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Film / The Hindenburg (1975)

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The Hindenburg is a 1975 Disaster Movie, directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), co-written by Richard Levinson and William Link (creators of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote), and featuring an All-Star Cast including George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton, Roy Thinnes, Gig Young, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning, and Richard Dysart.

The film depicts the final trans-Atlantic voyage of the eponymous German zeppelin in 1937, and its tragic conclusion. Although the real-life incident remains clouded with conflicting theories as to the underlying cause of the disaster, a number of which get name-checked herein, this movie runs with a conspiracy theory (as did the book that it's based upon), positing the Hindenburg's demise as an act of politically-motivated sabotage.

The story unfolds rather like a crime mystery: Col. Franz Ritter (Scott), of the German Luftwaffe, is assigned as a special security officer aboard the Hindenburg for her latest voyage to America, after the German embassy receives a bomb threat. He must investigate the crew and passengers, many of whom have something to hide, and figure out who is plotting to bomb the airship and try to prevent it. Read your history books again to see how well that turned out.

Click here to read the April 1974 draft of the script.

Tropes found in this film:

  • Anti-Villain: Played with. Despite the story being told mainly from the German persective, the Nazi regime is most emphatically not given a Historical Hero Upgrade here, and most characters are treated as good or villainous depending upon their personal attitudes toward the Reich. On the other hand, the Hindenburg crew clearly support the regime, since they take offense at the Nazi-bashing song-and-dance number; yet the crew themselves are never depicted in a negative light — indeed, during the climax Captain Pruss is downright heroic. (Dr. Hugo Eckener, the director of The Zeppelin Company shown briefly in the movie, was a notable anti-Nazi in real life, earning him considreable ire from the Nazis. The year before, he had been blacklisted after blasting Captain Lehmann for taking the Hindenburg up in strong winds for a propaganda flight, causing damage.)
  • Artistic License – History: The film makes it seem that Captain Lehmann died shortly after the crash, but in actuality, he lived long enough to be taken to a hospital, and the doctors believed he was going to pull through before he died from the injuries the next day.
  • Art Shift: At the climax, the film switches to a Deliberately Monochrome, grainy style to simulate newsreel footage of the Hindenburg crash, and remains in this style through the Dénouement all the way until the closing shot and end credits.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: The film opens with a vintage newsreel covering the history of rigid-body airships, displayed in the original Academy-standard aspect ratio before segueing to glorious widescreen for the film proper.
  • Beneath Notice: The Reich considers La Résistance to be this, and this is the entire motivation behind the bombing of the Hindenburg — a political body blow to the very symbol of Nazi power which will force the regime to recognize the Resistance movement.
  • Big "NO!"!: Captain Pruss lets one out when the bomb goes off just as the airship is preparing to touch down.
  • Blown Across the Room: Vogel, when he catches Ritter with the bomb. Vogel lives through it; Ritter does not.
  • Book Ends: The opening credits unspool over beauty shots of the Hindenburg flying through the clouds; the closing image is of the Hindenburg vanishing into the heavens.
  • Card Sharp / Professional Gambler: Pajetta and Napier are a pair of con men who travel luxury liners and bilk the other passengers by cheating at cards. Even more so the Countess, who figures out their cheat system in very short order and turns it to her advantage.
  • Cool Airship: The Hindenburg, of course.
  • Defector from Decadence: The Countess has no intention of returning to Germany. And Breslau is smuggling diamonds in an attempt to buy his Jewish family's passage out of there too.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: When the bomb goes off, the film switches to monochrome.
  • Destination Defenestration: Occurs twice during the climax; Countess Ursula's bodyguard falls through a skylight after stomping on it to smash the glass so they could jump through once the ship had gotten low enough. He loses his balance and falls to his death through the window and Ursula sees his dead body on the ground.
    • Albert Breslau is seen throwing his wife through an open window as the room they're in becomes engulfed in flames, but the window slams shut and shatters before Albert can get out and he quickly succumbs to the fire.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: Typical for the genre — not to mention the fact that, due to the timing of the real-life incident, the actual disaster can't strike until the film's climax, so we've got plenty of time to... umm, kill.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Col. Ritter's first few lines of dialogue are criticism of the political direction the Reich is taking: "We're turning into some kind of Gestapo!"
    • The Countess' haughty complaining over having her luggage searched.
    • As the passengers congregate in the dining/common area just before liftoff, Joe Spah, the circus performer, can be seen doing silly mime acts in the background.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Particularly when the Gestapo is as paranoid as they are, literally any little thing can be interpreted as motive. To be fair, these people are all acting pretty shifty, and all have legitimate reason to hate/fear/distrust the Nazis.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since this is a Disaster Movie based upon a historical event, it's pretty clear from the beginning how the film is going to end. However, the film does try to circumvent this obstacle by shifting the focus from what's going to happen to how, and by whom.
  • Foreshadowing: When the canvas needs to be fixed, the repair crew have large knives well visible in their belts. The bomb is hidden in one of the knives' handle.
  • Freudian Excuse: Ritter's hate for the Gestapo stems from his son, a member of a Hitler Youth group, dying while defacing a synagogue. It's stated to have been an accident, but is left open to interpretation. This helps Ritter sympathize with the bomber.
  • Genre Buster: Marketed as a Disaster Movie, looks like a historical drama, plays out like an Agatha Christie novel.

