Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THE HINDENBURG: Blu-ray (Universal 1975) Universal Home Video

Despite some noteworthy special effects and matte work by Albert Whitlock and Glen Robinson, director Robert Wise’s The Hindenburg (1975) is a real clunker; a $12 million dollar would-be spectacle, produced at the height of the all-star disaster movie’s resurgence on movie screens, but with decidedly a minor ensemble of mostly B-actors to augment a rather stilted central performance by George C. Scott. Scott, who only five years earlier had portrayed one of most enigmatic and incendiary heroes of WWII in Patton (1970) is herein cast as ‘the good Nazi’(if such a thing exists); Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter, assigned the seemingly middling duty by Joseph Goebbels (David Mauro) as the Hindenburg’s security officer in response to a rather cryptic bomb threat. Scott’s character is loosely based on Colonel Fritz Erdmann who was aboard Hindie’s fateful flight and perished in her flames, although there is no evidence it was in an ‘official capacity’. I pause a moment, feeling a fiendish smile creeping in as I recall the late Pauline Kael’s assessment of this movie as “one gasbag meets another.” I’m not a fan of Ms. Kael’s work in general, but herein she seems to have astutely found the fatal flaw in this Hindenburg’s proverbial Achilles’ heel.
Despite its abundance of buoyant hydrogen, two aspects prevent The Hindenburg – the movie – from ever getting off the ground. First, the airship, as with others designed by the Zeppelin company, was the very symbol of Nationalist Socialist pride; a veritable floating advertisement for Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Hence, even with an American cast (who positively refuse to ape German accents), it is still a little hard to ‘get behind’ and bolster a modicum of empathy for any of the chichi characters on board this albatross. Whitlock’s usually peerless matte work herein is somewhat enfeebled; the Hindenburg, looking like an over-sized grey prophylactic or gigantic suppository emblazoned in decorous swastikas from stem to stern. Even the few resounding chords of Deutschland über alles playing in the background from the marching band on the platform - brown shirts and Nazi insignia banners and flags unfurled, the tone of the piece rings more tinny than ominous, even as it is punctuated by David Shire’s ‘on the nose’ underscore, heavy-handed portending of the disaster yet to unfold. The other problem with the picture is, of course, that its premise and characters strike an incredibly false note almost from the moment the book-ended B&W Universal Newsreel footage ends and the ‘reel’ story begins.
In addition to Scott’s Franz we get Ann Bancroft as the haughty and exclusive Ursula von Reugen – a Baltic German Countess nervously set to decamp from her estate in Peenemünde in order to be reunited with daughter, Trudi (Deanna Martin) who has been attending a school for the hearing impaired in Boston. William Atherton is Karl Boerth; a.k.a., the saboteur; an ex-Hitler youth turned to warped daydreams of becoming ‘a folk hero’ by destroying this symbol of Hitler’s global presence with a bomb. Too late to make a difference, Karl’s paramour, Freda Halle (Lisa Pera) gets whisked away by agents in Frankfurt and later (off camera) tortured to death (news of her ‘suicide’ telegraphed to Franz aboard ship). For poop and giggles, Roy Thinnes is woefully miscast as SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer, Martin Vogel; posing as an official photographer for the airship. Vogel is supposed to be on Franz’s side. However, owing to Franz’s humanity towards both Karl and the countess (we can’t have that!) Vogel begins to concoct a counteroffensive behind his back. This character is very loosely based on Karl Otto Clemens, the semi-official photog for Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei. There is no evidence he was actually an agent of the Gestapo.
