A generation before James Cameron put Kate and Leo aboard the Titanic, transforming a historical tragedy into the colorful backdrop for a silly fictional story, the makers of The Hindenburg used a similar gimmick for their movie about history’s most famous airship disaster. Based on a speculative book by Michael M. Mooney, the picture presents one of the sexiest theories for why the famous zeppelin crashed while docking in New Jersey after a 1937 transatlantic voyage from Nazi Germany, where the ship was considered a powerful symbol of Third Reich accomplishment. According to the movie, anti-Nazi conspirators planned to destroy the ship after the passengers were safely away, but then a perfect storm of circumstance led to the deaths of 36 people.
Completely missing every opportunity presented by this edgy storyline, The Hindenburg is a slow-moving bore filled with drab subplots, trite characterizations, and woefully little action. Using a tired Agatha Christie-type structure, the movie introduces Col. Franz Ritter (George C. Scott), a German pilot sent by the Nazi high command to spy on crew and passengers because of a bomb threat that was issued prior to the ship’s departure from Germany. (In typical disaster-movie fashion, every sensible person in the story recommends delaying the trip, but the expeditious high command insists on a timely liftoff.)
Once the Hindenburg is airborne, Ritter pokes around the lives of various people, looking for clues of bad intent, so the picture quickly falls into a clichéd cycle of melodramatic vignettes that are supposed to make the audience wonder (and care) who’s going to live and who’s going to die. Unfortunately, none of the characters is interesting—not the German countess who shares romantic history with Ritter; not the songwriter and clown performing anti-Hitler routines; not the twitchy crewman whom the audience can identify as the saboteur the first time he appears onscreen. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast almost exclusively comprises character actors: William Atherton, Robert Clary, Charles Durning, Richard Dysart, Burgess Meredith, Roy Thinnes, and Gig Young are all solid performers, but they’re not exactly the mid-’70s A-list. (Lending a pinch more marquee value is Anne Bancroft.)
The film’s production values are impressive-ish, including vivid re-creations of the Hindenburg’s interiors, and some of the flying shots feature handsome old-school effects, but director Robert Wise’s dramaturgy is so turgid that even these quasi-spectacular elements are for naught. Viewers who soldier through the whole movie are rewarded with a 20-minute climax featuring a detailed re-enactment of the Hindenburg disaster, which Wise presents in black-and-white so he can intercut his footage with newsreel shots of the real Hindenburg. This laborious denouement offers thrills, but it’s all too little, too late.
If nothing else, the filmmakers get points for the sheer nerve of ending this bloated whale of a movie with vintage audio from the famous “Oh, the humanity!” radio broadcast: The last thing viewers hear before the credits is a voice announcing, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.” Cinematic self-awareness?
The Hindenburg: LAME