Monday, 21 May 2012

Review - The Hindenburg (1975 - Dir. Robert Wise)

I watched this film purely based on the fact that Albert Whitlock was responsible for the special visual effects. (I won't pretend that I was particularly interested in it for its historical value.) I first became aware of Albert Whitlock from the extras on The Thing (1982). He was responsible for the matte paintings in that film and very gorgeous they were too.

His team's work on The Hindenburg is stunning considering that they were working with paint and glass for the most part to create effects. (For a more in-depth look at the effects have a look at this excellent article: nzpetesmatteshot.) I'm fairly used to spotting effects shots and some are fairly obvious in that you know they didn't build a full size Hindenburg so any shots of the airship were effects shots. What amazed me was that some shots of the Hindenburg weren't miniatures, they were simply a glass painting of the ship moving over a painting of the sky. I would never have known this from my initial viewing. There were many other components of shots that I didn't realise were effects. Okay, some of the overlaid cloud effects look a bit on the ropey side now but it was 1975. Many effects are seamless even (especially?) compared to CGI. Albert Whitlock is a genius.

That's enough of my matte painting giddiness. What's it all about? It's about the Hindenburg, funnily enough. A nazi airship from the thirties that - surely, this isn't a spoiler? - blew up in a spectacular fashion. Nobody knows why it exploded but for dramatic reasons the story concerns itself with sabotage. This rings true as it would have been a serious embarrassment for Hitler that a symbol of nazi power could be brought down so easily. Amazingly, more than half of the passengers survived, including a dog if the film is to be believed.

I had to re-watch the start of the film because I spent all of my time thinking, 'What's he/she been in?' It is a veritable feast of top stars: the always great George C. Scott (Anatomy of a Murder), the very entertaining Anne Bancroft (The Elephant Man), William Atherton (Ghostbusters), Charles Durning (Dark Night of the Scarecrow), Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space 9, Soap), Katherine Helmond (Soap, again) and Richard Dysart (The Thing). Amongst others.

The story moves along at a nice pace. The editing is rather good. In fact the whole production is very professional and engaging. The ending left me severely mouth-slapped. I knew what was coming but I didn't expect it to revert to black and white and intercut between the 1975 shots and original footage taken of the disaster in 1937. It only took sixteen seconds to go down, but it is edited very cleverly and the time is stretched to a good few minutes. That's what you paid your money for after all.

Great film, (you can tell I enjoyed it because I instantly went and read up on the history of the Hindenburg itself - and I am a known history-hater) shame it's not on Blu-ray yet to fully appreciate all of those lovely matte shots. Let's all stand to attention and salute Albert Whitlock, The Master.


If you like this you could also try:
Earthquake, The Birds, Dune, The Thing (all containing work by Albert Whitlock).


  1. I'm sure I've seen this a couple of times in the 1980's and remember it being a bit of a cracker. Was Rene Auberjonois in Benson as well? Was he the butler or was that Benson himself? It's one of those names you never forget.

  2. He was in Benson not long after this film in the late seventies. I think he was a sneaky rich lawyer type possibly, can't quite remember.

  3. I haven't seen this movie but I did like Earthquake, The Birds and The Thing so! I will give it a watch! :)

  4. I'm feeling the pressure now... hopefully you'll like it. Let me know what you think.