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The Hindenburg (1975 film)

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Title: The Hindenburg (1975 film)  
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Subject: Academy Award for Best Production Design, List of historical drama films, Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, Charles Durning, Gig Young, Stephen Elliott (actor), David Shire, List of films: H, Frank R. McKelvy
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The Hindenburg (1975 film)

The Hindenburg
Mort Künstler
Directed by Robert Wise
Produced by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding
Richard Levinson
William Link
Starring George C. Scott
Anne Bancroft
Music by David Shire
Cinematography Robert Surtees
Editing by Donn Cambern
Distributed by Universal Studios
Release date(s)Template:Plainlist
Running time 125 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million
Box office $27,945,225[1]

The Hindenburg is a 1975 American film based on the disaster of the German airship Hindenburg. The film stars George C. Scott. It was produced and directed by Robert Wise, and was written by Nelson Gidding, Richard Levinson and William Link, based on the 1972 book of the same name, The Hindenburg, by Michael M. Mooney.

A. A. Hoehling, author of the 1962 book Who Destroyed The Hindenburg?, also about the sabotage theory, sued Mooney along with the film developers for copyright infringement as well as unfair competition. However, Judge Charles M. Metzner dismissed his allegations.[2]

A highly speculative thriller, The Hindenburg depicts a conspiracy leading to the destruction of the airship. In reality, while the Zeppelins were certainly used as a propaganda symbol by the Third Reich, and anti-Nazi forces might have had the motivation for sabotage, the theory of sabotage was investigated at the time, and no firm evidence for such sabotage was ever put forward. The possibility of Boerth's (i.e. Spehl's) deliberate sabotage is one theory of the fire that had been the subject of Mooney's book, published around the time of the film's development. It has never been proven definitively, and most airship experts tend to discredit this theory.

Newsreel footage

An interesting aspect was the film's transition from black and white to technicolor and back to grayscale, beginning with a Universal Newsreel that gave an educated view to the history of the lighter-than-air craft. While a narrator talks about the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, footage of the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II under construction is erroneously shown; it is therefore unknown if the newsreel was genuine. Photographs show the construction of the Hindenburg, to which the narrator describes her as "the climax of man's dream to conquer the air, the new queen of the skies." Immediately afterwards the newsreel transitions into the film in colour, with the Hindenburg is shown outside its hangar (a matte painting, not actual footage, and along with the opening credits the airship flies by before disappearing into the clouds.


Kathie Rauch from Milwaukee, Wisconsin sends a letter to the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. claiming the Hindenburg zeppelin will explode after flying over New York. In the meantime, Luftwaffe Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott) boards with the intention of protecting the Hindenburg as various threats have been made to down the airship, which some see as a symbol of Nazi Germany.

Ritter is assisted by a Nazi government official, SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), who poses as an "official photographer" of the Hindenburg. However, both operate independently in investigating the background of all passengers and crew on the voyage. Ritter has reason to suspect everyone, even his old friend, Countess Ursula von Reugen (Anne Bancroft), whose Baltic estate in Peenemunde had been taken over by the Nazis and appears to be escaping Germany to visit her daughter in Boston.

Other prime suspects include card sharks Emilio Pajetta (Burgess Meredith) and Major Napier (Rene Auberjonois), Edward Douglas (Gig Young), a suspicious German-American ad executive, as well as several crew members and even the Hindenburg captains Pruss (Charles Durning) and Lehmann (Richard A. Dysart). Many possible clues turn out to be red herring, such as Joe Spah (Robert Clary) sketching the ship's interior as an idea for a Vaudeville show and mysterious names which later turned out to be the name of race horses on board the Queen Mary (where Douglas' competitor is travelling).

As the Hindenburg makes its way to Lakehurst Air Field, events conspire against Ritter and Vogel. They soon suspect the rigger Karl Boerth (William Atherton), a former Hitler Youth leader who has become disillusioned with the Nazis. Ritter attempts to arrest him but he resists and requests help from Ritter, who sympathizes with him because son was killed in an accident a year before while taking part of the Hitler Youth. Ritter later receives news that Boerth's girlfriend, Freda Halle, was killed while trying to escape arrest as the Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic. Boerth, upon hearing the news of Halle's death, plans to commit suicide by staying aboard the airship as the bomb goes off, to show that there is a resistance against the Nazi party. Ritter reluctantly agrees with Boerth to set the bomb to 7:30, when the airship should have landed and passengers disembarked, saying an explosion in flight is the "last thing he wants".

