It’s hard to think of zeppelins as being menacing weapons of war. I mean, nowadays we pretty much just see them at sporting events, but there was a time when they inspired terror in the crowds below. Today’s film is a World War I epic that primarily takes place on one of these floating giants…1971’s “Zeppelin.”
The film begins in England, where the threat of Zeppelin attacks has become a major issue for the military. With the German military continuing to develop new, and more powerful, airships, the Brits decide to try and put a man behind enemy lines to report back with new developments. Chosen for the task is Geoffrey Richter-Douglas (Michael York), a Scotsman with German heritage serving in the British army. Because of his background, he has already been approached by German agents to help their cause. He accepts the assignment, even ending up shot in the arm by his fellow British soldiers to sell the Germans on the ruse.
After ending up in the hands of the Germans, he is quickly given several tests to determine how well he can identify potential targets in Scotland. He also ends up meeting an old family friend, Professor Altschul (Marius Goring) and his much younger new wife, Erika (Elke Sommer). Altschul is one of the primary scientists working on a new zeppelin called the Z36, his wife assists him.
One night, Geoffrey is forced to accompany some German agents to a test of the Z36. Despite the need for as little weight as possible, he is given a place on board. After the test is successful, the ship is commissioned in mid-air and sent on it’s first mission…to attack a target in Scotland. Geoffrey, of course, will guide them. Geoffrey, however, begins trying to alert the British of what is to come. During a fuel stop, he manages to get a partial morse code message sent. Unfortunately, the radio operator ends up hearing the reply…which forces Geoffrey to kill him and throw the poor guy overboard.
Soon, Geoffrey learns what the target of the mission is…a castle that houses the British archives, including the Magna Carta. When the German’s steal these items, the British empire will be demoralized and lose their spirit. As the troops descend from the zeppelin, Geoffrey is pulled into the battle. Somehow he must keep the attack from being successful and find a way of destroying the zeppelin.
A few months ago I reviewed “The Hindenberg” which was about the most infamous zeppelin in history. Spending the majority of the film in the cramped spaces of the Z36 definitely brought that film to mind. But the major problem with that film, and this is no spoiler, is that you know how it’s going to end. Everyone knows the Hindenberg blew up, right? “Zeppelin,” on the other hand, succeeds in creating a story that moves at a good pace and builds a fair amount of tension. After all, Geoffrey is a character who needs to try and work against the Germans from the inside, yet if he does too much…well, it doesn’t exactly take an expert interrogator to figure out who is to blame.
Where the film is somewhat weak is in it’s lack of character development. Both Geoffrey and Erika are somewhat flat characters. York and Summer do a decent job, but it seems like the producers may have been wanting there to be some romantic tension between the characters, but they just don’t quite succeed. Also, all the German characters seem to blur together. There is very little to distinguish one evil German soldier from all the rest.
Of course, character development isn’t always high on the list when it comes to creating a good war film. “Zeppelin,” however, does manage enough action to make it a solid war flick.