A generic wartime thriller offering a slow burn on the way to a flashy climax, British production Zeppelin is watchable because of its handsome cast, impressive production values, and succinct running time. One gets a sense the makers of the picture knew they were manufacturing a trifle and thus endeavored to make the experience as brisk and lush as possible. Set during World War I, the picture concerns Geoffrey (Michael York), a Scotsman who grew up spending summers in Germany. His unique lineage lands him a role as a double agent—acting on orders from UK military officials, he “defects” to Germany and joins the team preparing a new airship for covert missions over England at such high altitudes the vessel is safe from airplanes and ground-based weaponry. Intrigue of the most enervated sort arises from Geoffrey’s lifelong acquaintance with Professor Altschul (Marius Goring), the designer of the zeppelin, and from romantic attraction between Geoffrey and the professor’s comely young wife, Erika (Elke Sommer). The movie weakly attempts to generate further narrative complexity via Geoffrey’s acrophobia and the machinations of German officers who doubt the sincerity of Geoffrey’s defection, but neither of these elements gets explored sufficiently to impact the narrative.
The first half of the film mostly comprises chatty travelogue, and York is so genteel here that not much heat generates, even when he’s canoodling with costar Alexandra Stewart or sharing suggestive glances with Sommer. Yet once the titular aircraft takes flight, it becomes clear that special effects are the main attraction. Shots rendered with miniatures are generally quite effective, while those achieved with green screen are less so, but the grandeur of flight comes across to the accompaniment of a booming score by the reliable Roy Budd. Belgian director Étienne Périer, who also helmed the same year’s Anthony Hopkins-starring thriller When Eight Bells Toll, proves adept during an extended ground battle that features heavily in the climax, so Zeppelin offers an enjoyable last half-hour for viewers who slog through the lengthy preamble. Regarding the performances, nobody fares much better than York because the characterizations are threadbare. As always, Sommer is decorative but wholly forgettable. Goring, years away from his memorable tortured-artist role in The Red Shoes (1949), summons something resembling emotion playing a scientist appalled by the deadly use of his innovation, while Peter Carsten and Anton Diffring vigorously portray the story’s requisite cold-blooded Nazis.
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