No film that Pauline Kael despised on principle (in this case the principle that it was directed by Robert Wise) can be all bad, and so it proves with The Hindenburg, which falls somewhere between a countdown-to-catastrophe period political thriller a la Tora! Tora! Tora!, 70s conspiracy movie and by-the-numbers disaster movie. It's as a disaster movie that it fails the most: the destruction of the Hindenburg was simply too quick to make for much of a climax, and playing the famous black and white newsreel footage intercut with unimpressive cutaways to the less than stellar cast at the end feels like a real cheat, especially since it's often clumsily handled. On the plus side it offers a clever screen story from legendary Monday Mystery Movie TV scribes William Levinson and Richard Link that sees George C. Scott's reluctant Luftwaffe Colonel sent by Goebbels on the airship's last voyage to uncover a plot to destroy the ship and thus embarrass the Nazi regime that uses it for their own propaganda. While the real investigations in Germany and America give the film some momentum, unfortunately the search for suspects among this particular sedately paced Airship of Fools is less than urgent: indeed, it's pretty obvious who is behind the plot and how Scott will react when he uncovers him.
That the supporting cast is more solid than glittering doesn't help: Anne Bancroft's aristocratic old flame has little to do but bemoan the way the Nazis have taken over her estate, cheat at cards and smoke the kind of cigarettes you don't get over the counter, but still manages to make more of her part than the script does; Roy Thinnes does well as the Gestapo man hitting on a young Jewish passenger because "I'm anxious to try one before they run out"; Richard Dysart does the good German wondering what's happening to his country routine as one of the owners (who historically was more than happy to cosy up to the Nazis if it was good for business); Charles Durning keeps the glowering to a minimum as the pro-Nazi captain; Gig Young is clearly drunk in a couple of scenes (yes, I know he's playing a drunk, but he slurs even when he's supposed to be sober half the time); while star-that-never-was William Atherton lurks in the rigging moodily before saving the ship from the danger that his own incompetence puts it in the first place. Shame they couldn't have afforded a couple of British actors for Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois' parts. However, it does boast one of Scott's more natural and likeably underplayed performances before his penchant for drunken Long John Silver impersonations took over, managing to keep it all together until things go bang. The production design is excellent, Albert Whitlock's special effects, while dated, are often impressive and there's a lovely score by David Shire that's recently been released as an extremely limited edition CD. And it's hard to write off a film entirely that has one nervous passenger suggest "Next time, let's take the Titanic."
Anchor Bay's UK PAL DVD offers no extras, but the 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is much better than Universal's Region 1 NTSC disc.