original theatrical poster by Mort Künstler
|Directed by||Robert Wise|
|Produced by||Robert Wise|
|Written by||Nelson Gidding|
|Based on||The Hindenburg|
by Michael M. Mooney
|Starring||George C. Scott|
|Music by||David Shire|
|Edited by||Donn Cambern|
|Distributed by||Universal Studios|
|Box office||$27.9 million|
The Hindenburg is a 1975 American Technicolor film based on the disaster of the German airship Hindenburg. The film stars George C. Scott. It was produced and directed by Robert Wise, and was written by Nelson Gidding, Richard Levinson and William Link, based on the 1972 book of the same title by Michael M. Mooney.
A highly speculative thriller, the film and the book it is based on depict a conspiracy of sabotage leading to the destruction of the airship. In reality, while the Zeppelins were certainly used as a propaganda symbol by the Third Reich, and anti-Nazi forces might have had the motivation for sabotage, the theory of sabotage was investigated at the time, and no firm evidence for such sabotage was ever put forward.[Note 1] A. A. Hoehling, author of the 1962 book Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?, also about the sabotage theory, sued Mooney along with the film developers for copyright infringement as well as unfair competition. However, Judge Charles M. Metzner dismissed his allegations.
Filmed largely in color (with a mock newsreel presented in black-and-white at the beginning of the film), a portion of the film is presented in monochrome, edited between portions of the historical Hindenburg newsreel footage shot on May 6, 1937.
Kathie Rauch from Milwaukee, Wisconsin sends a letter to the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. claiming the Hindenburg zeppelin will explode after flying over New York. In the meantime, Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter boards with the intention of protecting the Hindenburg as various threats have been made to down the airship, which some see as a symbol of Nazi Germany.
Ritter is assisted by a Nazi government official, SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer Martin Vogel, who poses as an "official photographer" of the Hindenburg. However, both operate independently in investigating the background of all passengers and crew on the voyage. Ritter has reason to suspect everyone, even his old friend, Countess Ursula von Reugen, whose Baltic estate in Peenemunde had been taken over by the Nazis and appears to be escaping Germany to visit her daughter in Boston.
Other prime suspects include card sharps Emilio Pajetta and Major Napier, Edward Douglas, a suspicious German-American ad executive, as well as several crew members and even the Hindenburg captains Pruss and Lehmann. Many possible clues turn out to be red herrings, such as Joe Spah sketching the ship's interior as an idea for a Vaudeville show and mysterious names which later turned out to be the name of race horses on board the Queen Mary (where Douglas' competitor is travelling).
As the Hindenburg makes its way to Lakehurst Naval Air Station, events conspire against Ritter and Vogel. They soon suspect the rigger Karl Boerth, a former Hitler Youth leader who has become disillusioned with the Nazis. Ritter attempts to arrest him but he resists and requests help from Ritter, who sympathizes with him because Ritter's son was killed in an accident a year before while in the Hitler Youth. Ritter later receives news that Boerth's girlfriend, Freda Halle, was killed while trying to escape arrest as the Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic. Boerth, upon hearing the news of Halle's death, plans to commit suicide by staying aboard the airship as the bomb goes off, to show that there is a resistance against the Nazi party. Ritter reluctantly agrees with Boerth to set the bomb to 7:30, when the airship should have landed and passengers disembarked, saying an explosion in flight is the "last thing he wants".
While setting up the bomb, Boerth drops the knife part which is recovered by a crew member. To cover up the loss of his knife, Boerth steals a knife from fellow rigger Ludwig Knorr. Vogel starts to work behind Ritter's back, arresting Boerth and confiscating the Countess's passport.
As the airship approaches Lakehurst Naval Air Station at 7:00, Ritter now realizes the landing has been delayed and searches for Boerth to ask where the bomb is. Vogel is caught by Ritter in the cargo bay torturing Boerth and gets into a fight with Ritter and is knocked unconscious. An injured Boerth tells Ritter the bomb is in the repair patch of gas cell 4. Ritter attempts to defuse the bomb, but is distracted by a now-awakened Vogel and is unable to do so in time. The bomb explodes, killing Ritter instantly and sending Vogel flying down the walkway. Vogel survives, being carried by ground crewmen. Boerth was injured from being tortured by Vogel and dies of his burns, but manages to set the Channing's dog free before the ship crashes to the ground. Passengers and crew struggle to survive the fire.
The following day, with the fire cleared, a short list of some of the passengers and crew who died or survived is described briefly, while the wreckage is examined for the inquiry before being cleaned up. As Herbert Morrison's memorable radio commentary is heard, the Hindenburg is seen flying once again, only to disappear again in the clouds.
