Tuesday 17 September 2019

Movie Review: The Hindenburg (1975)

A disaster drama, The Hindenburg offers a few impressive visuals but is an otherwise a turgid exercise in waiting for the inevitable to happen.

It's May 1937, and Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) is recruited by German officials to be the head of security for the airship Hindenburg. One of the symbols of pride for the ruling Nazi party, the Hindenburg is about to embark on the travel season's first journey across the Atlantic from Germany to the United States. A woman from Milwaukee has written a letter predicting the destruction of the vessel, and Ritter, who is still recovering from the death of his son, is asked to keep an eye on the passengers and deal with any possible sabotage threats.

After rigorous security checks the journey proceeds with Captain Pruss (Charles Durning) in command. The passengers include Ritter's acquaintance The Countess Ursula (Anne Bancroft), whose property has been seized by the Nazis, as well as an assortment of businessmen, tourists, entertainers, charlatans, crewmembers, government types and possible spies. Ritter and Gestapo officer Vogel (Roy Thinnes) try to keep tabs on all possible suspects, and eventually Ritter determines that crew member Boerth (William Atherton) may be the saboteur.

With the tragic ending of the Hindenburg rendered as one of history's most well-known disasters by the presence of multiple television cameras, any and all cinematic drama would have to be generated by character-generated stories. Unfortunately director Robert Wise and a trio of writers adapting the 1972 Michael M. Mooney book fail miserably in creating anyone or anything to care about. Despite some beautiful scenic shots of the Hindenburg majestically floating across the sky, Wise's attempts to enliven the journey across the Atlantic fly into severe headwinds. One contrived mid-flight emergency repair job is far from enough to maintain interest, and the film is a listless affair, singularly lacking in personality, meaningful events or any compelling interpersonal drama.

The sabotage plot is one of the more far-fetched and unsubstantiated theories as to why the Hindenburg exploded during the docking process at New Jersey's Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Setting aside the fact or fiction debate, the movie manages to reduce the entire evil plot to one tiny bomb and one nondescript crew member, and adds layers of convoluted implausibility by meandering its way to portraying Ritter as the clumsiest of plot enablers.

George C. Scott affixes a single stern expression throughout the film, his Ritter caught between heroism and incompetence, while Anne Bancroft overacts her way through the role of the Countess. The rest of the cast members are a bland assortment of character actors (among them Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Richard Dysart, René Auberjonois and Peter Donat) playing distinctly forgettable and interchangeable travelers.

The Hindenburg starts with fake but effective black and white newsreel footage summarizing the history of hydrogen powered airships, and switches back to black and white for the dramatically calamitous climax, juxtaposing real and recreated footage of the crash. Regrettably, all the coloured bits in-between also represent their own special brand of disaster.

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