Black Sunday (1977 film)

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Black Sunday
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by Robert Evans
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Kenneth Ross
Ivan Moffat
Based on Black Sunday 
by Thomas Harris
Starring Robert Shaw
Bruce Dern
Marthe Keller
Fritz Weaver
Bekim Fehmiu
Music by John Williams
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Edited by Tom Rolf
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • March 11, 1977 (1977-03-11)
Running time 143 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Black Sunday is a 1977 American thriller film directed by John Frankenheimer, based on Thomas Harris' novel of the same name. The film was produced by Robert Evans and starred Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller. It was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture in 1978.[1]

The inspiration of the story came from the Munich massacre, perpetrated by the Black September organization against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics, giving both the novel and film its title.[2]


In the opening scenes, Dahlia Iyad, an operative from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, arrives in Beirut where she meets with Black September operatives in a safe house outside the city. She informs them about her plan for the upcoming "operation" in the USA to be carried out in two months the following year in the month of January. That same evening, a group of Israeli Mossad counter-terrorist commandos, under the command of Major David Kabakov, arrives in Beirut from an Israeli spyship and travel to raid the safe house. They kill most of the Black September operatives, but Kabakov backs down from shooting Dahlia when he finds her in a bathroom shower, mistakenly thinking that she might be an innocent call-girl. The Israelis take many files as well as an audio tape that Dahlia had just made accepting responsibility for an upcoming attack in America at the start of the next year. Kabakov and the commandos set explosive charges around the house and detonate them before retreating back to their ship. Dahlia and a few operatives manage to escape.

The film then switches to Los Angeles several weeks later, where Michael Lander is introduced. Lander is a pilot who flies the Goodyear Blimp over National Football League games to film them for network television. Lander is secretly deranged by years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a bitter court martial on his return, and a failed marriage. He longs to commit suicide and to take with him as many as possible of the cheerful, carefree American civilians he sees from his blimp each weekend. Dahlia arrives in Los Angeles, where it is revealed that she is his handler, and has conspired with him to launch a suicide attack using a bomb composed of plastique and a quarter million steel flechettes ("rifle-darts"), housed on the underside of the gondola of the blimp, which they will detonate over the Miami Orange Bowl during Super Bowl X. Dahlia and Black September, in turn, intend the attack as a wake-up call for the American people, to turn their attention and the world's to the plight of the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, agent David Kabakov travels to Washington DC, where he meets with Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Sam Corley; together, they race to prevent the catastrophe. After discovering the audio recording Dahlia made, meant to be played after the attack, Kabakov and Corley try to piece together the path of the explosives into the country, and Dahlia's own movements.

Lander and Dahlia don masks and travel to a cargo ship in Long Beach harbor, where they pick up the shipment of plastic explosives that they intend to use to detonate the bomb. They flee from the harbor police after a wild chase. Kabakov and Corley arrive in Los Angeles after learning about the incident and Kabakov questions the captain from the cargo ship who tells them about an unknown man and woman purchasing the explosives. However, the ship's captain is killed by a bomb left behind by Lander, which also wounds Kabakov. At the hospital, Dahlia arrives and attempts to murder Kabakov, but is forced to retreat after she kills Kabakov's friend and Mossad agent, Robert Moshevsky, when he attempts to stop her.

After recovering, Kabakov questions Muzi, a dockside owner, about the movements of the cargo ship's origins from Libya to Hong Kong. Kabakov then travels back to Washington, where he secretly meets with a Russian KGB informant named Colonel Riat, who researches and gives him the history and identity of Dahlia.

Back in California, Dahlia and Lander travel by plane to a remote desert airfield, where Lander conducts a "dry run" of the plan by detonating a small explosive device to test the steel darts, killing a park ranger who happens by. Lander's giddy reaction to the destructive force of the darts effectiveness unnerves Dahlia, but she says nothing.

Dahlia drives the completed bomb from Los Angeles to Miami, where she hides it in a storage facility by disguising it as a small motorboat and leaves it there before driving back to Los Angeles. When she learns from Lander that her identity has been discovered, she considers calling off the plan. But Lander persuades her to continue it by rambling about his determination to carry it out.

