Zeppelin is an adventure film set during the peak of the Zeppelin menace in World War I. The giant new German airships are able to float over London at 9000 feet, dropping bombs on the city while flying far out of range of the British fighters or anti-aircraft guns.
As a British Army sergeant explains to a group of assembled officers in a demonstration in the film, the Zeppelins not only fly higher than the range of Britain's fighter aircraft, they are also invulnerable to machine gun fire. Ordinary bullets do no more than create a minor gas leak in the outer envelope of the airship. New higher flying aircraft, and incendiary bullets to ignite the hydrogen gas inside the airships and destroy them, are being developed, but they are still months away.
Fortunately, British intelligence is about to enjoy a piece of good luck. Geoffrey Richter-Douglas (Michael York) is a British officer working in a desk job in London. He has a background both in Scotland and in Germany, where he has an aristocratic German grandmother and other relatives.
Richter-Douglas discovers that his lover Stephanie (Alexandra Stewart) is actually a German spy. She tells him that he can be reunited with his relatives in Germany, where he would be welcomed by the authorities for his expertise. Richter-Douglas, though, is not tempted to change sides. Instead he reports this to his superiors, who encourage him to take the Germans up on their offer and defect to Germany, where he can become a spy for the British.
Richter-Douglas is smuggled out of Britain by boat and days later is in Friedrichshafen, the base for the Zeppelins. There an old acquaintance, Professor Altschul (Marius Goring), is the chief designer of the German airships. He also meets Altschul's attractive younger wife Erika (Elke Sommer), formerly his student and now his assistant.
Keen to meet Richter-Douglas are German intelligence officers Colonel Hirsch (Anton Diffring) and Major Tauntler (Peter Carsten). They are particularly interested in his knowledge of the Scottish coastline and the area around Glen Mattock and Balcoven Castle.
A little improbably, Richter-Douglas is taken on a top secret mission within weeks of arriving from England. He is invited onto a test flight of the new airship LZ-36, with Professor Altschul and his wife Erika on board.
But once the test flight is over, the army officers Hirsch and Tauntler inform the Professor that the craft's flight will continue. The Zeppelin is now on a mission for German intelligence. It refuels and takes on supplies on a Norwegian fjord and again from a German ship during a rendezvous in the North Sea.
As the airship heads towards Britain, the purpose of the mission is revealed. They are to launch a raid on Balcoven Castle, where Britain's historical treasures, perhaps even including the Magna Carta, are being stored for the duration of the war. And, using his knowledge of the local area, Richter-Douglas will be required to guide the airship in from the observation car slung hundreds of feet below.
Zeppelin is part of a genre of World War I aerial adventures begun in the late 1920s and early '30s with such epics as Wings (1927), Hell's Angels (1930) and The Dawn Patrol (1930). While the muddy, bloody ground war on the Western Front had rarely been the setting for adventure narratives, the air war had managed to attract a certain glamour and heroism lacking elsewhere in the war.
Renewed interest in World War I in the 1960s also led to a revival of this genre of aerial adventure films. The most successful of these films was The Blue Max (1966), the story of an ordinary German soldier who enlists as a pilot on the Western Front and clashes with his upper class superiors.
The fact that there was now a fleet of WWI replica aircraft available, having been assembled for The Blue Max, helped to create the subsequent spate of air war films. The planes were based in Ireland and would be used repeatedly in the 1960s and '70s WWI films, including Darling Lili (1969), Von Richtofen and Brown (1971) and again in Zeppelin, when the British SE5a fighters attack the airship in the film's later scenes.
As a spy thriller, Zeppelin is something of a failure. Its plotting is remarkably implausible and reliant on one contrivance after another. York's character has a lover who is a German spy. He conveniently has German relatives, so that he can defect, be co-opted into the German army and onto the Zeppelin mission. He is apparently a Scot - despite the cut glass English accent - so that he can provide local knowledge for the mission. His old friend also happens to be the chief designer of the German airships. The test flight he is sent on is changed without warning into a spy mission, so that Elke Sommer as the unsuspecting Erika can also tag along and provide some glamour. And, when she finds him trying to send a message from the airship's radio room, she declines to give away the fact that he is a spy and no doubt will endanger all their lives.
