KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975 “The Hindenburg”

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 

The Hindenburg

This was another of the few 1975 films I am covering on this year long project, that I missed in theaters when it opened in December. As a freshman debater at USC, we were expected to participate in and help out in the major National Debate Competition held on our campus”The Alan Nichols Invitational”. So I was preoccupied at the holidays and never got a chance to catch up. Also in December we had “Lucky Lady”,”The Killer Elite”, “The Black Bird”, “Hustle”, “The Man Who Would be King”, “Barry Lyndon”, and  “Sherlock Holmes Smatter Brother”. Many of these were released the same day as “The Hindenburg”. The reviews on the film were not promising at all. Many reviewers called it a “disaster” of a disaster movie. Some said it was the worst film of the year, and called the acting and dialogue laughable. So it was no wonder that it slipped passed me at the time. 

Many years later I caught up with the movie on a subscription service and my opinion was not nearly as negative. I remember thinking it was a little dull but I did not hate myself for having watched it. Today, I am going to stick to that opinion, the film is serviceable, not great, but certainly not the dregs that were suggested by Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby. The movie was made by Robert Wise, no slouch as a director,and meticulously integrates the real world events in with the fictional story that structures the movie. Several of the characters and the manner in which they escaped from the flaming crash of the Zeppelin, are accurate if dramatic re-creations of those events. I can’t say that the acting was excellent but I can say that the cast was. George C. Scott was one of my favorites in the decade of the 1970s. He is trying to play a sympathetic German Colonel who is resistant to Nazi control of the military. He obviously needs the part to be written that way because we would be unlikely to root for a Nazi as our hero.  Anne Bancroft is a passenger on the trip, given a plot line just to justify having the female lead of the film portrayed by a star. William Atherton, who will become the default prick of so many 1980s films, is playing against type here as a crewman with a somewhat heroic but dangerous agenda. 

The rest of the cast was filled with familiar faces:Roy Thinnes, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning, Richard A. Dysart, Robert Clary, and René Auberjonois. Young had been fired from “Blazing Saddles” a year before  because he was incapable of performing while withdrawing from alcohol. He was typecast as a boozer for very good reasons, and his ultimate tragedy is something you might wan to read about if you are in the mood to be depressed. Meredith and Durning both had two Academy Award Nominations in their careers, Meredith in fact was nominated this year for his performance in another 1975 film, “Day of the Locust” (which also featured Atherton and Dysart). While performances from this film were not honored, the special effects were, two wins for Special Achievement in sound effects editing and visual effects, and three nominations for art direction, cinematography, and sound. 

The best things about the film are in fact it’s handsome production. The elaborate reconstruction of the interior of the Hindenburg is impressive. The metal frames and catwalks are intricate and provide lots of opportunities for the actors to run through, climb on, and ultimately fall off of them. The dining hall and lounge areas might make you wish that travel by airship still existed. The luxury of a cruise ship, combined with a view of the Earth from several hundred feet above the surface, is very appealing. The cabins look a little small but they could work if you spent most of your time looking out the observation ports. The manner of loadings, docking, and operating the ship seems to be pretty accurate, and if the plot does not suck you in, at least you can enjoy the details that are provided from the era.  

Basically, we know from the get go, that the Zeppelin explodes at the end of the movie. The story speculates on political intrigue because the Nazis used the Hindenburg as a propaganda tool, and it is still a mystery as to what really caused the explosion. This story postulates that there was a conspiracy to sabotage the airship as a way of indicating that there was a resistance effort at work in the Third Reich. The technical effectiveness of the film is tied up in how the actual film footage of the real disaster is integrated into the filmed sequences depicting what happens to the characters we see in the story. Except for some mild variations in the film stock and lighting, the results are very solid. Anyone who has watched the newsreel footage from 1937 will be amazed to learn that two thirds of the passengers and crew survived the conflagration.

The characters in the film represent a passenger list of 36 and a crew of 61. There is a fun sequence where the Broadway impresario plays a satiric tune on the piano as a vaudeville clown acts out the concepts. The mocking of the Führer was funny but unlikely to get as far as it did with the audience on board.  The movie is filled with red herrings about the plot. There is a clairvoyant, diamond smuggling, drafting sketches, and coded messages which are there to create intrigue but really have nothing to do with the threat to the vessel. Scott is a special security expert, brought on board to respond to a rumored threat, and Thinnes is the Gestapo counterpart who has methods that Scott’s Luftwaffe Colonel objects to. 

I did find the film a little dull because of the pacing, but the whole point of a film like this is to build up to the conclusion. I did not find it objectionable but I would suggest that if you decide to watch this, you make sure you are fully caffeinated. I saw the Laser Disc version of this film many times but never pulled the trigger on that so I watched this on a bare bones Blu Ray release. There was literally no menu options except for subtitles. There were no extras, chapters, or other languages available on the media I had. I will say however, the picture looks fantastic and the images of the ship in the air combine the model effects with matte paintings very convincingly and in a beautiful composition.