Literature: Black Sunday

A 1975 novel by Thomas Harris, adapted into a film directed by John Frankenheimer in 1977.

Long before Harris invented Hannibal Lecter, he invented Michael Lander, a disgruntled Vietnam Vet who is nearly psychotic because of the torture he went through as a POW in the hands of the North Vietnamese and the loss of his wife as a result of his resultant problems reintegrating in society after the war. He is finally driven psychotic when he catches his wife riding her lover during woman-on-top sex, and the lover runs out of the house after beating Michael senseless.

Michael approaches a Muslim terrorist group and offers to use his job as a dirigible pilot for the Aldrich Rubber Company to crash its blimp into the Super Bowl at New Orleans, and fire a bomb carrying hundreds of thousands of rifle darts into the stadium, which will kill in excess of 50,000 people in one stroke.

The only person who can stop him is an Israeli government assassin, Major Kabakov and his partner, Lt. Mochevski. Kabakov, assisted by FBI Agent Corley, only know that a man who may be American, has met with a Black September-affiliated terrorist group, which they discovered from a tape made in advance, captured during a raid by the Israelis on one of the group's safehouses, that the terrorists will "begin the year with violence." So they not only have to try to figure out what the event is, but where it is happening and how, and hopefully before it's too late.

We watch in fascination as Lander's plan goes through with inexorable precision toward its deadly outcome, assisted by Faisal and Dahlia, a woman who has a rare position of authority in the Black September terrorist organization. Some events become known to Kabakov, who eventually comes to the conclusion that the target will be the Super Bowl, in view of the statement in the terrorist announcement that was captured early.

The book and the movie have several differences. Kabakov dies in the book, Mochevski dies in the film. In the movie, Muslim terrorist Faisal dies about 1/2 way through, but in the book he lives and is taken to Israel to stand trial. The book has the Super Bowl in New Orleans; the movie has it in Miami, as the film shot footage at Super Bowl X. The book has Kabakov and his doctor Rachel Bowman enter into a love affair; the affair does not happen in the movie. The book used "Aldrich" for the company Lander worked for; in the movie, Goodyear actually approved use of their name and their blimp in the movie. Not related to the 1960 Mario Bava horror classic.

Tropes Used

  • Ace Pilot: Lander was a highly decorated helicopter pilot before his capture, and is considered an expert blimp pilot by the rest of his Goodyear team.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: When an Egyptian colonel who unofficially works with Black September balks at providing information about Dahlia, Kabakov says that if he doesn't and a successful terrorist attack on US soil takes place, he'll make sure the world (and by implication the American government) knows about their conversation, and that he could have done something about it but didn't. The colonel comes up with the information soon afterwards, but he also warns Dahlia and Fasil that Western authorities are onto them.
  • Anti-Hero - Kabakov. In the book, Corley mentions to Kabakov how it's clear to him that Kabakov wouldn't care what he had to do to stop Fasil: "Warn me in advance? Warn me, my ass! You'd have sent me a postcard from fucking Tel Aviv, saying 'sorry about the crater and the tidal wave!'"
  • Anyone Can Die - Significant characters die in the book and the movie
  • As Himself - Miami Dolphins football team owner Joe Robbie has a small part in the film, as do CBS commentators Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier.
  • Badass Israeli - Major Kabakov
  • Bavarian Fire Drill - Lasser uses the confusion caused by smoke from one of the blimp's engines (which he induced) to get the Goodyear ground crew to mount the bomb (disguised as "new camera equipment") onto the base of the blimp's gondola.
  • Chekhov's Crosswind - At the start of the film, Lander has trouble holding the blimp steady in high winds, and the network complains about his performance. Later on, just before the Super Bowl, he finds out he's been replaced by another pilot because of this. However, Dahlia is able to rectify the situation and save Stage One.
  • Crazy-Prepared - Lander set up a secondary fuse to set off the bomb if the primary igniter didn't work.
  • Deadly Doctor - After Lt. Mochevski is wounded by a bomb intended to silence the ship captain who smuggled in the plastic explosives for the plot, Dahlia disguises herself as a nurse and kills him in his hospital room with an injection of potassium chloride. Quentin Tarantino said this scene inspired the similar one with Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill.
  • The Determinator - Lander. At times he seems more intent on proving himself than his terrorist allies.
  • Erotic Eating / Evil Tastes Good - In the book, Fasil is sitting in a place waiting, eating a piece of rich Swiss chocolate, then sensuously licking the melted chocolate off his fingers, and realizing if the Israelis ever found out his passionate love of high-quality chocolate they might be able to discover where he is.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Flechette Storm - How Lander's bomb would work hundred of thousands of rifle darts propelled at the Super Bowl crowd by a half-ton of plastic explosive.
  • Gadgeteer Genius - Lander builds a highly sophisticated WMD in his basement and sets up a remotely detonated bomb inside a phone to take out a potential security leak.
  • Hero Antagonist - Kabakov again.
  • Ironic Nickname - According to Mochevski, some of Kabakov's co-workers in the Mossad call him "The Final Solution".
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique - In the book Major Kabakov says to his assistant Mochevski, when a man they are questioning won't talk, "I'm going to step outside for a moment. Perhaps the Captain would like some refreshments. Call me when he has finished eating his testicles."
  • Mythology Gag - In the film adapation, "When The Saints Go Marching In" (a song heavily associated with New Orleans) plays in the background during a pre-Super Bowl party. The big game in the novel takes place in New Orleans; in the film it was moved to Miami to take advantage of the real-life Super Bowl X.
  • Once for Yes, Twice for No: Kabakov is interrogating another man where he has put a gun in the man's mouth, and tells him, "I'm going to ask you some questions and I want answers. Blink for yes, die for no."
  • Product Placement: Goodyear gave permission and allowed its blimp to be used in the movie, and as a result there are lots of shots of the Goodyear Blimp. Especially when Lander and Dahlia are trying to land it in the stadium in order to kill everyone.
  • Properly Paranoid: At the Super Bowl, Kabakov and Corley theorize that there might be a bomb in the Orange Bowl's stadium lights set to go off when they warm up; given Lander's skill with setting up bombs, it's not impossible, just wrong.
  • Relocating the Explosion: At the film's climax, Kabakov and Corley chase down the stolen blimp in a commandeered helicopter. Kabakov kills Dahlia, mortally wounds Lander, and damages the bomb's detonator with an SMG. Unfortunately, the blimp is still on course for the stadium, and Lander is able to light the backup fuse (an old-fashioned slow-burning type) before he dies. With minutes to spare, Kabakov jumps onto the top of the blimp and attaches a cable onto it, and they're able to tow it over the Atlantic before it detonates.
  • Room Disservice
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran - Lander is a veteran of The Vietnam War, and already unhinged by the beginning of the bombing plot.
  • Shoot the Money - Much of the footage used was shot during Super Bowl X.
  • Super Bowl - The movie came out just as the game was becoming a national "holiday". Joe Robbie himself says to Kabakov "Cancel the Super Bowl? That's like cancelling Christmas!"
  • Take Me Out At The Ballgame
  • Too Dumb to Live: The rural hick who lets Lander "take a picture of him" with the prototype rifle-dart bomb.
  • Villain Protagonist - Fasil and Dahlia, who are working to make Lander's plan work.
  • Wham Line: "What exactly is this 'Super Bowl'?"