The Hindenburg (film)
The Hindenburg is a 1975 American Technicolor film based on the disaster of the German airship Hindenburg. The film stars George C. Scott. It was produced and directed by Robert Wise, and was written by Nelson Gidding, Richard Levinson and William Link, based on the 1972 book of the same title by Michael M. Mooney.
original theatrical poster by Mort Künstler
|Directed by||Robert Wise|
|Produced by||Robert Wise|
|Written by||Nelson Gidding|
|Based on||The Hindenburg|
by Michael M. Mooney
|Starring||George C. Scott|
|Music by||David Shire|
|Edited by||Donn Cambern|
|Distributed by||Universal Studios|
|Box office||$27.9 million|
A highly speculative thriller, the film and the book it is based on depict a conspiracy of sabotage leading to the destruction of the airship. In reality, while the Zeppelins were certainly used as a propaganda symbol by the Third Reich, and anti-Nazi forces might have had the motivation for sabotage, the theory of sabotage was investigated at the time, and no firm evidence for such sabotage was ever put forward. A. A. Hoehling, author of the 1962 book Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?, also about the sabotage theory, sued Mooney along with the film developers for copyright infringement as well as unfair competition. However, Judge Charles M. Metzner dismissed his allegations.
Filmed largely in color (with a mock newsreel presented in black-and-white at the beginning of the film), a portion of the film is presented in monochrome, edited between portions of the historical Hindenburg newsreel footage shot on May 6, 1937.
Kathie Rauch (Ruth Schudson), a psychic from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sends a letter to the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. claiming the German Zeppelin Hindenburg will explode after flying over New York, on its first voyage to America, during the 1937 season. In the meantime, Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) has been ordered to serve as head of security on the Hindenburg as various threats have been made against the airship, which some see as a symbol of Nazi Germany.
Ritter is assisted by SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer, Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), who poses as the "official photographer" of the Hindenburg. Both begin investigating the background of all passengers and crew on the voyage. Initially, Ritter has reason to suspect nearly everyone, even his old friend, Countess Ursula von Reugen (Anne Bancroft), whose Baltic estate in Peenemünde has been taken over by the Nazis for weapons testing and appears to be escaping Germany while visiting her daughter in Boston.
Other possible suspects include Edward Douglas (Gig Young), an American advertising executive who sends and receives several highly suspicious telegrams, card sharks Emilio Pajetta (Burgess Meredith) and Major Napier (René Auberjonois), as well as several crew members and even the Hindenburg captains Max Pruss (Charles Durning) and Ernst Lehmann (Richard A. Dysart). Many possible clues turn out to be false, such as acrobat Joe Spah (Robert Clary) sketching the ship's internal framework as an idea for a Vaudeville act, and a Cipher wheel with mysterious names which are later revealed to be the name of race horses on board the Queen Mary (where Douglas' competitor for a lucrative advertising account is travelling).
As the Hindenburg crosses the North Atlantic, the airship encounters thunderstorms and has to fly at reduced speed. While hiding from Ritter, the rigger Karl Boerth (William Atherton), who is secretly anti-Nazi and another of Ritter's suspects, trips on a cable, causing it to snap and rip the fabric on the top of the port tailfin. The following day, Boerth discovers the damage and immediately informs the Captain. Boerth and rigger Ludwig Knorr (Ted Gehring) are sent outside to repair the damaged fin. To prevent the fabric from ripping further, and the danger of the two men being blown overboard, the Hindenburg is forced to fly at an even slower speed which causes it to steadily lose altitude. The airship falls dangerously low until Captain Pruss gives the order to increase speed to prevent the Hindenburg from crashing into the ocean. Boerth, still suspended outside and repairing the fin, is nearly blown overboard but pulled back into the ship by Knorr. Meanwhile In Germany, Boerth's girlfriend, Freda Halle (Lisa Pera), who was rumored to work for foreigners and having anti-Nazi affiliations, is arrested by the Gestapo. Although Captain Lehmann is relieved by the news of Mrs. Rauch's letter being a crank, both Ritter and Vogel soon suspect Boerth is the saboteur.
Ritter attempts to arrest Boerth but he resists and requests help from Ritter, who sympathizes with him because Ritter's son was killed in an accident a year before while in the Hitler Youth. Ritter later receives news that Halle was killed by the Gestapo while trying to escape arrest as the Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic. Boerth, upon hearing the news of Halle's death, plans to commit suicide by staying alone aboard the airship as the bomb goes off, and transmit a last-minute radio message to show that there is an active resistance against the Nazi party. Boerth insists an explosion in flight with others aboard is the "last thing I want", and Ritter reluctantly agrees with Boerth to set the bomb to 7:30 pm, after the airship should have landed and passengers safely disembarked.