  • The Hero Dies: More than that, even: Ritter is the one who sets off the bomb, running out of time to disarm it before it went off.
  • Hiding Your Heritage: Breslau's grandmother was Jewish, but he hides this from his wife and children (as well as the Nazis) and claims to have no relatives in Germany.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade
    • A.A. Hoehling and Michael Mooney both blamed the Hindenburg's downfall on Erich Spiel, who is depicted as an anti-Nazi named Karl Boerth in the film. Their research is pretty baseless and there is no evidence that Spiel had any prejudices against the Third Reich.
    • Martin Vogel is based on Karl-Otto Clemens, a photographer who was in no way associated with the Gestapo. The real Clemens, arguably, was a decent person who was only hired by DZR to take pictures of the Hindenburg's flight.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The Countess using the Card Sharps' own cheat system against them.
  • Honor Before Reason: Ritter has no love for the Nazi regime; but he refuses to be a deserter. Admittedly, part of the reason is that he doesn't think anyone would take him in or believe he'd truly deserted.
    • Emilio and his fellow card shark partner are none too happy with Countess Ursula once she takes all of their money by using their own trick against them with Emilio even saying the only thing holding him back from verbally lashing out at her are all the people in the room with them. They later bump into each other during the climax and put their issues aside, the card sharks courteously allowing the Countess to depart the ship first once the boarding ramps drop open.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Lehman manages to walk away from the crash, dazed but seemingly none the worse for wear... and then he suddenly drops dead on the tarmac, his back completely burned away.
    • Boerth is seen on the ground, injured but alive, after being injured by the bomb and falling through the floor. Then he passes out from his injuries and flaming debris lands on top of him.
  • IKEA Weaponry: Boerth has the bomb hidden inside the handle of his military-issue knife. Deconstructed when the blade drops out of the knife while he's setting up the bomb. Everyone is alerted that something is up because this incident was not reported as per procedure, and it allows Vogel to zero in on the bomber.
  • Impeded Communication: The Countess plays cards with Napier and Pajetta, a pair of CardSharps who fleece the gullible on luxury cruises. The Countess quickly deduces their shenanigans, as well as their signal system. She discretely edits these signals so that it's their wallets that get drained, rather than hers.
  • Improbable Infant Survival:
    • Of course the children survive. Double-subverted with the teenage porter/bellhop; it looks like he's about to succumb to the flames, but then the floor gives out beneath him, dumping him down to the ground where he can make his escape. In reality, this was averted as Irene Doehner had died in the crash along with her father. (However, her brothers, Walter and Werner, did survive like the boys in the film do - as did cabin boy Werner Franz, who escaped in a similar manner and was also aided by a gush of water from a ballast tank.)
    • Boerth uses his last strength to save the dalmatian.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The fake clairvoyant who claims she had psychic visions of the disaster also makes other bizarre predictions, including a claim that Edward VIII never going to go through with marrying Wallis Simpson.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Deconstructed: Vogel beats Boerth senseless in an attempt to learn where he planted the bomb; unfortunately, this leaves Boerth barely conscious and thus incapable of even answering.
  • Karma Houdini: Vogel is quite the Hate Sink, showing cheerful awareness of Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews, relishing the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique, and indirectly contributing to every death in the disaster by hindering the people who could stop the bomb from going off. He manages to survive the disaster with only minor injuries.
  • La Résistance: Which the regime strenuously denies even exists; but Boerth is part of it.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The climax plays out over an extended, high-pitched and discordant note.
  • Let Off by the Detective: The two card sharks are placed under arrest, with cops on the ground waiting to take them into custody. However, the cops let them leave after seeing them helping the Countess escape the burning zeppelin.
  • Logo Joke: The Universal logo at the start of the film is the version that would have been in use in 1937.
  • The Mel Brooks Number: "There's a Lot to Be Said for the Führer". While the lyrics themselves appear to praise the Nazi regime — at least, until the end — the mime-and-dance act that accompanies it is outright mocking and hostile. Captain Pruss is not amused.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: Spah's part during the performance of "There's a Lot to Be Said for the Führer" is a dance/mime routine, using exaggerated gestures and movements to mock the Nazis.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: A majority of the characters are German; no one even attempts a German accent. Could be a case of Translation Convention or was done intentionally.
  • Oh, Crap!: Ritter has two in the climax. First, he locates the bomb, but clearly has no idea of how to defuse it. Then, he realizes that the bomb is going to go off that very second. Just before the explosion, Ritter has a split-second look of absolute terror on his face.
  • Oh, the Humanity!: At the end of the film, the original recording of the Trope Maker is played while we see the Hindenburg flying into the heavens.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Alfred Ritter, Franz and Eleanor's son, died when he slipped on the roof of a synagogue a year prior to the events of the movie. The same thing happened to Real Life passenger Matilde Doehner when her daughter Irene (Valerie Bresleau in the movie) succumbed to her injuries in the fire.
  • Overly-Nervous Flop Sweat: Boerth is understandably tense as he plants the bomb. This very likely contributes to the deconstruction of IKEA Weaponry, spoilered above.
  • Pseudo-Crisis: As previously stated, we've plenty of time to kill.
    • At one point the Hindenburg travels through a fog bank and collects a goodly dose of static which runs through her metal structure, alarming the passengers... then just goes away.
    • Later the characters have to fix a tear in the zeppelin's outer skin to prevent her sinking into the ocean.
  • Red Herring: Ritter poirots his way through the passengers and their various shifty dealings to find the bomber.
  • The Reveal: Zig-zagged to hell and back; the plot is kicked off when a letter predicting the bombing of the Hindenburg arrives at the German embassy in Washington D.C. Upon investigating, however, the writer proves to be an old crackpot who only thinks she's clairvoyant. But... there really is a bomber on board the Hindenburg. But in the end, he's not the one to do the deed; rather, the man who was supposed to prevent the bombing is the one who sets it off.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • As the chaos winds down, the camera pans over the wreckage to find one tattered piece of the Hindenburg's outer skin, still burning, with the airship's name (or, more accurately, what's left of it) prominently printed on it.
    • The film's closing shot is of the Hindenburg, flying amongst the clouds and disappearing as if ascending into Heaven.

