Black Sunday (1977)

Bruce Dern in Black Sunday (1977)

As a disaster movie, Black Sunday feels almost quaint compared to the destruction reaped in modern superhero films; the film sees the Goodyear blimp descend upon the Superbowl, laden with plastic explosives, a threat level a few notches below Superman tossing Zod through Metropolis’s skyscrapers or the Chitauri laying waste to Manhattan.

The difference between Black Sunday and Man of Steel or The Avengers is that, despite the comparatively low level of destruction that blimp threatens, the use of the actual Goodyear blimp at an actual football stadium filled with over ten thousand actual people ensures that John Frankenheimer’s terrorist thriller has a sense of scale that dwarves those superhero sagas. Well, until the creaky green-screen special effects kick in, anyway.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The film’s finale sees the Goodyear blimp adamantly plunging down upon a packed Superbowl, but the majority of Black Sunday details the specifics of how disgruntled Vietnam veteran Michael Lander (Bruce Dern) and Palestinian terrorist Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller) come to be piloting the dirigible.

The first half hour of the film is too vague and murky to hold interest, but once it establishes its leads – Robert Shaw as steadfast Israeli operative David Kabakov and Dern as an unhinged livewire whose stint as a prisoner of war left him deeply disenfranchised with America – things pick up. Shaw has a downbeat charisma as the archetypal hero, prepared to do whatever it takes to prevent tragedy, but Dern is the highlight; he’s unpredictable and utterly magnetic in the role. Unfortunately the screenplay, which drags out over nearly two-and-a-half hours, is generally more interested in the particulars of the terrorist plot than examining these men, and the latter is far more compelling than the former.

Like so many films of this era, there’s a rich – and conflicted – political subtext, and it’s not like you have dig very deep in a film featuring manifestos from real-life terrorist organisation Black September. The story, based on Thomas Harris’s novel, is, variously: a critique of commercial culture (despite the known terrorist threat, the Goodyear blimp has to stay in the air and film the Superbowl) and American democracy (the President attends because his polling numbers are low), a tacit advocate for invasive government powers (Kabakov gets things done that the FBI can’t, mostly because he’s happy to flourish a revolver in a suspect’s face) and a sympathetic ear to displaced Palestinians (despite Iyad being the putative villain, the film treats her and Lander with respect).

Black Sunday might be overshadowed by Hollywood’s destructive arms race, but its left an impact nonetheless; Kill Bill Part 1 appropriates a scene where Iyad disguises herself as a nurse to try and murder Kabakov, and The Dark Knight Rises’ stadium destruction owes Frankenheimer’s film a substantial debt. Influential or not, it’s not entirely successful – John Williams score is overbearing and often inappropriate, and the film is simply too long – but its sense of scale and a transfixing performance from Dern outweigh such shortcomings.

3 stars

2 thoughts on “Black Sunday (1977)

  1. Good review Dave. It takes awhile to get going, but in some very slight instances, the movie can be pretty damn tense. I mean, that chase that happens near the hotel and spills out all the way onto the beach? Pretty damn thrilling if you ask me.

    • My enjoyment of that scene was tainted by thinking about it too much; they want to capture him alive, understandably, but the second he starts shooting innocent civilians and taking hostages, it’s pretty clear that just asking him to surrender isn’t going to have any luck. So the reluctance to open fire on him sapped some of the tension for me, especially when they just end up shooting him anyway.

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