While setting up the bomb which is encased in a knife handle, Boerth drops the knife blade which is later recovered by rigger Ludecke. To cover up the loss of his knife, Boerth steals a knife from fellow rigger Ludwig Knorr. Vogel begins to work behind Ritter's back, arresting Boerth and confiscating the Countess's passport.
As the Hindenburg approaches Lakehurst Naval Air Station, Ritter realizes that because of additional delays in landing due to the weather, the bomb will explode before the ship can land and frantically searches for Boerth to find out where the bomb is hidden. Ritter discovers that Vogel has tied up Boerth in the cargo bay and has been torturing and interrogating him. Ritter attacks Vogel who is knocked unconscious. An injured Boerth tells Ritter the bomb is hidden in the repair patch of gas cell 4. Ritter attempts to defuse the bomb, but is unable to do so in time after being distracted by a now-conscious Vogel. The bomb explodes, killing Ritter instantly and sending Vogel flying down the catwalk. The resulting explosion immediately ignites the escaping hydrogen from the gas cells and sets the stern of the airship ablaze. The film transitions to monochrome as passengers and crew struggle to survive the fire, set alongside the actual newsreel footage of the disaster. Dazed, Vogel survives, being helped by ground crewmen. Boerth was injured from being tortured with a knife by Vogel and later dies of his burns, but manages to set the Channing's dog free before the ship crashes to the ground. The Countess survives the fire by walking down the gangway stairs and is reunited with her daughter. The final scene of the disaster shows a burning piece of fabric among the smoldering wreckage with the name Hindenburg.
The following day, with the fire extinguished, a list of some of the passengers and crew who died or survived is described briefly as well as the common theories of the disaster. The wreckage is examined for the inquiry before being cleaned up. The film transitions back to color, with Herbert Morrison's famous radio commentary played back, and the Hindenburg is seen flying once again, only to disappear into the clouds before the closing credits are shown.
- Colonel Franz Ritter — A Luftwaffe Colonel assigned by Joseph Goebbels to board the Hindenburg as a security officer in response to the bomb threat. Ritter won the Knight's Cross as the chief of intelligence during the Bombing of Guernica. His son Alfred was in the Hitler Youth and died the previous year falling from a synagogue after vandalizing it with slogans. In early versions of the screenplay, the character was known as "Fritz Kessler." Ritter is based upon Colonel Fritz Erdmann who was aboard the final flight, though there is no evidence that he nor the other two Luftwaffe officers were aboard as a security officer to investigate a bomb threat.
- Ursula von Reugen — Ursula is a Baltic German Countess and old friend of Ritter, who lived in her estate in Peenemünde. After it had been taken over by the Nazis, she boards the Hindenburg to fly to America. She knew Col. Ritter, because he and her husband were in the same flying club before the creation of the Luftwaffe; she went to live on her estate after he died in a plane crash. Her daughter, Trudi, is deaf and goes to a school in Boston, living with her friends. Ursula survives the fire by walking down a stairway, most similar to the real life escape of Margaret Mather.
- Karl Boerth — A rigger, and the saboteur of the airship. Boerth was a former Hitler Youth leader, but claims he became inactive because he helped build the Hindenburg. His girlfriend, Freda Halle, worked with foreigners in a French bank in Frankfurt, and her ex-lover was killed fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, leading the Gestapo to investigate.
- SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer Martin Vogel — The antagonist of the film. Vogel is a Gestapo agent who poses as an official photographer for the airship. Initially, Vogel works cooperatively with Ritter, but after Ritter dismisses the suspicious behavior of some of the passangers and has apparent sympathies for Boerth and the Countess, Vogel begins to work behind Ritter's back. He also has a romantic interest in a young girl, Valerie Breslau, referring to her as a "Jewish model." Vogel is loosely based on Karl Otto Clemens, who was a semi-official photographer for the Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei (a passenger list shown in the film lists him as "Otto Vogel") as well as Luftwaffe Major Hans-Hugo Witt, but there is no evidence neither Clemens nor Witt were part of the Gestapo.
- Captain Max Pruss — The ship's commander. Unlike the real Pruss, he rejects the advice of Captain Lehmann and says "I'll do the worrying this trip." In fact, the real Pruss may have been under Lehmann's pressure to rush the landing of the airship.