Many of the fictional characters are based on actual people. For example: Franz Ritter is based on Fritz Erdmann, Karl Boerth is based on Eric Spehl, as well as a few others.
|George C. Scott||Col. Franz Ritter|
|Anne Bancroft||Ursula, The Countess|
|William Atherton||Karl Boerth|
|Roy Thinnes||Martin Vogel|
|Gig Young||Edward Douglas*|
|David Mauro||Joseph Goebbels*|
|Burgess Meredith||Emilio Pajetta|
|Rolfe Sedan||Ambassador Luther*|
|Charles Durning||Capt. Pruss*|
|Richard A. Dysart||Capt. Lehmann*|
|Robert Clary||Joe Späh* (erroneously credited in other sources as Spahn)|
|René Auberjonois||Maj. Napier|
|Peter Donat||Reed Channing|
|Alan Oppenheimer||Albert Breslau|
|Katherine Helmond||Mildred Breslau|
|Jean Rasey||Valerie Breslau|
|Joanna Cook Moore||Mrs. Channing|
|Stephen Elliott||Capt. Fellows|
|Joyce Davis||Eleanore Ritter|
|Colby Chester||Eliot Howell III|
|Michael Richardson||Rigger Neuhaus|
|Herbert Nelson||Hugo Eckener*|
|William Sylvester||Luftwaffe Colonel|
|Greg Mullavey||Herbert Morrison*|
|Simon Scott||Luftwaffe General|
|Herbert Morrison||Himself (Voice, uncredited)|
(*) Beside name indicates actual historical person
Director Robert Wise, known for an attention to detail and background research, began to collect documents and film footage on the real-life Hindenburg for over a year at the National Archives in London, the National Air and Space Museum Library and Archives in Washington, D.C. as well as in Germany. In 1974, while casting took place in United States, pre-production photography was undertaken in Munich (doubling for Frankfurt), Milwaukee, New York and Washington, D.C.Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey would also be a primary location, but Marine Corps Air Station Tustin near Los Angeles (and the Universal Studios sound stages), where two 1,000 ft hangars constructed for airships still existed, doubled for the original Hindenburg mooring station (MCAS Tustin was officially closed by BRAC action in 1999). Additional locations in Southern California were also chosen.
Studio and special effects work was carried out at Sound Stage 12 in the Universal Studios complex. Wise's research was used to advantage, since the bulk of Zeppelin blueprints were destroyed in World War II. Using photographs, a recreated passenger area, gondola and superstructure of the giant airship was constructed to create a realistic exterior and interior set for the actors. A team of 80 artists and technicians working double shifts for four months, assembled a "giant Erector Set" consisting of eight tons of aluminum, 11,000 yards (10,000 m) of muslin, 24,000 feet (7,300 m) of sash cord and 2,000,000 rivets.
The Hindenburg made extensive use of matte paintings to bring the Zeppelin to life. To take photographs for use as matte paintings, a highly detailed 25-foot-long (7.6 m) model of the airship was "flown" via an elaborate setup where the stationary model was photographed by a mobile platform consisting of a camera and dolly on a track on Universal Studios largest and tallest sound stage, Stage 12. For the scene where the airship drops water ballast, a matte painting was used, and sugar was dropped through a hole in the windows as water. To recreate the initial explosion of the airship, which was missed by the newsreel cameras, matte paintings and animation were used to make a superimposed explosion of the airship beside its mooring mast. The model of the Hindenburg today is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (photo at right)
A real-life tragedy nearly happened during the filming of the Hindenburgs fiery death. A full-scale section of the Zeppelin's nose was built for the film on Universal Studios' Stage 12, and was set to be destroyed by fire for the film's final destruction sequence. A half-dozen stunt artists wearing fire-retardant gear were placed in the nose replica as it was set afire; however, the fire quickly got out of control, causing several stunt artists to get lost in the smoke, damaging several cameras filming the action, and nearly destroying the sound stage. Only 4 seconds of footage from this sequence appears in the final cut of the film, but the entire sequence, as it had been planned, was not included.
An interesting aspect was the film's transition from black and white to technicolor and back to grayscale, beginning with a simulated Universal Newsreel that gave an educated view to the history of the lighter-than-air craft. While a narrator talks about the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, footage of the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II being christened in 1938 is erroneously shown, indicating the newsreel was not from 1936. Photographs show the construction of the Hindenburg, to which the narrator describes her as "the climax of man's dream to conquer the air, the new queen of the skies." Immediately afterwards the newsreel transitions into the film in colour, with the Hindenburg shown outside its hangar (a matte painting, not actual footage) and along with the opening credits the airship flies by before disappearing into the clouds.
