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1971's Zeppelin is a big scale period escapist war adventure that just misses on most counts. It will still entertain action fans, especially those fond of antique weaponry such as the giant airship featured here. No, a Zeppelin is not something invented by the fourth Marx brother after he bowed out of the movies, it's a rigid airship from the early part of the 20th century, used by the Germans as a weapon in WW1. German research and engineering made the monster airships as reliable as possible, although the losses through accidents proved them impractical for the time. Filled with highly explosive hydrogen, these flying gasbags were a disaster waiting to happen.
Film history makes use of few airships of this kind. The most eye-opening scene in Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels is the downing of a German Zeppelin at night, filmed in 2-color Technicolor. Frank Capra's 1931 Dirigible features stunning scenes of real Navy dirigibles in flight. A now-amazing stunt shows real biplanes launching from and "landing" under the big Navy ship. From there it's a long haul to a few Zeppelin movies in the 1970s, including Robert Wise's Hindenburg, which uses models and beautiful matte paintings to bring the ill-fated passenger ship to life. Curiously, audiences by and large never responded much to giant airships on screen - the big lumpen things never look as impressive as they must have in real life. Newsreels of the Hindenburg, a ship as big as an ocean liner, flying over New York City, somehow make the ship look like a toy.
Zeppelin was bankrolled by none other than a son of J. Paul Getty, working with Leon Fromkess, the former owner of PRC pictures and the undisputed Prince of Hollywood's Poverty Row in the 1940s. The movie has a handsome cast and big-name English technical talent, but is just too cheaply made. It's good that we like the actors involved, because the story is a letdown as well. The fashion at the time favored somewhat self-mocking comic escapist war pictures, but Zeppelin plays everything straight.
British lieutenant Geoffrey Richter-Douglas (Michael York) is romantically involved with the highborn Stephanie (Alexandra Stewart) when his superiors pull him from a desk job to function as a spy. Stephanie is really working for the German high command. As Geoffrey is half German, the Kaiser's agents want him to defect. Geoffrey pretends to be keen on the idea, and is spirited away to his homeland. He's immediately pulled into a secret plan cooked up by German Colonel Hirsch (the ever-present Anton Diffring) and battle commander Major Tauntler (Peter Carsten of Dark of the Sun). Geoffrey renews his acquaintance with his old teacher Professor Altschul (Marius Goring) and meets the professor's beautiful scientist wife Erika (Elke Sommer).
Professor Atschul protests when Colonel Hirsch commandeers a test flight of the new LZ36 for a secret spy raid. The airship picks up additional fuel from a ship in a Norwegian fijord, and loads a platoon of German troops from a ship at sea. A lot of very calm weather in the North Sea! The intent is to make a midnight stealth raid on an old Scottish castle, where London is storing irreplaceable national treasures away from zeppelin raids -- including the original Magna Carta. Colonel Hirsch believes that by stealing this document he can break the morale of the English people and turn the course of the war. Lt. Geoffrey must stop this raid, but how?
In the general run of preposterous war yarns, there's nothing wrong with this idea. The problem is that
To succeed in his mission Geoffrey fakes a romantic clinch with Erika. They never officially declare their love, yet it's obvious that they're going to get together at the end - the writers are too lazy to develop a romance. Even worse, nothing is made of Geoffrey's big deception. He fools the villains into thinking he's a patriotic German eager to strike out at England. Will this deception be discovered? How will the story twist the double-agent setup? Will Geoffrey have to do some fast-talking to outwit the crafty Colonel Hirsch? Will he be forced to fight the burly Major Tauntler in a duel to the death high in the atmosphere? With his terrible acrophobia?
To our amazement, the movie has no interest in paying off any of these issues. The raid sputters along, and self-destructs with only a little help from Geoffrey. Zeppelin doggedly places Geoffrey in the same position as James Bond in Goldfinger: an involuntary witness to a daring crime, with no way to communicate with his British allies. As Geoffrey never comes under any serious suspicion, the big raid on the castle is curiously unexciting.
Weirdly, the movie is almost pro-German. The British muckety-mucks ignore Geoffrey's plea to raise an alarm, which should give the Alleymen plenty of time to carry out their raid. But no, a whole garrison of Brits shows up on a moment's notice. All of the main villains sacrifice themselves for the good of the mission, and without any directorial indication that they're "fanatics". Clumsy guys with a dumb plan, maybe, but they're not fanatics. Nobody on the Brit side of things takes much of an initiative or demonstrates similar dedication.
The actors struggle to animate their underwritten roles, with Michael York bearing the burden of dead-end ideas like the acrophobia bit. Marius Goring makes an imposing, conscience-stricken scientist, while Elke Sommer is actually very good as the dedicated flight researcher. The beautiful Alexandra Stewart beds with Geoffrey (establishing him as a man's man, I guess) and then drops out of the picture. Accomplished actor Andrew Keir is the actual captain of the airship. As with the others, his part is narrowed down to almost nothing.
Director Etienne Périer's other English language movie is When Eight Bells Toll, which takes the prize for an Alistair MacLean adventure adapted into a big snooze on the screen. His direction of actors and blocking of scenes is nothing special, although the movie can be commended for not stuffing the story with too many 'attitude anachronisms' -- the characters never seem to really be from 1915, but neither do they swagger like swingin' London types. We have to assume that the action scenes and the effects scenes were accomplished by second units.
The special effects didn't look any more impressive in 1971 than they do now. A large miniature of the zeppelin is manipulated in smoke meant to stand in for clouds. Since there's nothing visible to compare sizes with, the airship looks like a toy in these shots. Other trick shots are hampered by grainy optical effects and obvious traveling mattes. The angles we see are dictated by the most economical means of filming. The production built a full-scale set of the zeppelin's command car, but films it in such a way as to point out that the rest of the airship is not there. When the car touches the water of the fijord, its roof is very sunny. It and the water all around it should be in shadow from the enormous structure above. The effects just aren't very exciting, or impressive. The Hindenburg was not well received, but it contains genuinely spectacular scenes, sometimes executed by matte paintings alone. Zeppelin is an okay war adventure, but not a particularly memorable one.
Fans of Zeppelin will love the Warner Archive Collection's near-perfect DVD-R. The brightly colored enhanced transfer comes from an element in very good condition. Skin tones, sharpness and detail are excellent. Roy Budd's uninspiring score is clearly rendered as well. No extras are included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.