- Captain Ernst Lehmann — Senior observer who has been a zeppelin captain since before World War 1. He is on the flight at the request of Ritter, and also to appeal to the United States Congress to supply Germany with helium for their airships. He is portrayed as being wary of the Nazis and on good terms with Dr. Eckener. In actuality, the real Lehmann was well known as a Nazi supporter (or at least pretended to be) in order to advance his career and the fortunes of the Zeppelin Company. However, in 1929 Lehmann filed a declaration of intent to become a United States citizen, but changed his mind when he was given charge of the Hindenburg in 1936. In the film Lehmann reluctantly mentions dropping leaflets from the Hindenburg during a propaganda flight. In reality, he was eager and glad to oblige in this undertaking, to the extent that he attempted to launch the ship in unfavorable wind conditions, resulting in damage to the lower fin. Infuriated, Hugo Eckener, Lehmann's superior in the Zeppelin Company, angrily berated him for endangering the ship to appease the Nazis, resulting in Propaganda Minister Goebbels blacklisting Eckener in the press, despite his being honored as a hero both in Germany and abroad.
- The Channings — Broadway show promoters and composers, who also own a Dalmatian named Heidi. They took the Hindenburg because Mrs. Bess Channing was pregnant for the first time and did not want to risk the turbulent seas on the RMS Queen Mary. Reed Channing and Joe Späh perform a concert, satirizing the Nazi regime, which is abruptly stopped by an offended Captain Pruss. The Channings are very loosely based upon the Adelts, journalists who were closely affiliated with the Zeppelin Company. In reality, German acrobat Joseph Späh owned a dog, a German Shepherd named Ulla. There was also another dog aboard. The dog in the film survives the disaster. Neither of the two dogs aboard the last flight actually survived, and there was no passenger on board the last flight who was pregnant.
- The Breslaus — A family of German-Americans, consisting of Albert and Mildred Breslau and their three children Valerie, Peter and Paul. Albert Breslau was to sell some diamonds hidden in a pen to get funding for his grandmother's family, the Milsteins, out of Germany because they were Jewish. Breslau refused to do this but the pen was given by a Zeppelin staff member to Valerie Breslau before the flight. The family is based upon the Herman Doehner family that was aboard on the last flight (though the Doehners were not Jewish, and while Mrs. Breslau and all three Breslau children survive in the film, Mr. Doehner died in the crash and his daughter Irene died later of burns).
- Joseph Späh — A German-American Vaudeville acrobat who comes under suspicion for making unaccompanied visits to see the Channings' dog and drawing detailed sketches of the ship's interior as an idea for a theatre show. The real Späh made unaccompanied visits into the hull to visit his own dog, and was accused of sabotaging the airship by some members of the Hindenburg crew.
- Edward Douglas — A German-American advertising executive who was a cryptographer during World War I. He uses that past experience, during his trip aboard the Hindenburg, to keep track of a rival ad executive sailing aboard the ocean liner Queen Mary. The first person to reach New York City wins a lucrative contract for their agency to handle the advertising for a soon-to-open German branch of General Motors, which has acquired Opel. Although Douglas was a real passenger aboard the Hindenburg on the last flight, this subplot is only mentioned in Mooney's book and has been dismissed as fictional by some airship historians. Opel was completely acquired by General Motors by 1931.
- Hugo Eckener — Renowned airship commander and head of the Zeppelin Company, known to be hostile to the Nazi regime. In the film, he claims to have refused to name the LZ129 after the Führer, but in reality, Hitler did not want the airship named after him because he thought airships were too dangerous and his name attached to something that might be destroyed would be bad for him.
- Captain Fellows — The U.S. Navy commanding officer at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, based on Commander Charles E. Rosendahl. He is assisted by Lieutenant Hank Truscott, who is based on Lieutenant George F. Watson.
