When Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg came out at the end of 1975, the popular disaster sub-genre hadn’t quite degenerated into the silliness of things like Rollercoaster (1977) and The Swarm (1979), but it was headed in that direction. As evidence, I present The Hindenburg, with its dubious sabotage theory presented as fact and a roster of often fictional (or fictionalized) names at the end as casualties of the tragedy. (Of course, it’s not like the disaster film sub-genre was ever meant to be taken all that seriously.) Wise’s film is a kind of curious proposition. It actually has a fairly lightweight cast and, apart from George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft, there’s not that much star power—and a healthy dose of TV actors among them. It’s also working against a major problem—its big set-piece took a little over 30 seconds of screen time. That’s an awful lot of build-up for so brief a payoff, no matter how spectacular. While Wise and company hit upon the clever idea of freezing the action of the actual burning to pinpoint a variety of individual dramas that would have been happening at the same time, it still resulted in a film that mostly rested on Scott’s investigation into a possible sabotage plot. And in truth, that’s not all that compelling. What helps—assuming you’re fascinated (and I am) with the subject—is the look at the airship itself and its amenities. Now, whether that’s enough for you is another matter. The model effects and most of the special effects are quite impressive—the matte paintings somewhat less so. In a way, it’s a film that might have benefitted from today’s production techniques. At the time, the decision to interpolate the newsreel footage (something considered in questionable taste) resulted in presenting the climax in black and white. It adds a kind of documentary feel, but I suspect it wasn’t quite what audiences were expecting.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Hindenburg at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 3, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.