The film also makes much of the fact that the presence of an extra passenger on the airship will upset Altschul's careful calculations. But this kind of thing is completely forgotten about when the Zeppelin takes on a troop of German soldiers in the later refuelling scene.
It's also worth asking, is a 700 foot long airship really the least conspicuous choice for a top secret stealth raid? Surely, someone is bound to notice it. The secret mission is also a little vague, not to mention unlikely. Hirsch describes the castle as housing Britain's historical archives, which must make this the first and only film to feature a Zeppelin raid on a library. There are also several copies of the Magna Carta in existence, so stealing one isn't really that big a deal, despite what the Germans in the film seem to think.
Rather brilliantly, the script also has the hero suffer from vertigo, of all things. Which is definitely unhelpful if you are thousands of feet up in an airship. Not much is actually made of this and Richter-Douglas seems to be perfectly alright most of the time, which makes this seem like a rather desperate touch from one of the writers to throw in some additional drama.
There's a lot more that's reliant on coincidence and contrivance in Zeppelin and the characters are all plywood thin. Richter-Douglas's German extraction and supposed Scottishness are no more than plot contrivances, and the question of his supposed dual loyalty to both Britain and Germany is never explored. Similarly, his lover Stephanie, the German spy in London, is forgotten about as soon as she has played her required part in the plot.
And yet, to judge Zeppelin as a failure on that basis alone would be a mistake. Because, fortunately, the main aim of the film is not to tell a plausible or convincing spy story. The main aim of the film, as is made clear by its title, is to show the audience a great big massive Zeppelin. And to put that Zeppelin into a story involving some action and aerial spectacle, to capture a sense of the danger and awesomeness of these enormous airships and to put their place in the war and the aerial threat into perspective. And on that basis only Zeppelin is a qualified success.
The film doesn't have a strong script or a very starry cast. Presumably because most of the budget was spent on the special effects. Zeppelin does have a little back projection, which is no better or worse than most other films of the time but, fortunately, for a 1971 film the model work is very good.
The Zeppelin itself is kept from the audience to begin with, as we see only the reactions to its bombing raid from those on the ground. The unsuspecting civilians caught in a sudden attack, the anti-aircraft barrage from the British ground batteries and the searchlights scanning the sky for any sign of the intruder. But, as York tells his secretary, there's no point even looking for the airship - it's too high to see. This makes the airship the equivalent of the monster in a monster movie, only revealed part way through the film, as it finally emerges from the massive airship hangars at Friedrichshafen.
The film does get across some of the basics of the Zeppelin threat and the reasons why they were difficult to combat, as well as capturing some of the spectacle and drama of these extraordinary craft. Much time is spent on the Zeppelin itself and this was obviously the main motive for making the film. The film's chief technical adviser was Dr. Ing. Friedrich Sturm, formerly the chief engineer of the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen.
As with many other WWI films, the Germans are not unsympathetically portrayed. They are just on the opposite side from the hero. Convention dictates that the audience identifies with York's character, but the film does have him act with ruthlessness when necessary, killing a wireless operator he has just been friendly with, when he is caught using the radio to send a message giving away their location.
Marius Goring's designer, meanwhile, is tortured by the use of his airships to bomb civilians, but hopes that their use may bring an end to trench warfare, while Elke Sommer declines to give York away when she catches him in the radio room. Even Anton Diffring and Peter Carsten are less obviously villainous than usual, and Carsten is even allowed to be heroic.
There are some good actors involved in the film, including Goring, Andrew Keir as the airship captain and Rupert Davies as the British Naval Intelligence chief, as well as reliable German antagonists Diffring and Carsten. Michael York was early in his film career and is a little stiff as the hero, while Marius Goring was towards the end of his and doesn't have a particularly strong part.
And yes, British sitcom fans, the British Army sergeant who gives the technical demonstration near the beginning of the film is played by Michael Robbins, more familiar as Arthur in the 1970s sitcom On the Buses.
The film has no real stars, though, and the script gives the actors little to work with. It would be too much to describe the characters as under-developed; they are not developed at all. They feel as if everyone is still waiting for another writer to come along and flesh them out a little.
