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The Hindenburg

Year: 1975
Studio: Universal
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Robert Wise
Cast: George C Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Rene Auberjonois, Katherine Helmond

I'd watched this movie on TV as a kid but remembered almost nothing about it, and after watching it again recently I'm updating the original review I wrote (which was written years ago but still decades after the fact).

I almost never do that for a movie I rewatch – the only reason I'm doing so here is because of just how pleasantly surprised I was. It's a real Irwin Allen-style Hollywood 70s disaster epic, the kind of thing the studio system did perfectly until it died out in the face of the movie brat era and the command they'd soon wield over the entire industry.

Along with other films of its ilk like Airport, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, it combined an ensemble cast of bankable stars, a perfectly workmanlike script and seemingly effortless direction by the accomplished hand of Robert Wise.

But the other critical piece of the puzzle that was so of its time was the special effects, all of them done with miniatures, separate strips of film exposed together and rudimentary hand animation. It's recent enough history so it's not done with the duct tape and archaic stop motion of the postwar years that's so hard to emotionally connect to and it came before the the ascent of the effects arts at the hands of Spielberg, Lucas and their contemporaries.

All of which gives the scenes of the mighty Nazi airship of the title preparing for launch or drifting far above the Atlantic Ocean through the sky, storm clouds or fog around it, blue sea or icebergs far below a real charm. I can't remember that far back, but I'll bet I felt a real frisson of movie magic watching it as a kid, the same thing I got from the likes of King Kong, The Time Machine and other effects-heavy movies of the period.

George C Scott is Franz Ritter, a Luftwaffe officer tasked by Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels to travel to America aboard the titular vessel. A letter from an apparent crank has been sent the German Embassy back in America claiming the airship will be destroyed by a bomb just before she lands in New Jersey and although there's not much credibility behind it, the party can't afford to lose such a valuable symbol of Nazi supremacy.

His mission, along with the Gestapo officer with whom he shares an uneasy truce, is to pose as a businessman and investigate the passengers for possible motives to destroy the ship.

As he looks into an abrasive advertising executives, a rich widow he knows from years back (Anne Bancroft), a vaudeville performer with a satirical viewpoint on the Nazi ethos, a team of professional card players (Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois) and an idealistic young rigger (William Atherton), the craft makes it stately way across the ocean.

The script deftly separates well written character scenes and set pieces – like a great sequence of the rigging team fighting the clock trying to repair a tear in the external skin – with moody establishing shots of the Hindenburg drifting through the sky, and it's as entertaining an adventure thriller as you'd care to see from the creative climate in Hollywood at the time.

Along with the effects comes the then-common but ethically dodgy practice of having major American stars play foreign nationals using their native accents, but if that bothers you you'll have problems with a century or so of Hollywood output.

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