who plays the likeliest of suspects, mainly because he's a young William Atherton, with features like Nazi statuary and an expression to match. Clearly, he's not really doing too much capital-A acting himself, but Wise and editor Donn Cambern deploy him cunningly, using a great many much-longer-than-necessary takes of his implacable face to inject something sinister into the proceedings, casting a shadow of moral ambiguity even after it turns out that he isn't (at least, not exactly) our villain after all.
A lot of that is just that Wise was a good director (if not always one interested in performances), and while Hindenburg is not Wise operating at either the top of his craft or completely off the chain, the way that The Andromeda Strain was, there's a lot of the filmmaker's personality to see here even if he voluntarily mutes himself in order to present a stately, more classical form that consciously wants to be thought of as a movie that kinda-sorta could've been made in 1937, leaving aside, anyway, the Panavision aspect ratio. It begins with a very cheeky gesture, a Universal Studios logo contemporary with its subject matter (I don't know if this was the first time a movie did this, but it might be), and this proceeds directly into a mock newsreel that gets us up to speed on this whole "zeppelin" business. And, as I mentioned, it even has a vaudevillian musical number. Sometimes, the magisterial pace Wise has decided upon is useful, allowing us to luxuriate in David Shire's lush score, which is arguably the best thing about the whole movie, along with many pretty shots of the airship cruising through space (probably nothing in Wise's filmography more forcefully predicts how Star Trek: The Motion Picture would shake out). Sometimes, while it's never straight-up boring, it doesn't feel like the film quite needs all of its 125 minutes.
But those two hours do permit Wise to get up to subtler versions of his 70s tricks, most profitably when he's indulging in the almost-Escheresque visual abstraction of the Hindenburg's superstructure—the sequence where Ritter tracks down Atherton's rigger into the baffling internal spaces of the zeppelin is, quietly, great thriller filmmaking—and less profitably when he's overusing split-diopter lenses for quotidian conversation scenes that make people look like they're standing in front of a rear-projection of an office. Anyway, he shepherds his production with serene competence and enough forward momentum that it never feels like we're actively waiting for the Hindenburg to blow up, though we're invited to anticipate it blowing up—which is where we get to what I expect Wise thought was his film's coup de grace, and I really am of two minds of how he went about it.
On one hand, it is interesting: suspecting that his special effects probably couldn't match the shock and verisimilitude of an event that, after all, was already extremely well-documented, Wise elects to intercut the actual footage of the Hindenburg's destruction with the destruction of his own recreated sets, dropping into black-and-white to match the former. The execution isn't flawless—there is a patent disconnect between the staged scenes and the real footage—and there is no doubt in my mind that it was a mistake not to play Herbert Morrison's immortal eyewitness radio report ("oh, the humanity," that one) over the disaster sequence itself, at least if he was just going to play it over the film's coda anyway, which he does, since Morrison is by an enormous degree the source of the most honest and immediate emotions in this movie, the barely-controlled hysteria of his voice capable of genuinely upsetting you in ways that nothing else here even attempts. But, if it's maybe a disappointment for those raised on (for example) Cameron's Titanic, or even just after Allen's spectacular meditations on death, it remains hugely unexpected. Its experimental complexion comes off as 70s and raw in a way that just setting the model aflame might not have managed (if anything, it needed to be more experimental and jagged: the most interesting thing about it is the way Wise manipulates the real footage, using held frames and zoom-ins). It's a weird way to conclude this film in particular, but even if The Hindenburg is stilted and never the best version of itself, it's always a perfectly watchable piece of disaster cinema, which is all you can really ask of any genre anyway.