80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey. The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film. Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster. The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship. (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding. The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium. Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.
And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged. The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany. One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships. With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg. Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.
At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.
A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs. Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi. Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue. Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him. (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well. It’s a 70s disaster film. These things happen.)
Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer. Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant. Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur. Thinnes is chilling in the role. What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.
And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing. The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film. Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn. I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do. Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings. Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable. Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”
Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton). Having seen Real Genius, Die Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character. Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.
Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode. The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to. (Let’s be honest. If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.) The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.
However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before. When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white. That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well. It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground. The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire. Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.
In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable. George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.
Oh, the humanity indeed!