Kabakov and Corley discover that Dahlia has been spotted in Miami; they immediately fly there and attempt to arrest a certain Mohammed Fasil, whom Dahlia met to discuss the final stages of the attack. Kabakov attempts to arrest Fasil, but he runs, gunning down several policemen and forcing Kabakov to kill him. A search of Fasil's hotel room leads Kabakov to the realization that the upcoming Super Bowl is the target for the Black September attack. At the same time, Dahlia and Lander arrive in Miami and easily evade the lax police screenings to set up the final stages of the plan. When Lander discovers that he has been replaced as the pilot of the blimp, Dahlia murders the pilot in his hotel room so that Lander can take his place.

On the day of the Super Bowl, Kabakov and Corley survey with the local security detail in the Orange Bowl stadium as the football game gets underway. Lander arrives at the airfield where he tells the blimp crew (who already know him) that he has been hired as the replacement pilot. Taking the blimp up and circling the stadium as usual, Lander starts a fire in one of the blimp's engines, forcing a return to the airfield for repairs. At the same time, Dahlia picks up the bomb from the storage docks and drives it to the airfield. At the Orange Bowl, Kabakov hears a police report about the discovery of the dead body of the blimp pilot in the hotel. He frantically races to locate the blimp, but the blimp has flown off. He finally figures out that the replacement pilot, Lander, is the terrorist collaborator with Dahlia.

When the blimp returns to the airfield, Dahlia arrives with the bomb, as, in the confusion, Lander tricks the ground crew into hooking up the bomb to the underside of the blimp's gondola. Lander is forced to kill the ground foreman when the foreman receives a phone call from the police ordering him to detain Lander. Dahlia and Lander are forced to hijack the blimp by opening fire with sub-machine guns at the ground crew and the police. After throwing out all the camera equipment from the overweight blimp so they can take off, Lander and Dahlia set off just as Kabakov and Corley arrive at the airfield to see the blimp flying away. Kabakov and Corley commandeer a civilian UH-1 Huey helicopter to chase the bomb-carrying blimp as it approaches the stadium. With Lander flying the blimp, Dahlia provides covering gunfire as she fires and shoots down a police helicopter and damages the helicopter carrying Kabakov and Corley, wounding Corley. By ordering the chopper pilot to make some evasive moves, Kabakov is able to open fire on the blimp gondola, killing Dahlia, mortally wounding Lander, destroying the detonator and damaging one of the blimp's engines. But Lander defiantly continues to fly the blimp and prepares a backup fuse to detonate the bomb.

Kabakov lowers himself from the helicopter onto the blimp's tail as it crashes into the stadium, creating panic and chaos, just as Lander lights the backup fuse. Kabakov manages to hook up the blimp's tail to the lowered cable wire, and the helicopter hauls the heavy blimp out of the stadium and over Miami Bay. Kabakov releases the blimp and hoists himself back on the tow wire; the helicopter safely flies away with him seconds before the blimp blows up, and the thousands of steel darts harmlessly rain into the water.

Goodyear Blimp Spirit of Innovation. Goodyear started using the blue and yellow livery after Black Sunday was made, accounting for the blimp's different appearance in the film.


As appearing in Black Sunday, (main roles and screen credits identified):[3]


The novel is the only one by author Thomas Harris not to involve the serial killer Hannibal Lecter.[4] In his introduction to the new printing of the novel, Harris states that the driven, focused character of terrorist Dahlia Iyad was actually an inspiration for and precursor to Clarice Starling in his later Lecter novels.[5]

The film was produced by former Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans. He had earlier produced Chinatown (1974) and Marathon Man (1976).[6] Director John Frankenheimer's frequent line producer Robert L. Rosen was credited as executive producer.

As it hinged on filming a real Goodyear Blimp at a real Super Bowl, there were many challenges. Luckily, Frankenheimer had a good relationship with the heads of The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company as a result of working with them on his earlier film Grand Prix.[7] He was able to negotiate the use of their blimp, on the condition that the pilot be specified as a freelancer, not a Goodyear employee, and that the blimp itself never actually kill anyone with its propellers or any other working part.[citation needed] Frankenheimer states in Charles Champlin's biography that he helped convince Goodyear by telling them that if they declined, he would rent the only other large blimp in the world from Germany, paint it silver, and people would assume it was theirs anyway.[8]

Evans helped secure the unprecedented cooperation of the National Football League and the production was allowed to film at Super Bowl X and shoot extensive footage with the principal actors for the film's final half hour as the Dallas Cowboys played the Pittsburgh Steelers.[9] Frankenheimer found that many of the TV crew covering the game were friends from his time at CBS and he was able to secure their help in hiding his film cameras among their television cameras so they would not be distracting to the crowd in the stadium, or to audiences watching the film.[citation needed]