Other notables given precious little or nothing to do: Charles Durning as the Hindenburg’s joyless Capt. Max Pruss, under pressure from the Zeppelin Co.’s senior observer, Ernst Lehman (Richard A. Dysart) to expedite their transatlantic crossing. The movie also concocts a pair of Broadway show promoters/composers; Reed Channing (Peter Donat) and his wife, Bess (Joanna Moore); pregnant with their first and fearing turbulence on the RMS Queen Mary. Midway through this improbably dull Atlantic crossing, Reed is asked by Pruss to perform for the guests. Alas, he becomes sullen and spiteful when denied access to the interior of the ship where the couple’s beloved Dalmatian, Heidi is being housed. So Reed employs the satirical ‘professional mime and clown,’ Joseph Spah (Robert Clary) to perform a concert, satirizing Hitler and the Nazis. Franz is amused; Vogel mildly so. But the gag turns sour when Pruss storms out in a huff, abruptly putting an end to the night’s entertainment.  It has been speculated the Channings were grafted from the Adelts; husband and wife journalists closely affiliated with the Zeppelin Company. But in reality, it was Spah who owned a German shepherd named Ulla. Records indicate another dog aboard too. Unlike the spirited Heidi in the film, neither of these animals survived the real Hindenburg disaster.
We are also introduced to the Breslaus: Albert (Alan Oppenheimer) and Mildred (Katherine Helmond) and their three nondescript children, Valerie (Jean Rasey), Peter (Steven Manley) and Paul (Johnny Lee). Albert is smuggling diamonds inside an ordinary fountain pen; the money from the sale meant for his grandmother’s family, the Milsteins, to get them out of Germany because they are Jews. Alas, believing the pen to contain some news about the bomb threat, Franz investigates and learns Breslau’s secret. The Breslaus real-life counterparts were the Doehners, neither Jewish nor diamond smuggling.  Finally, we get Gig Young as the perpetually bitter and slightly inebriated, Edward Douglas; a German-American advertising exec and former cryptographer during World War I. He uses encoded messages during the flight to keep track of a rival sailing aboard the Queen Mary; a bet between competitors to award the first person to reach New York a very lucrative contract for a soon-to-open German branch of General Motors. There are others aboard this ill-fated vessel, but their acting contributions are so tragically slight so as to appear virtually invisible at a glance (which is about all we get in The Hindenburg) it seems a waste of good discussion on a bad movie to list them even in passing herein.
Those seeking a history lesson with The Hindenburg would do better to study the authenticated 1937 newsreel footage of the LZ 129 imploding into a hellish fireball moments before it was to land at New Jersey’s Lakehurst Maxfield Field Airbase; footage exploited in prolonged jump cuts to extend the actual minute-long tragedy into roughly fifteen minutes of needless melodrama at the end of Wise’s overwrought ‘investigation’ into the disaster. Hitler always blamed the Americans for the Hindenburg’s demise. The official investigation, however, concluded a possible snap in one of the ship’s bracing wires having ripped open one or more of its hydrogen cells, thus allowing for a lethal mix of that gas with oxygen, ignited via static electricity generated by an electrical storm and the Hindenburg’s mooring lines lowered to the electro-statically charged ground: the perfect conduit to spark the ship into a nightmarish fireball.  Alas, based on Michael M. Mooney’s conspiracy theorist book, the Nelson Gidding, Richard Levinson and William Link screenplay presumes something quite different; a bomb blast from within as part of an inner resistance movement to embarrass the Reich and minimize Hitler by making a mockery of at least one of his seemingly irrefutable symbols of German genius.
Hence, we get plotting – a lot of it – and red herrings cropping up so readily within this fictionalized account none on board appear to have sailed the Hindenburg without first relishing her untimely demise. And yet for all the machinations taking place, including a really ill-conceived encounter with St. Elmo’s Fire, The Hindenburg lacks impetus and excitement; the two essentials to make it the ultimate disaster epic of the seventies. None of the actors outside of George C. Scott is given more than two lines at a time, written with the most rudimentary motivation simply to link one scene to the next in as hurriedly a foreword trajectory as possible, simply to get to the slam-bang finish. Yet, here too, The Hindenburg utterly fails to enthrall. As Franz proves incapable of discovering the bomb in time, knocking Vogel senseless after he has already tortured Karl to the brink of death; the explosion that follows transforms what ought to have been the movie’s pièce de résistance into a rather shameless reenactment in B&W: the limited actual footage shot at Lakehurst on that fateful afternoon, repeatedly inserted with inexplicably deliberate pauses and freeze-frames sandwiched between new footage also shot in B&W, depicting a sort of ‘where were you when the lights went out?’ gut recreation, gleaned from survivor accounts. The real Hindenburg took less than a minute to completely disintegrate above Lakehurst. With almost pathetic precision, director, Robert Wise endeavors to amplify ‘the loss of humanity’ by elongating the moment into an interminable montage and thus completely dissipates its natural shock value.