While setting up the bomb, Boerth drops the knife part which is recovered by a crew member. To cover up the loss of his knife, Boerth stole the knife from fellow Rigger Ludwig Knorr. Vogel starts to work behind Ritter's back, arresting Boerth and confiscating the Countess's passport.

As the airship approaches Lakehurst Naval Air Station at 7:00, Ritter now realizes the landing has been delayed and searches for Boerth to ask where the bomb is. Vogel is caught by Ritter in the cargo bay torturing Boerth and gets into a fight with Ritter and is knocked unconscious. An injured Boerth tells Ritter the bomb is in the repair patch of gas cell 4. Ritter attempts to defuse the bomb, but is distracted by a now-awakened Vogel and is unable to do so in time. The bomb explodes, killing Ritter instantly and sending Vogel flying down the walkway. Vogel would later survive, being carried by ground crewmen. Boerth was injured from being tortured by Vogel and dies of his burns, but manages to set the Channing's dog free before the ship crashes to the ground.

At this point the film changes to monochrome in order to match up with the newsreel footage of the disaster. Passengers and crew struggle to survive the fire. The disaster scene ends when the camera pans over wreckage, towards a strip of burning fabric that says "Hindenburg" on it. The following day, with the fire cleared, a short list of some of the passengers and crew who died or survived (this includes fictionalized characters) is described briefly, while the wreckage is examined for the inquiry before being cleaned up.

The story ends with a tribute to Herbert Morrison's radio commentary, with the memorable quotation, "Oh, the humanity!" as the Hindenburg flies once again, only to disappear again in the clouds.


Many of the fictional characters are based on actual people. For example: Franz Ritter is based on Fritz Erdmann, Karl Boerth is based on Eric Spehl, as well as a few others.[1]

Actor Role
George C. Scott Col. Franz Ritter
Anne Bancroft Ursula, The Countess
William Atherton Boerth
Roy Thinnes Martin Vogel
Gig Young Edward Douglas*
Burgess Meredith Emilio Pajetta
Charles Durning Capt. Pruss*
Richard A. Dysart Capt. Lehmann*
Robert Clary Joe Späh* (miscredited or erroneously credited in other sources as Joe Spahn)
Rene Auberjonois Maj. Napier
Peter Donat Reed Channing
Alan Oppenheimer Albert Breslau
Katherine Helmond Mrs. Mildred Breslau
Joanna Cook Moore (credited as Joanna Moore) Mrs. Channing
Stephen Elliott Capt. Fellows
Joyce Davis Eleanore Ritter
Colby Chester Eliot Howell III
Michael Richardson Rigger Neuhaus
Herbert Nelson Dr. Hugo Eckener**
William Sylvester Luftwaffe Colonel
Greg Mullavey Herbert Morrison
Herbert Morrison Himself (Uncredited)

(*) Beside name indicates actual name of person on the last flight of the Hindenburg, (**) beside name indicates actual person, but wasn't on board the Hindenburg.


