Sunday, May 6, 2012
History and the Movies: The Hindenburg
When making a movie about a historical disaster, the disaster remains the focus. There can be plenty of fictionalized plot around it, but the disaster itself is in the forefront. With the Titanic, most movies based on it (the notable exception being A Night to Remember) create mini-melodramas around fictionalized characters that make up the story (the lovers in the 1997 version, the divorcing couple in the 1953 version, etc) while the audience awaits disaster to strike. The Titanic makes it even easier by the historically valid fact that the ship, in fact, took three hours to sink. The airship Hindenburg, on the other hand, went from mint condition to burning rubble in less than a minute, 75 years ago today. That means any theatrical movie needs to fill roughly 99 percent of its running time with fictional characters engaged in fictional melodramas.
Of course, for any other fictional narrative, this isn't a problem but when the event the movie is based upon is what people are coming to see, it's a huge problem. Unfortunately, the movie The Hindenburg (d. Robert Wise, 1975) doesn't counter the problem by giving the audience a very compelling story. George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft and William Atherton (among many others) all do admirable work in the service of a tepid plot about spies and sabotage, none of which ever seems very urgent given the fact that we know the outcome. That sounds like the same problem as any other historically based disaster movie but actually, it's not.
With the story of the Titanic, we know it's going to sink but we don't know the outcome of the fictional narrative. Will Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) and Richard (Clifton Webb) reconcile and make it to the lifeboats together with their children? Will Jack (Leonardo DiCiprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) drown in the bowels of the ship or will they make it off safely? And so on. Their story is not tied directly to the ship hitting an iceberg. In The Hindenburg, that is indeed what happens.
The story concerns possible sabotage of the ship with a bomb that the SS and George C. Scott are investigating. William Atherton, as it turns out, is planting the bomb because he hates the Nazis and, well, who doesn't. But, as you can see, the direct lines of the plot are tied to the ship exploding so while we may not know if Jack and Rose are going to survive together, only to have Jack die later (because from the flashback structure we certainly know Rose survives to the present day), we do know the bomb will go off. It would be like making the story of the Titanic into a spy thriller in which one saboteur was determined to steer the ship into an iceberg. Will he succeed? Well, yes, obviously. It's a stupid thing to tie your plot to.
Nonetheless, The Hindenburg ultimately fails due to a pacing that mimics the casual, lackadaisical air speed of the zeppelin itself. The movie, despite some stunning visuals achieved with superb model making and optical printing and matte work, never achieves the kind of lift necessary to keep it aloft (sorry, couldn't help it). The history of the Hindenburg and the mystery of what truly happened that day is better left to the documentary form where the short but tragic event can be rehashed and analysed all while giving a brief history of airships along the way.