The Hindenburg focuses on the 1937 disaster when a Zeppelin exploded at it was coming in to land after a trip from Germany to America. Though the cause of the disaster has never been conclusively proven, this film takes the lead of earlier books and highlights the sabotage theory. Of course, this is the most film-friendly of all theories and, really, is the only one suitable to a film of this length. The sabotage plot keeps the audience watching, making the piece more than a long preamble into a large explosion.
The film focuses on Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) who tries to track down the saboteur before the airship reaches America. There are many suspects, due to the political climate of the day, but the one he focuses on is Boerth (William Atherton), a crew member with a suspect woman in his life. I feel that the scriptwriters missed a trick with the representation of Boerth - if the purpose of the narrative was to keep us guessing about the identity of the saboteur then they failed with several long looks between Boerth and his lover before the flight. The audience is taken out of any investigative plot when the smarter thing to do may have been to have simply to have the viewer floating along with Ritter and following his path step by step.
George C. Scott is one of the best things about this film. He injects humanity into what could have been a very cardboard character and his scenes opposite Anne Bancroft (as the Countess) sparkle. Some of Bancroft's scenes without Scott seem laboured but that's due to a combination of factors, not least the fact that she was partly a fictional creation and that the dialogue often dipped below an acceptable level. This affected much of the cast - using a strange amalgamation of fact and fiction constrained some of the actors and, I suspect, the scriptwriters.
The star of the film is undoubtedly the airship itself. Stunningly recreated, the interior feels both expansive and claustrophobic as it crosses the Atlantic. The final scenes are a combination of real-life footage taken on the day and film footage featuring the characters we've come to know on the journey. As a consequence of using the real-life footage, the final minutes of the film switch to black and white. This is slightly jarring at first but done for understandable reasons. The explosion and crash scenes are the most absorbing of the film, wonderfully edited together to give a coherent look at the actual disaster.
The film ends with the voice-over of Herbert Morrison who was covering the landing of the ship and ended up giving a live eye-witness account of the disaster as it happened. This, combined with a partial breakdown of the dead, serves to make the last few minutes sobering. Unusually for me, I allowed the credits to run until the end, still in a state of shock. Although this film is sensationalistic and the theory it conveys is far-fetched, the actual crash still retains the horror of the event. Worth watching simply for the last fifteen minutes but not a terrible film overall.