Directed By: Etienne Perier
Starring: Michael York, Elke Sommer, Peter Carsten
Tag line: "The Great War's most explosive moment!"
Trivia: The air combat scenes were filmed using Lynn Garrison's collection of World War I replica aircraft, originally assembled for 20th Century Fox's The Blue Max
I’m sure that on paper, 1971’s Zeppelin had all the makings of a rousing adventure film, telling a World War One era spy story in which an experimental German dirigible is sent on a secret mission to invade Great Britain. To its credit, the movie does feature moments of genuine excitement (especially in its last half), but as an espionage thriller, Zeppelin fails to deliver on just about every level.
It’s 1915, and the citizens of England live under a constant threat from above. In an attempt to destroy the country’s morale, German airships, hiding in the clouds and flying thousands of feet higher than any airplane, have been bombing London on a nightly basis, attacks the British have thus far been unable to prevent. Enter Lt. Geoffrey Richter-Douglas (Michael York), an officer assigned to a low-level clerical position in London. Born and raised in Germany, Richter-Douglas still has relatives in his former homeland, most of whom are aristocrats. In fact, he’s so missed by some of his cousins that the family has sent Stephanie (Alexandra Stewart), a beautiful German spy working undercover in England, to lure him home.
Loyal to the Crown, Richter-Douglas immediately reports this to his commanding officer, Captain Whitney (Rupert Davies), only to learn his superiors also want him to return to Germany, where, posing as a British traitor, he can observe first-hand the construction of a new dirigible, the LZ-36, designed by his old friend Professor Altschul (Marius Goring) and the professor’s assistant / wife, Erika (Elke Sommer). Once back in Germany, Richter-Douglas wins the confidence of Colonel Hirsch (Anton Diffring), an intelligence officer who does more than show the new arrival the LZ-36; he invites him along on its maiden voyage, a top-secret mission that, if successful, will force the British to sue for peace. During the flight, Richter-Douglas makes every attempt to warn the British of the impending attack, but will his messages reach the proper authorities in time?
Zeppelin begins well enough, showing us one of the many air raids that have been plaguing London since the start of the war. The movie also finishes in grand fashion, giving us a final half hour or so of non-stop action. The problem is what filled the time in-between, which, despite its promising story of spies and double agents, never gathered enough steam to capture my interest. Even Richter-Douglas’s “escape” to Germany, during which British troops (to make it look like a genuine defection) open fire on him, comes across as flat. On top of this, Zeppelin has some internal continuity issues that are impossible to ignore, including Richter-Douglas’ supposed fear of heights (after establishing this bit of information early on, the film all but ignores it once he climbs aboard the LZ-36) and, even more glaring, the issue of the dirigible’s weight restrictions (before taking off, both Erica and the ship’s Captain, Von Gorian, played by Andrew Kier, complain that bringing Richter-Douglas along unannounced will dangerously increase the ship’s weight, which had been meticulously calculated down to the last pound. Several scenes later, the airship docks with a boat in the middle of the ocean, at which point about 2 or 3 dozen additional German soldiers climb on-board. Surprisingly, nobody discusses weight in this sequence).
In a way, I hate telling you to avoid Zeppelin, due mostly to its effective battle scenes and the superb performances turned in by its cast (Michael York never struck me as a leading man in a war film, but he does a fine job nonetheless). Yet I can’t really bring myself to recommend it, either, because of the reasons I mentioned above. I can tell you that there may come a time when I’d be willing to watch Zeppelin again.
But it won’t be anytime soon.