Although the film is largely accurate to its setting, there were numerous differences between the film and reality. Some aspects were added for dramatic purposes. The scene when the port fin's fabric rips did not happen to the Hindenburg, but a similar event occurred on the Graf Zeppelin during its first flight to America in 1928. Additionally, although the Hindenburg did have a specially constructed aluminum Blüthner baby grand piano aboard for the 1936 season, it was not aboard the final flight in 1937. While the interior of the ship was accurately recreated utilizing original blueprints and photographs, a stairway was added to the lower fin for dramatic purposes; in the real Hindenburg, access to the fin was provided by a ladder from the interior of the ship for crew members to use. Several aspects of the airship's takeoff and landing procedures were also inaccurate. The zeppelin hangar seen when the Hindenburg departs Germany for America is actually a World War II US Navy blimp hangar located at Tustin, California, the design of which is quite different from the actual German zeppelin hangars (the same hangar is also used in the scenes at Lakehurst; a similar hangar was built at Lakehurst in the 1940s, but did not exist in 1937). The mooring mast used in the landing sequence is black, while the real mooring mast was red and white. During the landing sequence the ship drops water ballast through windows near the nose instead of at the tail section, as it did during the final approach.
A few anachronisms occur as well: At the beginning of the story, two senior Luftwaffe Generals discuss the possibility of Colonel Franz Ritter receiving the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for actions in the Spanish Civil War. The Knight's Cross did not exist in 1937 (when the film is set), first being created at the start of World War II in 1939. Also, at one point Edward Douglas refers to the fact that the German car manufacturer Opel is to be taken over by General Motors "the next day." In fact, Opel had been taken over completely by GM in 1931, six years previously. When Col. Ritter empties the fountain pen in the sink, it is clearly a modern stainless steel design with modern taps. At Berlin there are Citroën HY delivery cars which were built in the late 1940s.
Several dramatic escapes depicted were based on fact, slightly altered for dramatic purposes, including:
Although well received by the public as typical "disaster movie" fare, critical reception to The Hindenburg was generally unfavorable. Roger Ebert's one-star review from the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed it as a failed project, writing: "The Hindenburg is a disaster picture, all right. How else can you describe a movie that cost $12 million and makes people laugh out loud at all the wrong times?"Vincent Canby of The New York Times described the film as "brainless" and "pricelessly funny at the wrong moments ... Yet I wouldn't have missed a single foolish frame of it. I sort of like disaster movies, even bad ones, for reasons that have to do with the special effects and with other things that probably go back to the prenatal state." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote, "Dull and formula scripting, a lack of real empathy and phoned-in acting shoot down some good though unspectacular special effects."Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars out of four, faulting it for "really dumb dialog" and a "fake story" but finding it redeemed somewhat by "terrific" special effects and David Shire's music. He concluded, "As it stands, the only way to enjoy the film is to get in the mood for trash and to laugh a lot."Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Technically, the film is a triumph; dramaturgically, it is somewhat less than that. Its climax is terrifyingly, horrendously spectacular, but the two hours getting there are not as gripping as they might have been." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "The film has begun to drag by the time the climatic explosion occurs, and the climax itself is somewhat less than thrilling. Wise has tried to integrate the newsreel footage of the disaster with vignettes of the fictional characters inside attempting to escape, but there's an impossible esthetic gulf between the documentary and staged scenes."Pauline Kael voiced her disapproval of the film and Wise's direction with the phrase, "One gasbag meets another."Frank Rich, in his year-end review of films released that year, named The Hindenburg the year's worst disaster film, stating, "The hero is a Nazi and the special effects couldn't fool Gerald Ford." Similar reactions were recounted, and when the film eventually made it to television screens, the TV Guide summed up a near-universal review: "This insipid, boring, implausible, senseless, deliciously funny, and expensively mounted film... There's no tension whatsoever and none of the characters is remotely interesting, let alone sympathetic."
The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Edward Carfagno; Set Decoration: Frank R. McKelvy), Best Cinematography and Best Sound (Leonard Peterson, John A. Bolger Jr., John L. Mack and Don Sharpless).
In the same year, The Hindenburg was nominated for an "Eddie" in the category of Best Edited Feature Film in the American Cinema Editors Awards.
The Hindenburg has been released on a number of home video formats, including VHS, Betamax, Laser Disc, and DVD. On February 7, 2017, the film was released on Blu-ray in a bare bones edition as a Wal-Mart exclusive, and a wide release followed on May 2, 2017.