Black Sunday is a 1977 American thriller film directed by John Frankenheimer, based on the novel by Thomas Harris. The film starred Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller, and was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture in 1978. The inspiration of the story came from the Munich massacre, perpetrated by the Arab Group Black September against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics, giving the film its title. Michael Lander (Bruce Dern) is a pilot who flies the Goodyear Blimp over NFL football games to film them for network television. He is also, secretly, deranged by years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, a bitter court martial on his return and a failed marriage. He longs to commit suicide and take as many of the cheerful, carefree American civilians he sees from his blimp each weekend with him as possible.
If the plot of Black Sunday seems familiar, that’s probably because you’re remembering the wholesale rip-off it was given by The Sum of All Fears just a year ago. But Sunday is immensely better. If you’ve seen the latter but not the original, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
The story has since been done to death: terrorist group plans to cause massive carnage, this time at the Super Bowl by blowing up the Good Year Blimp overhead. But Black Sunday is distinguished by its unique focus not on the hero but on the villain: Bruce Dern as an angry Vietnam vet, pilot, and former prisoner of war. He holds a grudge against the U.S. like you wouldn’t believe (brainwashed? shellshocked?): Enough to convince him to join forces with a Palestinian militant group called Black September. It doesn’t help that he’s just plain crazy. Even the Black September operatives are a little afraid of what he might do.
The film spools out over the days leading up to the Super Bowl. 600 pounds of explosives arrive, earmarked for the operation. An incredibly memorable test run is performed in a remote barn. 600 pounds of explosives doesn’t sound like much, but when they add shrapnel, stand back. Above all, Dern is unforgettable in the greatest role of his career. Director John Frankenheimer takes his sweet time (nearly 2 1/2 hours) to tell a pretty simple story, but it works in the end. It has fairly low-grade ’70s production values and more than its fair share of sound problems (even on the DVD, a real disservice to the film), but on the whole the picture stands up well.
Also, Marthe Keller is an unfortunate hindrance to the film — how this Swiss woman with a thick German accent is supposed to pass for a Palestinian radical is beyond me. The finale is also a letdown. I won’t spoil it here but I will say it practically happens off-screen and is the worst special effect of the film. Argh.
Don’t let my nitpicking persuade you. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve seen the innocuous Good Year Blimp turned into an instrument of death.