|George C. Scott||Col. Franz Ritter|
|Anne Bancroft||Ursula, The Countess|
|Roy Thinnes||Martin Vogel|
|Gig Young||Edward Douglas*|
|David Mauro||Joseph Goebbels*|
|Burgess Meredith||Emilio Pajetta|
|Rolfe Sedan||Ambassador Luther*|
|Charles Durning||Capt. Pruss*|
|Richard A. Dysart||Capt. Lehmann*|
|Robert Clary||Joe Späh* (erroneously credited in other sources as Spahn)|
|René Auberjonois||Maj. Napier|
|Peter Donat||Reed Channing|
|Alan Oppenheimer||Albert Breslau|
|Katherine Helmond||Mildred Breslau|
|Jean Rasey||Valerie Breslau|
|Joanna Cook Moore||Mrs. Channing|
|Stephen Elliott||Capt. Fellows|
|Joyce Davis||Eleanore Ritter|
|Colby Chester||Eliot Howell III|
|Michael Richardson||Rigger Neuhaus|
|Herbert Nelson||Hugo Eckener*|
|William Sylvester||Luftwaffe Colonel|
|Greg Mullavey||Herbert Morrison*|
|Simon Scott||Luftwaffe General|
|Herbert Morrison||Himself (Voice, uncredited)|
(*) Beside name indicates actual historical person
Director Robert Wise, known for an attention to detail and background research, began to collect documents and film footage on the real-life Hindenburg for over a year at the National Archives in London, the National Air and Space Museum Library and Archives in Washington, D.C. as well as in Germany. In 1974, while casting took place in United States, pre-production photography was undertaken in Munich (doubling for Frankfurt), Milwaukee, New York and Washington, D.C. Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey would also be a primary location, but Marine Corps Air Station Tustin near Los Angeles (and the Universal Studios sound stages), where two 1,000 ft hangars constructed for airships still existed, doubled for the original Hindenburg mooring station (MCAS Tustin was officially closed by BRAC action in 1999). Additional locations in Southern California were also chosen.
Studio and special effects work was carried out at Sound Stage 12 in the Universal Studios complex. Wise's research was used to advantage, since the bulk of Zeppelin blueprints were destroyed in World War II. Using photographs, a recreated passenger area, gondola and superstructure of the giant airship was constructed to create a realistic exterior and interior set for the actors. A team of 80 artists and technicians working double shifts for four months, assembled a "giant Erector Set" consisting of eight tons of aluminum, 11,000 yards (10,000 m) of muslin, 24,000 feet (7,300 m) of sash cord and 2,000,000 rivets.
The Hindenburg made extensive use of matte paintings to bring the Zeppelin to life. To take photographs for use as matte paintings, a highly detailed 25-foot-long (7.6 m) model of the airship was "flown" via an elaborate setup where the stationary model was photographed by a mobile platform consisting of a camera and dolly on a track on Universal Studios largest and tallest sound stage, Stage 12. For the scene where the airship drops water ballast, a matte painting was used, and sugar was dropped through a hole in the windows as water. To recreate the initial explosion of the airship, which was missed by the newsreel cameras, matte paintings and animation were used to make a superimposed explosion of the airship beside its mooring mast. The model of the Hindenburg today is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
A real-life tragedy nearly happened during the filming of the Hindenburg's fiery death. A full-scale section of the Zeppelin's nose was built for the film on Universal Studios' Stage 12, and was set to be destroyed by fire for the film's final destruction sequence. A half-dozen stunt artists wearing fire-retardant gear were placed in the nose replica as it was set afire; however, the fire quickly got out of control, causing several stunt artists to get lost in the smoke, damaging several cameras filming the action, and nearly destroying the sound stage. A small amount of footage from this sequence appears in the final cut of the film, but the full sequence, as it had been planned, was not included.
An interesting aspect was the film's transition from black and white to technicolor and back to grayscale, beginning with a simulated Universal Newsreel that gave an educated view to the history of the lighter-than-air craft. While a narrator talks about the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, footage of the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II being christened in 1938 is erroneously shown, indicating the newsreel was not from 1936. Photographs show the construction of the Hindenburg, to which the narrator describes her as "the climax of man's dream to conquer the air, the new queen of the skies." Immediately afterwards the newsreel transitions into the film in colour, with the Hindenburg is shown outside its hangar (a matte painting, not actual footage) and along with the opening credits the airship flies by before disappearing into the clouds.
Although the film is largely accurate to its setting, there were numerous differences between the film and reality. Some aspects were added for dramatic purposes. The scene when the port fin's fabric rips did not happen to the Hindenburg, but a similar event occurred on the Graf Zeppelin during its first flight to America in 1928. Additionally, although the Hindenburg did have a specially constructed aluminum Blüthner baby grand piano aboard for the 1936 season, it was not aboard the final flight in 1937. While the interior of the ship was accurately recreated, a stairway was added to the lower fin for dramatic purposes; in the real Hindenburg, access to the fin was provided by a ladder from the interior of the ship for crew members to use. Several aspects of the airship's takeoff and landing procedures were also inaccurate. The zeppelin hanger seen when the Hindenburg departs Germany for America is actually a World War II US Navy blimp hanger, the design of which is quite different from the actual German zeppelin hangers (the same hanger is also used in the scenes at Lakehurst; a similar hanger was built at Lakehurst in the 1940s, but did not exist in 1937). The mooring mast used in the landing sequence is black, while the real mooring mast was red and white. During the landing sequence the ship drops water ballast through windows near the nose instead of at the tail section, as it did during the final approach.