There really is not all that much more to say about The Hindenburg – the movie – except that Wise and his screenwriters have completely forsaken the precepts of the successful disaster movie to give us quite something else, and less than that, in its stead. For starters, all great disaster movies from the 1970s occurred in confined spaces. But repeatedly, Wise cuts away from the bulbous airship and its lugubrious snippets and sound bites for even less convincing vignettes taking place securely on the ground; discussions between FBI agents and Ruth Schudson’s weirdo/clairvoyant, Kathie Rauch, whose detailed description of Hindie’s final moments, written by hand several days before the actual take off, has Washington’s Capt. Fellows’ (Stephen Elliott) knickers in a ball. In all, the movie repeatedly stumbles and implodes long before the actual airship, becoming entangled in the mooring ropes of its own meandering plot. When the screenwriters repeatedly paint themselves into a corner, they fall back on Albert Whitlock’s marvelous mattes to convey a thunderstorm, and later, a truly laughable bout of St. Elmo’s Fire; a natural weather phenomenon, recreated with neon-blue animated SFX herein that are about as convincing as those trailing embers tracing the contours of Angela Lansbury’s brass bed in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). If only some of The Hindenburg were up to the rest of that delightful Disney endeavor the picture might have worked as pure amusement with a whiz-bang death wish finale. But no; none of that. The Hindenburg is a spectacular snore. For shame!
I am still trying to figure out the logic Universal Home Video’s executive brain trust employed in the encoding of this Blu-ray disc with virtually no menus and no chapter stops to recommend it. The mastering was done over at Sony’s reproduction facilities, but any comparison between Sony’s usual commitment to quality and Universal’s slap-dash efforts of late is purely coincidental. This Blu-ray disc boots up immediately and will continuously play if you let it. Personally, one viewing of The Hindenburg was quite enough for me, particularly since not a lot of remastering seems to have been applied to ready this release for Blu-ray. Colors are frequently muddy and contrast, dimmer than anticipated. Flesh tones are never natural, but adopt either a piggy pinkish underlay or disappear into a sort of nondescript thickness, exacerbated by a slightly pixelated brown/orange hue. Albert Whitlock’s matte work toggles between appearing rather seamless in a few shots to looking downright cut n’ pasted together in others. No attempt has been made to homogenize or even faithfully reproduce film grain. It’s either slightly pixelated or practically nonexistent.
Color density fluctuates. There is also minor gate weave tugging the image horizontally from left to right, particularly noticeable during long static shots, and, some slight edge effects that plague horizontal/vertical surfaces. All the long shots depicting airship’s iron-framed balloon interior suffer from edge enhancement. Dumb. Sloppy work, folks. Don’t like it at all! The audio is 1.0 mono and I suppose adequate for this lackluster presentation. Dialogue is strident sounding throughout and David Shire’s underscore never attains anything close to a pleasing tenor. Again, there are no extras and no way to access scenes in this movie, except by using the ‘advance’ button on one’s remote control, advancing to arbitrary chapter stops inserted at ten minute intervals without rhyme or reason. Universal’s first re-launch of The Hindenburg was as a Wal-Mart exclusive. Let us hope their slap-dash effort herein is not a prelude to more cheap-jack 1080p offerings like this one. Bottom line: pass and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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