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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: The Hindenburg (1975)

Like all big budget blockbuster entertainment, the seventies disaster movie was about escapism. As counter-intuitive as it seem, watching fictional buildings get destroyed and simulated massive calamity can actually be incredibly relaxing. Most disaster flicks operated with this disconnect from reality in mind. However, a few of them were actually based on fact, however loosely. Robert Wise's “The Hindenburg” is based on the most famous zeppelin-related tragedy in history. The film was fairly successful in theaters but critics absolutely lambasted it. I guess they expected more from a filmmaker of Wise's status and a recently Oscar-winning leading man. The film remains largely overlooked.

The year is 1937. Nazi Germany is consolidating its power in Europe, the outbreak of World War II drawing closer. Part of the Nazi's propaganda machine is the Hindenburg, the largest airship in the world. In America, a quack psychic claims the blimp will explode. In Germany, the Nazi government suspects saboteurs might try to destroy the zeppelin. Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter is deployed to keep on an eye on the airship. Aboard, he discovers a long list of potential suspects. As the Hindenburg crosses the Atlantic, Ritter tries to uncover the truth before time runs out.

There's one reason I watched “The Hindenburg” and its not an interest in War World II era lighter-than-air mass transit. Instead, I'm all about George C. Scott. The film places Scott in the unenviable position of playing a Nazi the audience has to sympathize with. So the film tries to make Ritter has likable as possible. He rejects the Nazi's white supremacy-based beliefs. He is growing increasingly disillusioned with the direction of his government. He takes the job on the Hindenburg to protect innocent people and to see an old flame, Countess von Reugan. Scott's world-weariness is a good fit for this skepticism. His craggly voice projects a moral superiority here. However, my favorite moments involve Scott loosing his cool. Watching Scott yell, bulge his eyes, and threaten people is always fun.

“The Hindenburg” is not just a disaster movie. In fact, for most of its run time, it's more concerned with espionage and wartime tension. A professional clown on the train performs a pantomime critical of Hitler, which amuses Scott but displeases his bosses. The film's hero is unable to trust anyone. Everywhere he turns, he sees uncertain alliances. As a spy thriller, “The Hindenburg” works in stops and fits. For every compelling scene of Scott arguing with another agent or confronting a potential saboteur, there's a dull scene of him chasing dead leads or looking around for trivial details. Of course, the historical inevitably of the film's conclusion robs the production of some suspense. We already know the blimp is going to blow up.

So maybe that's why people didn't like the movie. Because you're essentially waiting around for the end, when the Hindenburg erupts in flames. However, once the explosion begins, its fairly impressive. Wise begins the movie with black-and-white, vintage-style newsreel about air travel. At the climax, he switches from color to black-and-white. We cut between the movie's recreation of the Hindenburg disaster and the famous recording of the real thing. The scenes of destruction are rather harrowing. Innocent people are tossed around, falling through windows. Some are crushed by falling, blazing debris. One man seemingly survives the crash, only to collapse dead afterwards from his burns. Its visceral and convincingly pulled off. Hammering home this documentary approach is a concluding voiceover narration that tallies up the living and the dead. (Though, because this is still a disaster flick, one particular life is spared: The adorable dog.)

Director Robert Wise did a lot of research before making “The Hindenburg.” That attention to detail is evident in the final film. The set design is excellent, looking authentic and lived-in. There are many impressive shots of characters climbing through the passageways and railing inside the blimp. The Hindenburg, as presented here, feels like a naturally busy craft. There's an air of sophistication to the film's execution. The miniature special effects are not super realistic looking. Yet there's something I like about it, of the shots of the blimp floating over glaciers or glowing with St. Elmo's Fire. I guess I wasn't the only one impressed. The film would receive two Academy Award nominees, for Sound Editing and Production Design.

Its reputation is mostly negative but I didn't think “The Hindenburg” was all bad. George C. Scott is always a compelling leading man. The fiery climax is fantastically exercised. Wise's direction and perfectionism work out. However, I will agree that the film has a slow start, though not too much more than most seventies disaster flicks. Maybe critics and audiences were just unwilling to embrace a movie were the good guy is a Nazi. I can't really blame them for that but I still sort of liked this one. [6/10]

[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures*
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*Most of the authority figures are Nazis and, therefore, corrupt by default

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