Considering that from 1900 to 1937 dirigibles were part of the world of aviation, it is odd how few movies deal with them. I suspect it is because the film of the crash of the Hindenburg seems to summarize to us the fallacy of using lighter-than-air craft, but many aviation experts believe that there is still use for zeppelins and similar craft - that their cargo carrying capacities exceed aeroplanes. However, other experts deny this.
To date, the following films deal with this chapter of aviation history.
ZEPPELIN (Michael York has to stop the Kaiser's airforce from stealing the Magna Carta with their most modern designed Zeppelin.) THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (Reference to the crash of the U.S. Navy Zeppelin Shenandoah in 1925, and the death of General Mitchell's (Gary Cooper's) friend, Captain Zachary Landsdowne. Mitchell was aware that the damaged Shenandoah was sent on a stupid political publicity tour in Ohio when it should have been repaired, and it was sent straight into a dangerous thunderstorm pattern.) THE RED TENT HINDENBERG (A film about the destruction of the great Zeppelin, with the emphasis on the theory that an anti-Nazi crewman put a time bomb on board. George C. Scott finds the bomb too late to stop the plot. It incorporates the footage of the Zeppelin's destruction).
THE RED TENT is an excellent film about the 1928 ITALIA disaster. I have referred to this in my review of the movie SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC. Briefly, General Umberto Nobile was an Italian aviation pilot and designer of "semi-rigids", a type of hybrid between a balloon and a zeppelin. A balloon has no shape, but is a bag full of heated air or hydrogen or helium, attached to a small carriage for the passengers (usually from two to five people. A zeppelin has a total framework and keel, which contains separate bags within, each containing hydrogen or helium gas lifting it. Unlike a balloon, which depends on the wind currents to steer the bag, the zeppelin has electric/gasoline motors that propel it in one direction or another. As zeppelins are large they require crews (usually of 24 or more men). The semi-rigid is a keel with half a framework, but the bags are not supporting a metal cover. Rather the bag is like an elongated balloon.
Nobile had great belief in his semi-rigids, but (like the zeppelins) they met with some success, some failure. In 1922 a semi-rigid he designed and sold to the U.S. Government, the ROMA, blew up in Hampton Roads, Virginia, when it touched a high tension wire that was across part of the field. It killed several dozen crewmen. On the other hand, in 1926 Nobile had designed a semi-rigid called the NORGE, which was used (successfully) for a flight over the North Pole.
THE RED TENT does not go into the details of this 1926 flight, which is a pity. If it did, it would explain some of the reasons for the immense public relations disaster the ITALIA proved to be.
To begin with, Nobile is an Italian. He was fully willing to work for the fascist government of Benito Musolini, but his work was only supported by that dictator as long as it's success was useful in advertising his regime's ability to make things better in Italy. However, one of the heroes of Fascist Italy, and one of the brightest men in the government, was the Italian war hero and aviation pioneer General Italo Balbo. Balbo is forgotten today, as he was tarred with being a supporter of the Fascists. What is forgotten is that in the 1920s up to 1935 fascism in Italy had many supporters, including Winston Churchill, who felt it was necessary to give Italy a strong centralized government. Balbo, within the Fascist regime, was a smart man who did his best to modernize the Italian air force and Italy's aviation industry. He also tried to emphasize Italy's ties to the democracies in the west - flying a flotilla of planes across the Atlantic in 1933 to the Chicago World's Fair on a good will tour. His attempts to keep friendly relations with the U.S., England, and France ran afoul of Il Duce, and may have led to the accident that ended Balbo's career (he was killed by "friendly fire" shooting down his plane over Libya in 1940).
Balbo was suspicious of the advantage of "lighter-than-air" aviation. He knew planes were getting larger and faster, and that the claims that long distance travel would only remain the province of zeppelins was a lot of hooey. So when Nobile presented him with his latest semi-rigids, Balbo questioned their real use. To be truthful (although Nobile did some fine work) history was on Balbo's side on this.
Nobile had to maintain his own friendship with Il Duce, and to do this, he needed successful results. Now the NORGE proved (as a machine) to be wonderful. It did fly to the North Pole. But the expedition was not so wonderful. The expedition was planned by the American explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth. He asked his friend, the great polar explorer Roald Amundsen to co-direct the expedition. And then they got Nobile to design the NORGE. The problem was that Nobile was insisting he was a co-leader with Ellsworth and Amundsen on the expedition. It is possible that if Ellsworth and Nobile had been alone there would have been no problem. The problem was Amundsen. He despised Musolini's regime, and considered Nobile nothing more than a talented mechanic and chauffeur. This was hardly fair, for it was an expedition to the Pole by air, and as such it would not have gotten anywhere without Nobile and his machine.
