May 6th

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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.

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“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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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14 Responses to “May 6th”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    This was an attempt at a TASTEFUL disaster movie – which was, of course, a total contradiction in terms! There aren’t even any decent washed-up stars on hand to liven things up.

  2. All the stars of this film are, by definition, washed-up. But I take your point: no Gloria Swanson, no Fred Astaire. It attempts to substitute politics for cheese, but then chickens out of actually doijng so. And you know they’ve failed when Nazis start discussing “the resistance” — I know it’s hard to enter the Nazi mindset, but I think we can assujme they didn’t speak of their enemies within the Reich in such flattering terms!

  3. Quite right Mr. Wingrove. I’ll take The Towering Inferno any day.

  4. And when you two DO get married I suggest you take in a nice Lambert Wilson musical

  5. Jeff Gee Says:

    Somebody from Universal spoke at Saul Turrell’s Producing for Film class at the NYU film school a year or so after this came out, talking at one point about the casting process and how you had to go by your gut feelings sometimes: “George C. Scott, huge a couple years ago, not so much now, Elizabeth Taylor, not let’s face it the mega star she was in the sixties, but you put them together and you got some clearly indefinable quality that makes people want to go and see them together. Add a Hindenberg, and you got a massive hit. Didn’t she pick up another Oscar?” Dead silence from the rest of the room until some kid in the back said, “Holy shit.” Universal Guy: “Exactly. Exactly.”

  6. Exactly, except Liz isn’t in it. But Anne Bancroft makes the same box office point.

    This and Day of the Dolphin are probably George’s two big mistakes during the brief period after Patton where his career looked like it might be sustainable. I can understand most of the other choices, and even DotD makes sense as a Mike Nichols movie. This one was probably his attempt to have a popular hit again. When those attempts fail, you got nothin’.

  7. Kubrick got the best out of Scott in Dr. Strangelove

  8. Jeff Gee Says:

    I’m inclined to think The Savage Is Loose, his incest-on-a-tropical-island epic, was an even bigger miscalculation. I think he put his own money into it and ended up four-walling it. He promoted it relentlessly. Hardly anyone saw the movie but everybody saw him on talk shows bitching about how the “R” rating was killing his incest movie. There was also a ‘refund your money if you don’t like it’ gimmick that I can’t imagine did him any good. The trailer makes it look like it was designed to have two robots and a janitor silhouetted at the bottom of the screen.

  9. david wingrove Says:

    THE TOWERING INFERNO is ghastly but works perfectly at what it sets out to do. My favourites are THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. Trash heaven!

  10. Yes, Scott’s directorial debut looks like a blunder, but I can understand why he wanted to direct and why he invested so much (financially and emotionally) in it. But he probably doesn’t deserve too much of our sympathy…

    I tend to like group jeopardy movies when they break loose of the disaster movie formula — Stagecoach is a group jeopardy movie…

  11. david wingrove Says:

    Every time I see George C Scott in a film, all I can think is…WHY? And as for that woman, Trish What’s-Her-Name, they made a spectacularly uncharismatic duo – even by the admittedly low standards of 70s Hollywood!

  12. Was it John Simon who called her a smiling hole in the air? Pretty good by his standards (at least he didn’t attack her for perceived physical defects). Scott is a POWERHOUSE and I love him, though. He just needs to be cast correctly. You need somebody who can convincingly be an Old Testament God sometimes.

  13. DBenson Says:

    Real-life Hindenberg footage shows up in a couple of sound serials, intercut with a serial character jumping from a rope ladder and/or running past a few pieces of burning rubbish in very tight shots. Bad enough when an otherwise harmless trifle kills off innocent bystanders for a plot point (and to use effects footage from an A picture); unsettling when footage of genuine carnage is used to give Dick Tracy a chapter ending.

  14. The Japanese commit similar offenses, showing war carnage in their 50s serials and pretending it’s the result of invading aliens…

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