Without any particular plan, we watched THE HINDENBURG on Friday. We were supposed to be getting married, but we watched THE HINDENBURG instead. I can’t actually tell you whether this was a wise choice, because I haven’t had the experience of getting married, but now that I have watched THE HINDENBURG I can say that married life doesn’t have a great deal to live up to. It ought to be able to knock Robert Wise’s 1975 disaster movie into a cocked hat.
The interesting bit is that we were watching on May 3rd, and part of the film takes place on May 3rd. And then the Hindenburg blows up today, May 6th, only in 1937, giving me plenty of time to write about it.
Basically, most of the film is a snooze. Nelson (THE HAUNTING) Gidding’s screenplay doesn’t manage to make all these sympathetic Nazis very sympathetic, and the unsympathetic ones don’t get to do any real Nazi stuff — Charles Durning in particular is terribly wasted — and there just isn’t a lot of human emotion to it. Oh the humanity! What humanity?
Edward Carfagno’s meticulous production design, apparently extremely accurate, could serve as an analog for the whole project — the Hindenburg’s gondola resembles a 1970s conference centre. It’s pretty small, and doesn’t offer the epic opulence of a Titanic. Against this accuracy, there’s the fact that the film’s sabotage plot is bullshit, but at least it gives William Atherton a chance to be twitchy, and George C. Scott something to brood about. Most watchable of all is Anne Bancroft, even though she has little to do.
We can see the cunning of James Cameron, who made a banal little drama the focus of TITANIC, with all the spectacle simply as dynamic backdrop. Whereas HINDENBURG really is about the Hindenburg, and nothing but the Hindenburg. As boring as the first 90 mins of TITANIC are — and admit it, they’re awesomely boring — at least the romance gives the characters something to do, something which would matter dramatically even if the ship were not sinking. All the action of the airship movie is about stopping a bomb from going off — a bomb which we know IS going to go off. We even know when.
“Jesus–not Hitler!” I guess a lot of people were thinking that same thought.
I like a lot of Robert Wise films, though I’ve never quite forgiven him for screwing with MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Perfect for him to make a film about a sympathetic Nazi who’s only following orders. That’s harsh, I know. But it’s brought to mind by the film’s deliberate quoting of CITIZEN KANE, with a newsreel (above) at the beginning and the burning sign at the end…
Ah yes, the end. My favourite bit, because suddenly this staid non-thriller goes batshit crazy. A weird optical effect has the bomb go off like something from a James Bond title sequence, and the movie goes into b&w — purely so as to incorporate the actual newsreel footage of the disaster. Now, it seems unfair to make a disaster movie called THE HINDENBURG and then not stage the climactic destruction yourself. Possibly poor taste, too. But even if you’ve got Albert Whitlock, which they have, I guess it was impossible to create anything as impressive as the reality using 1970s technology. Still, for a colour movie to go into monochrome the second a towering inferno breaks out seems perverse. But the madness has just begun.
Bottom centre — the burning sign –” Hindenbud!”
Determined to get some sense of urgency into his cinematic dirible, Wise starts zooming randomly, in the modern manner. The newsreel footage freeze-frames for no apparent reason, repeatedly. I guess to try to say, Yes, we know this is stock footage. Look how we’re making it stop and start. There’s one really great high angle where everybody on the ground suddenly grows a long shadow — magnificent stuff. Atherton, mortally wounded, frees a dalmatian from the baggage car — and we spend the whole climax wondering if it got out OK. We don’t care about Burgess Meredith. We don’t care about Rene Auberjonois. Even Anne Bancroft takes a back seat to the dog.
People leap from high places, some of them on fire. The guy from Hogan’s Heroes seems to drop thirty feet without the aid of a stunt double. Small children are flung similar distances, amid flaming debris. Charles Durning smolders, and not in a good way.
Then we get the roll call of the dead. A narrator reads character names, and says “Dead. Dead. Survived. Dead.” as little pictures of the cast appear. After a while he stops bothering to name the minor players. “Dead. Dead. Dead.” Finally, we get the dog. “Survived.” Hooray! The movie ends on a high note.
Dog — bottom left.
Then it gets better — against Michael Shire’s lovely, elegiac theme music, we get the special effects departments miniature Hindenburg drifting majestically against matted-in blue skies, while the famous real-life news reporter totally loses his shit on the soundtrack. It was a mistake to hire Franklin Pangborn to narrate an air disaster, I feel. False economy.
It’s a really nice and interesting sequence, and probably it should have gone at the start, thus admitting what we already know about the story. But that would have left the movie even less to impress with at the end.