The German Air Force is not at all what it used to be, says Anne Bancroft's Countess, about 16 minutes into The Hindenburg, pausing and then adding, But then, nothing is these days.
That seems to sum up the ponderous, irony-laden script and plot of Robert Wise's movie, which is posited -- in true post-Watergate fashion -- upon notions of conspiracy and cover-up behind the destruction of the German airship.
The movie opens with a handy Universal newsreel that gives a vestpocket history of lighter-than-air flight, and that carries us to 1937 Germany.
Colonel Franz Ritter (George C. Scott), a former hero pilot now working for military intelligence, finds himself assigned to the flight of the Hindenburg as chief of security; reports and rumors about the destruction of the zeppelin have circulated both in Germany and America, and the Nazi government takes these very seriously.
What Ritter walks in on is a Grand Hotel of the air, several dozen passengers and crew whose ranks contain enough red herrings to keep Ritter (and us) jumping through hoops for most of the first half of the film, when we're not watching glorious shots of the zeppelin in flight.
The answer to the script's presentation of the plot against the airship,and theidentityof the bomber and his motivations, are actually presented in the first 15 minutes, but there are so many false leads, subplots, and blind alleys put before us that the solution will probably pass by unnoticed.
In the meantime, Ritter dances around with his ex-paramour (Bancroft), scheming businessmen (Gig Young), and passengers with skeletons in their closets (Alan Oppenheimer), an entertainer (Robert Clary) with a knack for offending loyal Nazis, several officers and crew with known political differences with the Nazi Party, a Gestapo man (Roy Thinnes) who's got an agenda of his own, and two genuine mystery men (Burgess Meredith, Rene Auberjonois) who don't seem to have any reason for traveling on this particular voyage.
It's all a little tiring, or would be, if the setting and special effects weren't that interesting, and the cast wasn't so entertaining to watch in these relatively thankless roles.