Zeppelin was produced for distribution by Warner Bros. by Getty and Fromkess, the production company of J. Ronald Getty, of the Getty dynasty, and B movie producer Leon Fromkess. The story was by the film's producer Owen Crump, a former screenwriter and occasional director, who had also been involved in the production of Blake Edwards' contemporary World War I extravaganza Darling Lili. The screenplay was written by Arthur Rowe and Donald Churchill, who were mostly writers for American and British television respectively.
The film was directed by Etienne Périer, a Belgian film maker who mainly worked in France. This was one of two British action films he made in the same year - the other being the Alistair Maclean thriller When Eight Bells Toll, starring Anthony Hopkins.
Roy Budd provides the film with vaguely westernish theme music. Opportunities for composers in the British film industry to score westerns were understandably limited, so some of them would sneak pseudo-western themes into other films. Budd had actually just scored Soldier Blue (1970), so there were rare opportunities and maybe he just hadn't quite got it out of his system.
Production of the film was marred by a tragic accident during filming. According to the special effects man John Richardson, in his book Making Movie Magic, the producer asked for assistance from the makers of Von Richtofen and Brown, a World War I aerial epic, also known as The Red Baron.
Von Richtofen and Brown was filming in Ireland using the WWI replicas from The Blue Max, and the makers were asked to film some scenes of their SE5a biplanes, so that they could be cut into Zeppelin's aerial dogfight scene. One of the planes crashed into the camera helicopter, killing several people, including the famed aerial cameraman Skeets Kelly. According to Richardson, the insurers refused to pay out, because the crew were only insured to work on Von Richtofen and Brown, not Zeppelin.
Zeppelin was made at Pinewood Studios in England and at the Malta Film Facilities. The garden party sequence was evidently shot in the Pinewood Studios gardens, as the country house in the background is the studios' administration building. Carreg Cennan Castle in Wales also gets a credit, although this appears to be playing the Scottish castle in the aerial scenes only.
The Friedrichshafen airship works is played by the giant airship hangars at Cardington in Bedfordshire, used for the British R100 and R101 airships. A large water tank at the Malta Film Facilities was used for some of the film's special effects work.
The contemporary reviews for Zeppelin were not very complimentary and it quickly deflated at the box office. The film failed to capture the imagination of audiences, probably because it seemed a little old-fashioned in 1971, without compelling characters or enough tension to keep it aloft.
The film fails in plausibility in several key areas and is not put across with enough verve to sell its unlikelihood. Etienne Périer's direction is a little too leisurely, so that even the mostly action-packed final half hour is not quite as exciting as it should be.
But Zeppelin is still a good-looking and competently made adventure. If you can overlook its implausibilities then it makes for an acceptable if slightly listless and underpowered adventure film. Its main interest lies in its recreation of the spectacle and dangers of World War I era Zeppelins.
Genre: War adventure
Director: Etienne Périer
Cast Michael York (Geoffrey Richter-Douglas), Elke Sommer (Erika Altschul), Peter Carsten (Major Tauntler), Marius Goring (Professor Altschul), Anton Diffring (Colonel Hirsch), Andrew Keir (Von Gorian), Rupert Davies (Captain Whitney), Alexandra Stewart (Stephanie), William Marlowe (Anderson), Richard Hurndall (Blinker Hall), Michael Robbins (Cockney Sergeant), George Mikell (German officer), Clive Morton (Lord Delford), Gary Waldhorn (Harlich), Alan Rothwell (Brandner), John Gill (Meier), Ben Howard (Jamie Fergusson), Arnold Diamond (Major Proudfoot), Bryan Coleman (Colonel Whippen), Ronald Adam (Prime Minister), Frazer Hines (Radio operator), Ruth Kettlewell (Mrs Parker), Ray Lonnen (Sergeant Grant)
Screenplay Arthur Rowe, Donald Churchill Story Owen Crump Producer Owen Crump Cinematography Alan Hume Art director Bert Davey Editor John Shirley Music Roy Budd Costume designer Sue Yelland Special effects Cliff Richardson Special photographic effects Wally Veevers
Running time 97 mins / 101 mins Colour Technicolor Widescreen Panavision
Production company Getty and Fromkess Distributor Warner Bros.