  • Colonel Franz Ritter – A Luftwaffe Colonel assigned by Joseph Goebbels to board the Hindenburg as a security officer in response to the bomb threat. Ritter won the Knight's Cross as the chief of intelligence during the Bombing of Guernica, but felt guilt for his actions. He sympathizes with the Countess and Boerth, and loses trust with the Nazis. His son was in the Hitler Youth and died the previous year falling from a synagogue writing slogans. Franz Ritter is based upon Colonel Fritz Erdmann who was aboard the final flight, but there is no evidence that he was aboard as a security officer.
  • Ursula von Reugen – Ursula is a German Countess who lived in her estate in Peenemünde. After it had been taken over by the Nazis, she boards the Hindenburg to fly to America. She knew Col. Ritter because he and her husband was in the same flying club before the creation of the Luftwaffe; he was killed in a crash and she went to live in her estate. Her daughter, Judy, is deaf and goes to a school in Boston. Ursula survives the fire by walking down a stairway, similar to the real life escape of Margaret Mather.
  • Karl Boerth – A rigger, and the saboteur of the airship. Boerth was a former Hitler Youth leader, but claims he stopped because he helped build the Hindenburg. His girlfriend, Freda Halle, worked with foreigners in a French bank in Frankfurt, leading the Gestapo to investigate. She is arrested and killed while trying to escape. When Ritter attempts to arrest him he asks for Ritter's help. He wants to prove there is a resistance, and that if Ritter helps him nobody would be killed, saying that's the "last thing I want." While planting the bomb he drops a knife blade, which is later discovered by another crew member and turned over to Vogel. When the landing is delayed Boerth is detained and beaten by Vogel. During the crash, Boerth frees the Channings' dog from its cage before dying of his burns.
  • SS/Gestapo Hauptsturmführer Martin Vogel – The antagonist of the film. Vogel is a Gestapo who poses as an official photographer for the airship. Initially, Vogel appears to be cooperative with Ritter, but seeing Ritter's sympathies for Boerth and the Countess, he begins to work against behinds Ritter's back. Vogel also has an interest in Valerie Breslau, referring to her as a "Jewish model."
  • Captain Max Pruss – The ship's commander. Unlike the real Pruss, he rejects the advice of Captain Lehmann and says "I'll do the worrying this trip." In fact, the real Pruss followed Lehmann's pressure to rush the landing of the airship.
  • Captain
  • The Channings – Broadway show promoters and composers, who also own a Dalmatian. They took the Hindenburg because Mrs. Bess Channing was pregnant for the first time and did not want to risk the turbulent seas on the RMS Queen Mary. Mr. Reed Channing and Joe Spah perform a concert, satirizing the Nazi regime; Captain Pruss is offended and stops the show. The Channings are very loosely based upon the Adelts, journalists who were closely affiliated with the Zeppelin Company. In reality, German Acrobat Joseph Spah owned a dog, a German Shepherd named Ulla; there was also another dog aboard. The dog in the movie survives the disaster; in reality neither of the two dogs aboard the last flight survived, and there was no passenger on board the last flight that was pregnant.
  • The Breslaus – Albert Breslau was to sell some diamonds hidden in a pen to get funding for his grandmother's family, the Milsteins, out of Germany because they were Jewish. The family is based upon the Doehner family that was aboard on the last flight (though the Doehners were not Jewish, and while all three Breslau children survive in the movie, Irene Doehner died in the crash).
  • Captain Fellows – The commanding officer at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. He is based on Charles Rosendahl.


Director Robert Wise, known for an attention to detail and background research, began to collect documents and film footage on the real-life Hindenburg for over a year at the International Archives in London, the National Air and Space Museum Library and Archives in Washington, DC as well as in Germany.[4] In 1974, while casting took place in United States, pre-production photography was undertaken in Munich (doubling for Frankfurt), Milwaukee, New York and Washington, DC.[4] Lakehurst, New Jersey would also be a primary location but the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station where two 1,000 ft hangars constructed for airships, still existed, doubled for the original Hindenburg mooring station.[5] (The base was officially closed in 1999.)[6] Additional locations in Southern California were also chosen.[4]

Studio and special effects work was carried out at Sound Stage 12 in the Universal Studios complex. Wise's research was used to advantage since the bulk of Zeppelin blueprints were destroyed in World War II. Using photographs, a recreated passenger area, gondola and superstructure of the giant airship was constructed to create a realistic exterior and interior set for the actors. A team of 80 artists and technicians working double shifts for four months, assembled a "giant erector set" consisting of eight tons of aluminum, 11,000 yards (10,000 m) of muslin, 24,000 feet (7,300 m) of sash cord and 2,000,000 rivets.[7]

The Hindenburg made extensive use of matte paintings to bring the Zeppelin to life. To take photographs for use as matte paintings, a highly detailed 25-foot-long (7.6 m) model of the airship was "flown" via an elaborate setup where the stationary model was photographed by a mobile platform consisting of a camera and dolly on a track[5] on Universal Studios largest and tallest sound stage, Stage 12.[5] For the scene where the airship drops water ballast, a matte painting was used, and sugar was dropped through a hole in the windows as water. To recreate the initial explosion of the airship, which was missed by the newsreel cameras, matte paintings and animation were used to make a superimposed explosion of the airship beside its mooring mast. The model of the Hindenburg today is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.[8][page needed]

A real-life tragedy nearly happened during the filming of the Hindenburg's fiery death. A full-scale section of the Zeppelin's nose was built for the film on Universal Studios' Stage 12, and was set to be destroyed by fire for the film's final destruction sequence. A half-dozen stunt artists wearing fire-retardant gear were placed in the nose replica as it was set afire; however, the fire quickly got out of control, causing several stunt artists to get lost in the smoke, damaging several cameras filming the action, and nearly destroying the sound stage. Some of the footage from this sequence was used in the final cut of the film, but the full sequence, as it had been planned, was not included.[9]

Historical accuracy

Two dramatic escapes depicted were based on fact, slightly altered for dramatic purposes.