  • Run for the Border: While the Countess isn't technically a fugitive, she is convinced that the Nazi government will soon kill or arrest her if she stays within their borders after she protested against the seizure of her land to build a rocket factory. Consequently, she is taking a zeppelin trip to America and secretly plans to stay there.
  • Shout-Out: Several to the Titanic. One example is when they almost crash into a field of icebergs.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The sets were highly praised as being incredibly faithful to the real Hindenburg interiors.
    • Two successful escapes from the doomed airship — a woman who walked off when the boarding ramps simply dropped open, and a circus performer who dangled from a mooring rope, dropped 20 feet and limped away — are also faithfully depicted, as is one epically unsuccessful one (see Hope Spot, above).
    • Watch closely as the anchor lines drop and then just as the explosion happens and you'll see Greg Mullavey as Herb Morrison making the famous recording. Over the closing shot, Morrison's actual recording is heard. He was one of the technical advisors on the picture.
  • Spanner in the Works: The bad weather at Lakehurst. The bomber's target is explicitly the airship, not the people; Boerth set it up in such a way that passengers and crew could debark and be safely away long before it went off... assuming the ship landed on time, which it didn't. Although, there WAS still time to stop the bomb...
  • Spared by the Adaptation: The dalmatian belonging to the Breslau family is shown being freed from its cage and running away as the Hindenburg is crashing down, and its survival is confirmed when it's the last survivor listed at the end of the film. Sadly, the real-life dogs on the Hindenburg, one of them Joseph Saph's German shepard named Ulla, all perished in the disaster.
    • All of the Breslau children are shown escaping the crashing zepplin unscathed and surviving. While all three of their real-life counterparts, the Doehner children, also escaped the wreckage, Irene Doehner ended up dying later in the hospital from severe burns she had sustained.
  • Stock Footage: Newsreel clips of the disaster are spliced into the climax.
  • Suicide Mission: The saboteur plans to stay on the zeppelin and broadcast a radio message taking responsibility for the bombing seconds before the bomb goes off.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Ritter invokes this with Vogel, and by extension the entire Gestapo which he despises.
  • Too Dumb to Live: As the Hindenburg is crashing down while going up in flames, several crewman are caught in the forward-most section once the flames get there. Instead of going down towards safety, they continue climbing up... the same direction that the fire is going. This results in one of the crewman falling to his death while on fire and the rest burn to death off-screen.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Barely averted; the trailer almost gives away the identity of the bomber. The scene where Ritter frees a tied-up Boerth from his bindings is shown, but his line "There's less than ten minutes left! They're all gonna die! Where's the bomb?!" has the last bit either dubbed over or distorted to sound like "There's a bomb!"
    • Played straight with the trailer making the audience wonder why the Hindenburg blew up in the world of the film, positing theories of sabotage, an accident, or an act of God. Then it gives away the movie's explanation for the explosion by showing a clip of George C. Scott shouting to another character that there's a bomb onboard. The narrator then asks "What REALLY happened on the Hindenburg?" immediately after.
  • Vehicle Title: The Hindenburg.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A more immediate, short-term variant; photographic icons of the cast appear onscreen, with a narrator detailing whether each person survived or died in the crash. The last survivor listed is the dog.
  • While Rome Burns: Edward Douglass (Gig Young,) despondent that he couldn't reach New York ahead of a business competitor (due to the delay at Lakehurst), gets stone drunk; when the disaster strikes, he is shown barely reacting to the chaos. "Some landing!"
  • Widescreen Shot: The opening image of the film proper is an impressive shot of the Hindenburg sitting beside her hangar. Numerous such shots of the airship abound throughout the film.

Alternative Title(s): The Hindenburg