Titanic of the Skies
Watching "The Hindenburg" now 25 years after it was released you could say it was the "Titanic" of the 70s. Here we have a movie which takes the true story of The Hindenburg airship which on the 6th of May 1937 burst into flames whilst attempting to land at Lakehurst and then merges the facts with a fictitious story of the explosion being caused by a bomb. Now that fictitious story does have a little fact to it as prior to its final flight there had been bomb threats but nothing came off them. What this means is that we have a disaster thriller where we have the disaster of The Hindenburg blowing up supplemented by Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter being placed upon the airship to try and prevent any attempts to blow it up from within. You could say it is suggesting what may have happened despite all acts of sabotage being ruled out when The Hindenburg disaster was investigated.
When the German Embassy in Washington, D.C receive a threat that The Hindenburg is going to be blown up they take it seriously enough to order Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott - The Hustler) to be part of flight from Europe to America to try and prevent any attempts at sabotage. Also aboard the flight is Gestapo officer Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes) who ends up assisting Ritter as they suspect any of the passengers could be a bomber. Quietly going about their investigations they eliminate passengers one by one whilst it becomes evident that certain members of the crew may have reason to try and blow up the airship themselves.
Now for me some of the best disaster movies came during the 70s, the decade when disaster movies were popular with audiences. But I wouldn't go as far to say that "The Hindenburg" is a good example of what made 70s disaster movies so good because it is riddled with issues. From under developed characters to moments of humour which feel unnatural to the equally unnatural attempts to merge archive footage with new it is problematic.
And sadly one of the main issues with "The Hindenburg" is the actual storyline of Col. Ritter being ordered to travel aboard the airship to try and prevent any attempts to blow it up. Now it starts okay as we meet all the various people flying, introduced to them in a typical disaster movie way as they wait to board the doomed flight. And for around the first 30 minutes as we watch him quietly investigate each and every one of them you are grabbed by this mystery story. But sadly it goes on far too long and the first 90 minutes are basically Ritter following his suspicions and dealing with red herrings such as jewellery smugglers and corporate espionage.
There are thankfuly a few moments of drama with in this drawn out mystery section; a rip in the Hindenburg's canvas provides some drama and a burst of energy as the riggers attempt to repair it in mid air. But for the most it just feels like it is being drawn out as pretty much each and every passenger becomes a suspect and we have to go through the rigmoral of finding out whether or not they have motive to blow up the airship. And with a slight, and I do mean a slight, romantic subplot between Ritter and a Countess it just feels like it is filling time before we get to the real disaster part of the movie.
Now it is when "The Hindenburg" focuses on the disaster that it does become good as the burst of drama really grabs your attention and I don't just mean the airship bursting into flame. Before we even get to that the mystery of who the bomber is solved and we not only have Ritter having to deal with a bomb but also his own personal feelings when it comes to whether blowing up The Hindenburg would make a statement against Hitler. Basically you wait 90 minutes for "The Hindenburg" to come to life and it does in spectacular fashion with plenty of drama.
But there is a negative to all of this because for a disaster movie to work you need to connect with those you know are going to be in trouble. But in the case of "The Hindenburg" we get to know but a handful of the people and so when you see one of the other passengers falling from the airship you don't really care a great deal if that person survives or not. If only each of the people who could die had been given more back story then it would have been more impressive. As such whilst you do connect with Ritter, The Countess and a rigger called Boerth the rest of the characters are just faces who may or may not be saboteurs and may or may not die.
"The Hindenburg" does have two things which does keep it entertaining even when the storyline struggles to and the first of these is George C. Scott as Ritter. Out of a cast which includes Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Burgess Meredith, William Atherton and Peter Donat it is only Scott who delivers a performance which feels interesting. He delivers a calm coolness to his character so that whilst he may be trying to work out who may want to blow up the airship he is not super agent, no action man just a strong intelligent man who doesn't agree with the way things are going in Germany.
The other thing going in the movies favour is the mix of brilliant sets and the special effects. Scenes where we are taken out of the passenger's cabin area and into the framework of the gigantic airship are stunning; in fact the actual passenger area also has a feel of authenticity about it. Throw in the big finale as The Hindenburg erupts into flames and it is a visual treat even though the attempts to mix archive footage with modern ends up making it a bit messy.
What this all boils down to is that the "The Hindenburg" ends up a satisfactory but less than memorable disaster movie which like James Cameron's "Titanic" takes a true event and supplements it with a fictional tale of a sabotage attempt. It has its plus points but also some negatives and compare to other disaster movies from the 70s is not overly memorable.