  • Werner Franz, a 14-year-old cabin boy, escaped the flames after a water ballast tank overhead burst open and soaked him with water. He then made his way to the hatch and turned around and ran the other way, because the flames were being pushed by the wind towards the starboard side. In the movie however, he is depicted being doused by the water after he jumped out. He is one of two remaining survivors of the crash as of May 2012. The other being Werner Doehner, who was 8 at the time of the disaster.[10]
  • Passenger Joseph Späh, a circus performer, escaped by smashing a window with his home movie camera (the film survived the disaster), and held on to the side of the window, jumping to the ground when the ship was low enough, surviving with only a broken ankle. In the film he is depicted grabbing a landing rope, but in reality there was no landing rope.

A significant historical error occurs at the start of the film, when two senior Luftwaffe Generals discuss the possibility of Colonel Franz Ritter receiving the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for actions in the Spanish Civil War. The Knight's Cross did not exist in 1937 (when the film is set), first being created at the start of World War II in 1939. Although the film tried to stay accurate to its setting, there were numerous differences between the film and reality. Some aspects were added for dramatic purposes. The scene when the port fin's fabric rips did not happen to the Hindenburg, but a similar event happened to the

While the interior of the ship was very accurately created, a stairway was added to the lower fin for dramatic purposes; in the real Hindenburg, there was just a ladder for crew members to walk down.[12] Several aspects of the airship's takeoff and landing procedures were also inaccurate. Prior to takeoff, the airship would not need to be attached to the mooring mast and used the landing ropes during takeoff. It is common for airships to be towed out of their hangar and simply be pushed into the air by the ground crew. The mooring mast used in the landing sequence is black, while the real mooring mast was red and white. During the landing sequence the ship drops water ballast through some of the windows near the nose instead of at the tail section, as it did during the final approach. Early in the movie they mention that the last time they took the USS Los Angeles up that something had happened to it, probably crash, in reality nothing happened to the Los Angeles it remained until 1940, enduring the longest lifespan of any rigid airship. [12]

Several anachronisms also occur in the storyline. At one time Edward Douglas refers to the fact that the German car manufacturer Opel is to be taken over by General Motors "the next day". In fact, Opel had already been taken over completely in 1929.[13] At Berlin there are Citroën HY delivery cars which were built in the late 1940s.[14]

[N 1]


Although well received by the public as typical "disaster movie" fare, The Hindenburg was "savaged" by critics. Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed it as a failed project, "The Hindenburg is a disaster picture, all right. How else can you describe a movie that cost $12 million and makes people laugh out loud at all the wrong times?"[16] Film critic Frank Rich, in his year-end review of movies released that year, named The Hindenburg the year's worst disaster movie, stating, "The hero is a Nazi and the special effects couldn't fool Gerald Ford." Similar reactions were recounted, and when the film eventually made it to television screens, the TV Guide summed up a near-universal review: "This insipid, boring, implausible, senseless, deliciously funny, and expensively mounted film... There's no tension whatsoever and none of the characters is remotely interesting, let alone sympathetic."[17]


Despite critical reaction, The Hindenburg was noteworthy for its use of special effects and won two Special Achievement Academy Awards in 1976:[18][19]

The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction (Edward Carfagno, Frank McKelvy), Best Cinematography, and Best Sound (Leonard Peterson, John A. Bolger, Jr., John L. Mack and Don Sharpless).

In the same year, The Hindenburg was nominated for an "Eddie" in the category of Best Edited Feature Film in the American Cinema Editors Awards.


  • Archbold, Rick. Hindenburg: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Viking Studio/Madison Press, 1994. ISBN 0-670-85225-2.
  • Botting, Douglas. Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel. Melbourne, Australia: Owl Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-8050-6459-1.
  • Culhane, John. Special Effects in the Movies: How They Do it. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981. ISBN 0-345-28606-5.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Hoehling, A. A. Who Destroyed The Hindenburg? Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962. ISBN 0-445-08347-6.
  • Kolchek, Carl. "The Hindenburg." Air Classics, Vol. 11, No. 3, March 1975.
  • Mooney, Michael Macdonald. The Hindenburg. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972. ISBN 0-396-06502-3.
  • Russo, Carolyn. Artifacts of Flight: National Air and Space Museum. London: Abrams Books, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-4530-4.

External links

  • The Hindenburg (1975): Fact & Fiction
  • Internet Movie Database
  • AllRovi
  • TCM Movie Database
  • Rotten Tomatoes
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