The Hindenburg is probably the most beautiful, elegant and ambitious disaster movie ever made. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a very good film but some acknowledgement should be given to the creative team involved and their attempt to blend history with the 70’s disaster formula, the "whodunit" or espionage mystery and war film genres.
The Hindenburg is loosely based on Michael Mooney's book in which he advances his sabotage theory about the destruction of the LZ129. The film focuses on the events that occurred during the Germany to US voyage itself and especially emphasizes the mystery surrounding the fateful event.
Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) is assigned by the minister of propaganda to be aboard The Hindenburg as a security officer after receiving reports about possible sabotage. Other passengers include: Gestapo agent Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a wealthy countess (AnnBancroft), Edward Douglas (Gig Young) a businessman suspected of being a spy , Emilio (Burges Meredith) and Major Napier (Auberjonois) as card hustlers, Joe Spahn (Clary) a circus clown antagonistic to the Nazis, Albert Breslau (Alan Oppenheimer) an American citizen hiding that he is part Jewish, Reed Channing (Robert Donat) is a concert pianist, Boerth (William Atherton) a worker on the airship and Charles Durning is the captain of the blimp.
The film is stylishly directed by Robert Wise (The Andromeda Strain, The Sound of Music, Star Trek), with a keen eye to accuracy of detail. He has also made the decision to overcome the predictability of the story by filming it as a “who-dunnit” mystery focusing on George C. Scott’s attempt to uncover the saboteur.
Mr. Wise has always had a knack to effectively present epic locations and subjects with elegance. One only has to remember the opening sequences of his two other films West Side Story and The Sound of Music. In those two movies, with a number of aerial shots masterfully edited together he introduced his locations and told us a million things about the environments in which the stories where about to happen. In his “Star Trek-The Motion Picture” he approached the spaceships the same way that he approached the locations of those two other films by allowing us to become familiar with the main subject, the Starship Enterprise before jumping into the main story. For nearly 10 minutes his camera glided around the Starship Enterprise, dialogue free, almost ballet-like while the wonderful music score soared. In “The Hindenburg” there is a typical Robert Wise sequence in which we are introduced to the ship in grand operatic form. During the night time launch of the Hindenburg, the ship is lit with searchlights that create odd, circular patches of light on the airship's hull, while David Shire‘s elegant score is introduced.
Director Wise tries very hard to continue to provoke excitement and suspense. He embellishes us in a love story, a spy tale, even adds a musical number titled “There’s A Lot To Be Said For The Fuehrer” in which a Anti-Nazi vaudeville act creates tension between the ship’s crew and some of the guests. Wise alternates between red herrings and suspects and it regularly cuts away from the airship to show the U.S. FBI tracking down the letter writers who warn of a disaster and then cutting to the Nazi reaction to the threats. There is a very exciting sequence in which the blimp has to be repaired in mid-flight by a crew of workers creating the appropriate tension. Interesting note is that this sequence was inspired on a true incident made on different trip of another airship.
But unfortunately the overall tone of the film is far too serious and solemn to engage us as effectively as Mr. Wise has done in some of his other films. There are far too many characters with too many problems and after a while we stop paying attention. Perhaps, editing some of these storylines out would have made a tighter and more focused film.
George C. Scott does a fine job as the colonel and Anne Bancroft is intriguing as the countess. Other mildly interesting supporting cast members are the German captains – Richard Dysart and Charles Durning which have a few memorable moments.
The visual effects by Albert Whitlock are excellent and deservedly won an Oscar. Also noteworthy is the Oscar nominated cinematography by Robert L. Surtees and the brilliant score by David Shire. The sets are impressive. If you've seen pictures of the actual interior of the Hindenburg, you will certainly appreciate the level of detail taken to authenticate the ship. Accurate details include the bust of Hindenburg aboard the ship, designs of the ship's interior and passenger cabins, smoking and dining areas. The period costumes are also very good too.
The climatic disaster sequence was shot in black and white and the actual news reel footage of the event was incorporated in. This artistic decision by Wise was heavily critized by some when the film premiered, but it is in reality an amazing and daring approach on the part of the director. By mixing new black and white footage with actual newsreel footage of the disaster Wise created a stunning montage of the disaster that somehow reconciles the fictional elements of the story with history.
The Hindenburg suffers from uneven pacing with its cinematic rhythms all over the place. It is not a perfect film but the concept, the sets, the effects, and the terrific set pieces already mentioned, particularly in its last thirty minutes provides a fairly thrilling experience, even if you do know how it'll end.