Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Universal, widescreen 2.35:1, languages: English Dolby Surround, subtitles: Spanish, French, single side-single layer, 16 chapters, production notes, cast & crew bios, film highlights, web links, rated PG, 126 min., $24.98, street date 10/27/98.
Academy Awards: Special Achievement Award to Peter Berkos for Visual Effects. Nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound, 1976.
Directed Robert Wise. Starring George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Roy Thinnes, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith.
George C. Scott leads an all-star cast in this imaginative suspense thriller that attempts to shed some light on the historic disaster even as its intricate plot unfolds. As a colonel assigned by the German government to make certain no one sabotages the Hindenburg on its transatlantic voyage, Scott suspects everyone aboard the luxury ship--particularly a German countess vehemently opposed to the Nazi regime. Stylishly directed by Robert Wise (The Andromeda Strain), The Hindenburg brings to life one of aviation's most infamous events and one of the screen's most engrossing mysteries.
Disaster movies have one serious obstacle they all have to overcome: from the start, everyone knows what will happen. I mean, if you see a movie called The Swarm, it's a pretty good bet that you'll see a lot of nasty bees, and if a film is titled Twister, there sure better be a tornado or two in that sucker!
But at least these movies offer some suspense in that you don't know the progression of events or how they'll end. Yeah, we'll assume that they douse the fire in The Towering Inferno, but there's still lots of room to be creative.
As such, the challenge for historically-based films is much greater. We all know how Titanic and The Hindenburg will end, so there wouldn't seem to be much opportunity for suspense. "Titanic" worked so well because it took the emphasis off of the sinking itself and put it on the characters; this is something a lot of disaster movies attempt, but they usually don't succeed.
Even if they'd gone the straight disaster route, makers of Titanic still could spend a lot of time dealing with the sinking itself; it took that a sucker a lot of time to finally submerge. Fewer opportunities greeted the creators of The Hindenburg. For that craft, there would be no hours-long finale; that thing went up faster than the Human Torch! About half of Titanic took place after the ship hit the iceberg; if The Hindenburg devoted half of its length to the events after the blimp blew, the movie'd only last about ten minutes.
So The Hindenburg needed to find some other way to tell a story. The film focusses on the events that occurred during the Germany to US voyage itself and especially emphasizes the mystery surrounding the fateful event. Although no one ever clearly determined why the dirigible exploded, the movie bases its plot on the sabotage theory. As such, its story becomes mainly a mystery as we watch Nazi Colonel Ritter (George C. Scott) try to find the saboteur. In many ways, the movie really resembles a game of "Clue": we have the cast of potential baddies, and the protagonist has to determine which one did - or was about to do - the crime.
While this setup probably doesn't sound very good, I found The Hindenburg to make a fairly compelling and well-executed film. While we actually learn the identity of the saboteur midway through the picture, director Robert Wise does a solid job of continuing to provoke excitement and suspense. The movie didn't exactly have me on the edge of my seat - especially since we know the thing's gonna blow at some point - but it kept me interested and stimulated, which is a pretty good achievement.
The Hindenburg offers a pretty decent cast, with George C. Scott cast as our protagonist. Unusually, he's actually an officer in the German army - yep, he's a Nazi! But he's a "good Nazi" as it were; we soon learn that he doesn't accept the Nazi ideas and biases. It's pushing it to make Ritter a good guy, but Scott makes him effectively human and convincing.
Ultimately, I liked The Hindenburg a fair amount. It's not a great movie, but it's a cut above what I expected. The film is well-crafted and provides a fairly thrilling experience, even if you do know how it'll end.
The Hindenburg appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture isn't a complete disaster - HA! - it certainly won't win any prizes.
As with most of this DVD, sharpness seems very erratic. At times it looks decent and relatively crisp, but it often appears awfully soft and fuzzy. Conversely, a lot of edge enhancement shows up and actors sometimes seem to have slight "halos." We also see a fair amount of shimmering and jagged edges. For some unknown reason, these problems are worse during the first half or so of the film; the image doesn't look great during the last hour, but it's better.
The print used for the transfer also shows many faults. I noted scratches, marks, spots and speckles at many points during the movie. Grain also mars the image for much of the film. In general, the print didn't look horrid, but it certainly offered more than its fair share of flaws.
Colors seem drab and the movie usually looks rather brown and flat, though production design appears responsible for some of this; The Hindenburg isn't a very bright and lively film. Hues often appear reasonably accurate, though. Black levels are decent and shadow detail seems fine, though neither appear terribly strong. At best, The Hindenburg looks okay, but at worst, it's pretty bad.
Better but still flawed is the Dolby Surround 2.0 mix of The Hindenburg. For such an old film, it presents a pretty strong soundstage. Dialogue always seems firmly anchored to the center channel, but music spreads nicely across the front speakers, and we also sometimes hear some well-localized effects; the audio even musters decent panning at times. The surrounds don't offer much other than a general dirigible-engine "hum" but that actually helps create a workable atmosphere.
Quality is okay but generally somewhat weak. Dialogue seems clear and intelligible though very dull and flat, and music sounds about the same. Effects sometimes cause trouble because they tend to be rather harsh, especially the engines noises. This problem becomes exacerbated due to the fact this soundtrack arrives at a very low volume level; I had to really crank it far past normal settings to get anything approaching a listenable level. Distortion seems pretty minimal but negatively affected some of the engine sounds and other effects. All in all, the movie sounds relatively good but is still quite flawed.
The Hindenburg skimps on the supplements, but what's here is good. The DVD offers some very interesting and informative production notes, plus we have decent biographies for seven of the actors and director Robert Wise. The DVD may or may not contain a booklet with production notes as well. Universal DVDs almost always feature booklets, but not all of these offer notes; sometimes they just include chapter headings and photos. Since I got The Hindenburg as a rental from Netflix, I can't comment on this feature.
While I found The Hindenburg to be a surprisingly entertaining and effective movie, I'm afraid I cannot recommend this DVD. While the sound is decent, the picture looks quite bad and it offers few supplements. If you're really curious, give it a rental; otherwise this is a DVD to skip.
Current as of 1/14/2000
The Hindenburg Disaster--Read a brief account of the disaster with images and video clips.
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