The Hindenburg (film)
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|
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 name by Michael M. Mooney.
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.
A highly speculative thriller, The Hindenburg depicts a conspiracy 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.[Note 1]
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 Hindenburg Zeppelin will explode after flying over New York. In the meantime, Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) boards with the intention of protecting the Hindenburg as various threats have been made to down the airship, which some see as a symbol of Nazi Germany.
Ritter is assisted by a Nazi government official, SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), who poses as an "official photographer" of the Hindenburg. However, both operate independently in investigating the background of all passengers and crew on the voyage. Ritter has reason to suspect everyone, even his old friend, Countess Ursula von Reugen (Anne Bancroft), whose Baltic estate in Peenemunde had been taken over by the Nazis and appears to be escaping Germany to visit her daughter in Boston.
Other prime suspects include card sharks Emilio Pajetta (Burgess Meredith) and Major Napier (Rene Auberjonois), Edward Douglas (Gig Young), a suspicious German-American ad executive, as well as several crew members and even the Hindenburg captains Pruss (Charles Durning) and Lehmann (Richard A. Dysart). Many possible clues turn out to be red herrings, such as acrobat Joe Spah (Robert Clary) sketching the ship's interior as an idea for a Vaudeville show and mysterious names which later turned out to be the name of race horses on board the Queen Mary (where Douglas' competitor is travelling).
Across the Atlantic, the flight slowed down by thunderstorms as well as a rip in the fabric of the upper port tail fin. Hiding from Ritter, the rigger Karl Boerth (William Atherton) tripped on a cable, causing the rip. The next day, the riggers Boerth and Ludwig Knorr (Ted Gehring) are sent outside the fin to repair the damage. Boerth nearly falls overboard when the ship loses altitude and Captain Pruss makes the decision to increase speed and altitude. Boerth is then pulled back into the ship by Knorr. 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, to show that there is a 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, when the airship should have landed and passengers disembarked.
While setting up the bomb, Boerth drops the knife part which is recovered by rigger Ludecke. To cover up the loss of his knife, Boerth steals a knife from fellow rigger Ludwig Knorr. Vogel starts to work behind Ritter's back, arresting Boerth and confiscating the Countess's passport.
As the airship approaches Lakehurst Naval Air Station at 7:00, Ritter realizes the bomb will explode before the ship can land and searches for Boerth to ask where the bomb is. Vogel is caught by Ritter in the cargo bay torturing Boerth and gets into a fight with Ritter and is knocked unconscious. An injured Boerth tells Ritter the bomb is in the repair patch of gas cell 4. Ritter attempts to defuse the bomb, but is distracted by a now-awakened Vogel and is unable to do so in time. The bomb explodes, killing Ritter instantly and sending Vogel flying down the walkway. Vogel survives, being carried by ground crewmen. Boerth was injured from being tortured 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 reunites with her daughter. Passengers and crew struggle to survive the fire. The final scene of the disaster shows a burnt piece of fabric that said "Hindenburg" among the wreckage.
The following day, with the fire cleared, 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. As Herbert Morrison's memorable radio commentary is played in the reprise, the Hindenburg is seen flying once again, only to disappear again in the clouds.
- 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 was aboard as a security officer to investigate a bomb threat.
- Ursula von Reugen – Ursula is a German Countess 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 was in the same flying club before the creation of the Luftwaffe; he was killed in a crash and she went to live on her estate. Her daughter, Trudi, is deaf and goes to a school in Boston. Ursula survives the fire by walking down a stairway, 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 leftists in Spain, leading the Gestapo to investigate. She is arrested and killed while trying to escape. When Ritter attempts to arrest him he asks for Ritter's help. He wants to prove there is a resistance, and that if Ritter helps him nobody would be killed, saying that's the "last thing I want." While planting the bomb he drops a knife blade, which is later discovered by another crew member and turned over to Vogel. When the landing is delayed Boerth is detained and beaten by Vogel. During the crash, Boerth frees the Channings' dog from its cage before dying of his burns.
- SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer Martin Vogel – The antagonist of the film. Vogel is a Gestapo who poses as an official photographer for the airship. Initially, Vogel appears to be cooperative with Ritter, but seeing Ritter's sympathies for Boerth and the Countess, he begins to work behind Ritter's back. Vogel also has an interest in 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 show his name as "Otto Vogel"), but there is no evidence he was a 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 captain of the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin on numerous other flights. He is portrayed as being wary of the Nazis, although the real Lehmann was the opposite. In reality, Lehmann was well known as a supporter of Berlin in order to advance his career and the fortunes of the Zeppelin Company. However, 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 during a propaganda flight. In reality, he was eager and glad to oblige in this undertaking, to the extent that he launched the ship in violent wind conditions. The ship later hit the ground and its lower tail fin was damaged. Infuriated, Hugo Eckener, Lehmann's superior in the Zeppelin Company, angrily berated Lehmann for endangering the ship to please the Nazis, resulting in Propaganda Minister Goebbels blacklisting Eckener in the press, despite his being a known 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 Spah 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 Spah 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 that 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. The family is based upon the Doehner family that was aboard on the last flight (though the Doehners were not Jewish, and while all three Breslau children survive in the film, Irene Doehner died in the crash).
- Joseph Spah - 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 Spah 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 exec 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.
- Captain Fellows – The 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).
Many of the fictional characters are based on actual people. For example: Franz Ritter is based on Fritz Erdmann, Karl Boerth is based on Eric Spehl, as well as a few others.
|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)|
|Rene Auberjonois||Maj. Napier|
|Peter Donat||Reed Channing|
|Alan Oppenheimer||Albert Breslau|
|Katherine Helmond||Mrs. 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||Dr. Hugo Eckener**|
|William Sylvester||Luftwaffe Colonel|
|Greg Mullavey||Herbert Morrison**|
|Herbert Morrison||Himself (Voice, uncredited)|
(*) Beside name indicates actual name of person on the last flight of the Hindenburg, (**) beside name indicates actual person, but was not on board the Hindenburg.
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 International Archives in London, the National Air and Space Museum Library and Archives in Washington, DC 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, DC. 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.[page needed]
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 happened to the Graf Zeppelin during its first flight to America. Additionally, although the Hindenburg did have a 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, there was just a ladder for crew members to walk down. Several aspects of the airship's takeoff and landing procedures were also inaccurate. Prior to takeoff, the airship would not need to be attached to the mooring mast and used the landing ropes during takeoff. It is common for airships to be towed out of their hangar and be pushed into the air by the ground crew. 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 from the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed it as a failed project, "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?" Film critic 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." Film critic Pauline Kael voiced her disapproval of the film and Wise's direction with the phrase, "One gasbag meets another."
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 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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