The final attack on the stadium was filmed later, using a mock-up of the forward section of the blimp and 10,000 extras supplied for free by The United Way charity, in exchange for Frankenheimer directing a promotional film for them, which Shaw would narrate.[citation needed]


The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company granted use of all three of its U.S.-based blimps for Black Sunday, with a nose section recreated for filming its appearance over the stadium. The blimps were flown by company pilots, Nick Nicolary and Corky Belanger Sr., among the five pilots who were involved in the production.[10] The landing and hijacking scenes were photographed at the Goodyear airship base in Carson, California with Columbia (N3A); a short scene in the Spring, Texas base with the America (N10A), and the Miami, Florida Super Bowl scenes with the Mayflower (N1A), which was then based on Watson Island across the Port of Miami.[11]

While Goodyear allowed the use of their airship fleet, they did not allow the "Goodyear Wingfoot" logo (prominently featured on the side of the blimp) to be used in the advertising or the poster for the film. Thus, the words "Super Bowl" are featured in place of the logo on the blimp in the advertising collateral.[12]


The film's score was composed by John Williams. In January 2010, Film Score Monthly issued a limited edition of 10,000 copies of the previously unreleased soundtrack, remixed from the original masters.[13]


Black Sunday was among the highest-scoring films ever in the history of Paramount Pictures test screenings, and was widely predicted in the industry as a second Jaws. When it came out in March 1977, however, the film fell short of expectations. Still, it became regarded by some as one of Frankenheimer's best thrillers. Although receiving generally favorable critical reviews, Black Sunday was appreciated more for its technical virtues and storyline than its character development. Reviewer Vincent Canby from The New York Times tried to rationalize his reaction: "I suspect it has to do with the constant awareness that the story is more important than anybody in it ... The characters don't motivate the drama in any real way.[6] In a later review, Christopher Null, took exception and identified the one key character who drove the plot, "... Black Sunday is distinguished by its unique focus not on the hero but on the villain: Bruce Dern ..." [14]


Quentin Tarantino has said in interviews that the sequence in Kill Bill: Vol 1 where Daryl Hannah attempts to kill The Bride in disguise as a nurse is an homage to a similar sequence in Black Sunday. More specifically, he said the fact that the sequence in his film is done with split-screens is actually an homage to the trailer for Black Sunday, which shows shots from the sequence in that manner, unlike in the actual film.[15]



  1. ^ "The Edgar® Award Winners And Nominees Award Category." Mystery Writers of America. Retrieved: August 20, 2012.
  2. ^ "Black Sunday (1977)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: August 21, 2012.
  3. ^ "Credits: Black Sunday (1977)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: February 3, 2012.
  4. ^ Cowley, Jason. "Profile: Thomas Harris, Creator of a monstrous hit. The Guardian, November 19, 2008.
  5. ^ Dern and Crane 2007, p. 155.
  6. ^ a b Canby, Vincent. "Black Sunday (1977)." The New York Times, April 1, 1977.
  7. ^ Pomerance and Palmer 2011, p. 106.
  8. ^ Champlin 1995, p. 147.
  9. ^ Pomerance and Palmer 2011, pp. 107–108.
  10. ^ "A Brief History of the Goodyear Blimp." World’s Strangest, 2008. Retrieved: February 2, 2012.
  11. ^ "Goodyear News." Goodyear, April 3, 2011. Retrieved: February 2, 2012.
  12. ^ "Black Sunday." Retrieved: February 2, 2012.
  13. ^ "Black Sunday." Film Score Monthly. Retrieved: November 4, 2012.
  14. ^ Null, Christopher. "Black Sunday.", October 11, 2003.
  15. ^ Rose, Steve. "Found: where Tarantino gets his ideas". The Guardian, April 6, 2004. Retrieved: February 2, 2012.


  • Champlin, Charles, ed. John Frankenheimer: A Conversation With Charles Champlin. Bristol, UK: Riverwood Press, 1995. ISBN 978-1-880756-09-6.
  • Dern, Bruce and Robert Crane. Things I've Said, But Probably Shouldn't Have ... Indianapolis, Indiana: Wiley, 2007. ISBN 978-0-470-10637-2.
  • Pomerance, Murray and R. Barton Palmer, eds. A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film. Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8135-5060-2.

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