A few anachronisms occur as well: At the beginning of the story, two senior Luftwaffe Generals discuss the possibility of Colonel Franz Ritter receiving the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for actions in the Spanish Civil War. The Knight's Cross did not exist in 1937 (when the film is set), first being created at the start of World War II in 1939. Also, at one time Edward Douglas refers to the fact that the German car manufacturer Opel is to be taken over by General Motors "the next day." In fact, Opel had already been taken over completely in 1931. At Berlin there are Citroën HY delivery cars which were built in the late 1940s.
Several dramatic escapes depicted were based on fact, slightly altered for dramatic purposes, including:
- Werner Franz, a 14-year-old cabin boy, escaped the flames after a water ballast tank overhead burst open and soaked him with water. He then made his way to the hatch and turned around and ran the other way, because the flames were being pushed by the wind toward the starboard side. In the film, however, he is depicted being doused by the water after he jumped out.
- Passenger Joseph Späh, a circus performer, escaped by smashing a window with his home movie camera (the film survived the disaster), and held on to the side of the window, jumping to the ground when the ship was low enough, surviving with only a broken ankle. In the film he is depicted grabbing a landing rope, but in reality there was no landing rope.
Although well received by the public as typical "disaster movie" fare, critical reception to The Hindenburg was generally unfavorable. Roger Ebert's one-star review from the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed it as a failed project, writing: "The Hindenburg is a disaster picture, all right. How else can you describe a movie that cost $12 million and makes people laugh out loud at all the wrong times?" Vincent Canby of The New York Times described the film as "brainless" and "pricelessly funny at the wrong moments ... Yet I wouldn't have missed a single foolish frame of it. I sort of like disaster movies, even bad ones, for reasons that have to do with the special effects and with other things that probably go back to the prenatal state." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote, "Dull and formula scripting, a lack of real empathy and phoned-in acting shoot down some good though unspectacular special effects." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars out of four, faulting it for "really dumb dialog" and a "fake story" but finding it redeemed somewhat by "terrific" special effects and David Shire's music. He concluded, "As it stands, the only way to enjoy the film is to get in the mood for trash and to laugh a lot." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Technically, the film is a triumph; dramaturgically, it is somewhat less than that. Its climax is terrifyingly, horrendously spectacular, but the two hours getting there are not as gripping as they might have been." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "The film has begun to drag by the time the climatic explosion occurs, and the climax itself is somewhat less than thrilling. Wise has tried to integrate the newsreel footage of the disaster with vignettes of the fictional characters inside attempting to escape, but there's an impossible esthetic gulf between the documentary and staged scenes." Pauline Kael voiced her disapproval of the film and Wise's direction with the phrase, "One gasbag meets another." Frank Rich, in his year-end review of films released that year, named The Hindenburg the year's worst disaster film, stating, "The hero is a Nazi and the special effects couldn't fool Gerald Ford." Similar reactions were recounted, and when the film eventually made it to television screens, the TV Guide summed up a near-universal review: "This insipid, boring, implausible, senseless, deliciously funny, and expensively mounted film... There's no tension whatsoever and none of the characters is remotely interesting, let alone sympathetic." On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes the film currently holds a score of 40% based on 10 reviews.
The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Edward Carfagno; Set Decoration: Frank R. McKelvy), Best Cinematography and Best Sound (Leonard Peterson, John A. Bolger Jr., John L. Mack and Don Sharpless).
In the same year, The Hindenburg was nominated for an "Eddie" in the category of Best Edited Feature Film in the American Cinema Editors Awards.
The Hindenburg has been released on a number of home video formats, including VHS, Betamax, Laser Disc, and DVD. On February 7, 2017, the film was released on Blu-ray in a bare bones edition as a Wal-Mart exclusive, and a wide release followed on May 2, 2017.
- The possibility of Boerth's (i.e. Spehl's) deliberate sabotage is one theory of the fire that had been the subject of Mooney's book, published around the time of the film's development. It has never been proven definitively, and most airship experts tend to discredit this theory.
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