Black Sunday (1977 film)

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Black Sunday
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Frankenheimer
Produced byRobert Evans
Screenplay byErnest Lehman
Kenneth Ross
Ivan Moffat
Based onBlack Sunday
by Thomas Harris
StarringRobert Shaw
Bruce Dern
Marthe Keller
Fritz Weaver
Bekim Fehmiu
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Edited byTom Rolf
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • April 1, 1977 (1977-04-01)
Running time
143 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$15.8 million[1]

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 stars Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller. It was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture in 1978.[2] The screenplay was by Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat. Ross had previously written the screenplay for The Day of the Jackal, a similar plot-driven political thriller.

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.[3]


Michael Lander is a pilot who flies the Goodyear Blimp over National Football League games to film them for network television. Secretly deranged by years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he had 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.

Lander conspires with Dahlia Iyad, an operative from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, to launch a suicide attack using a bomb composed of plastique and a quarter million steel flechettes, 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.

American and Israeli intelligence, led by Mossad agent David Kabakov and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Sam Corley, race to prevent the catastrophe. After discovering the recording Iyad made, meant to be played after the attack, they piece together the path of the explosives into the country, and Iyad's own movements.

The bomb-carrying blimp is chased by police helicopters as it approaches the stadium. Kabakov kills Lander and Iyad, but not before Lander lights the fuse to the blimp's bomb. Kabakov lowers himself from the helicopter to the blimp, hooks it up and hauls it out of the stadium and over the ocean where it blows up.

Goodyear Blimps Columbia and America, seen in 1984. Both blimps were used in the film.


As appearing in Black Sunday (main roles and screen credits identified):[4]


The film was produced by former Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans. He had earlier produced Chinatown (1974) and Marathon Man (1976).[5] 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 Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company head Robert Lane, as a result of working with Goodyear on his earlier film Grand Prix.[6] Lane told Frankenheimer, "“You're the only person I've ever worked with who has kept his word.”[7] Frankenheimer told Goodyear that if they declined the use of their blimps, 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] Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear's blimps on three conditions: the film had to make clear that the villainous pilot did not work directly for Goodyear, but for a contractor; the final explosion could not come out of the word Goodyear on the blimp's side; and the blimp itself could not be part of any violence, for example nobody was to be churned up in its propellers.[9]

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 Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17.[10]

A mockup nose section of the blimp was recreated for filming the final moments in the Miami Orange Bowl, as the blimp crashes into it. The thousands of extras needed for this footage, which obviously could not be shot during the real Super Bowl, were instead provided by the United Way charity, in exchange for Frankenheimer directing a promotional film for them, narrated by Shaw.[11]


Goodyear granted the film use of all three of its U.S.-based blimps for Black Sunday. The blimps were flown by company pilots, Nick Nicolary and Corky Belanger Sr., among the five pilots who were involved in the production.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]


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.[15]


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 was released in March 1977, however, the film performed well below expectations.

John Frankenheimer later said the film was hurt by the fact another movie about terrorism at a championship football game, Two-Minute Warning, had come out just beforehand and performed poorly. He also blamed the fact the movie was banned in Germany and Japan.[16]

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.[5] 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 ..." [17] The film currently holds a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 24 reviews.


Quentin Tarantino has said in interviews that the sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 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.[18]


Black Sunday was called "Blimp Sunday" in the December 1977 issue of Mad Magazine #195, written by Dick DeBartolo with art from Mort Drucker.[19]



  1. ^ Black Sunday (1977) - Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ "The Edgar® Award Winners And Nominees Award Category." Mystery Writers of America. Retrieved: August 20, 2012.
  3. ^ "Black Sunday (1977)." Archived August 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: August 21, 2012.
  4. ^ "Credits: Black Sunday (1977)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: February 3, 2012.
  5. ^ a b Canby, Vincent. "Black Sunday (1977)." The New York Times, April 1, 1977.
  6. ^ Pomerance and Palmer 2011, p. 106.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Pomerance and Palmer 2011, pp. 107–108.
  11. ^
  12. ^ "A Brief History of the Goodyear Blimp." World’s Strangest, 2008. Retrieved: February 2, 2012.
  13. ^ "Goodyear News." Goodyear, April 3, 2011. Retrieved: February 2, 2012.
  14. ^ "Black Sunday." Retrieved: February 2, 2012.
  15. ^ "Black Sunday." Archived August 4, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Film Score Monthly. Retrieved: November 4, 2012.
  16. ^ Mann, R. (1982, Sep 26). FRANKENHEIMER SPEEDS ON. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  17. ^ Null, Christopher. "Black Sunday.", October 11, 2003.
  18. ^ Rose, Steve. "Found: where Tarantino gets his ideas". The Guardian, April 6, 2004. Retrieved: February 2, 2012.
  19. ^ "Issue #195 at"


  • 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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