To make matters worse, while the NORGE was waiting in Spitsbergen for the right wind to travel to the Pole, a plane piloted by U.S. Navy Captain Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett arrived. Byrd took off while the NORGE waited, and flew north. Within half a day it returned, and Byrd claimed he reached the Pole! Today we know from writings left by Bennett, and by some papers of Byrd showing his calculations, that he didn't reach the Pole, but in 1926 it was believed he did. This apparent success of heavier-than-air travel over lighter-than-air travel did not help endear Nobile's work with Amundsen.
So, despite the successful flight to the Pole and back (nobody seemed to notice that Byrd's American flag could not be found there), the NORGE voyage was not the great success Nobile needed. Balbo kept carping at the obvious comparison of the semi-rigid and Byrd's trimotor. And Il Duce was upset at the way that Nordic upstart Amundsen had slighted his representative. So Nobile decided he would design a larger semi-rigid and fly to the Pole leading this expedition by himself. Il Duce approved. Balbo just glared and said nothing.
THE RED TENT follows what happens. The voyage was a success again at the start. But an accident caused the ITALIA to crash on the ice, causing one of the gondolas to land on the ice with most of the crew. The out of control semi-rigid bounced back with nine men on board. It and the nine men drifted out of sight and were never seen again. Nobile (fortunately) had the main gondola, with the supplies and the radio. A red colored tent was set up on the ice, and distress signals were sent out. Certainly help would come.
But it didn't come. A very conservative and timid second in command had been left by Nobile in Spitsbergen, and although he got some of the signals he kept from releasing any requests for international assistance. After all, this fool reasoned, Nobile and the survivors should be rescued by Italians. Ordinarily this made sense, but Balbo and Musolini could not find the huge resources needed to assist in the rescue by themselves, particularly as the survivors were hundreds of miles north of Spitsbergen. So valuable time was lost.
Some of the survivors, the Finnish meteorologist Malmsen and two Italian crewmen, talked Nobile into letting them try to cross the ice to Scandanavia to get help. What happened next is not really known. In the film Malmsen dies of exhaustion and starvation but the Italians manage to survive. In reality the possibility exists that Malmsen was killed and eaten by the Italians (his body was never found).
Malmsen's girlfriend (Claudia Cardinale in the movie) goes to get Amundsen's assistance. In realty this was not necessary. Amundsen recalled Nobile with considerable distaste. As mentioned before he disliked the fascist regime, but there is a lingering feeling that he actually was a nordic racist who disliked Italians. He decided to get a plane and rescue Nobile (and proceed to humiliate the uppity "chauffeur" for his temerity at challenging Amundsen in polar ability). But the plane he got, a modern French plane, had an air cooled motor. Amundsen may have known much about planning depots of food, and knowing how much food to leave per member of an expedition, but he was not a mechanic (ironically enough). He and a small crew took off and were never seen again. Years later some wreckage was located, showing (according to Amundsen's fellow polar explorer, Vihiljamar Steffenson)that the plane must have crashed in the gulf stream, and that Amundsen and his crew died trying to use one of the wings as a raft.
A plane, piloted by an Italian, finally did arrive, but it only rescued Nobile. Nobile made the error of going first, presumably planning to return for the others. It turned out he did not have to - a Soviet ice breaker, the KRASSIN, arrived and rescued the remaining survivors (including the two Italians last seen with Malmsen).
Of course, Musolini was furious. There was a huge death toll. There was a humiliating example of possible cannibalism by two Italians. THere was a question of the cowardice of General Nobile in leaving his surviving crew behind. Finally the remaining men, all fascists mind you, were rescued by sailors from Communist Russia!
Balbo gleefully was able to convince his boss to shelve further "lighter-than-air" travel adventures (indeed further "lighter-than-air" transportation design). Nobile was openly disgraced by Il Duce, and left Italy (ironically he ended working for the Soviet Union, where Dirigibles were used for transportation for decades after the west stopped using them).
The movie is well acted by Peter Finch as Nobile, Sean Connery as Amundsen, and Cardinale as Malmsen's girlfriend. It glosses over the odd attitude of Amundsen towards Nobile, and the actual death of Malmsen. Amundsen, as one of the ghosts Finch talks to, says his plane crashed near the wrecked dirigible, and he was the last survivor of both groups. Supposedly, his final hours are spent reading Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. But the film does tackle the issue of command and leadership, and all the figures in the disaster are found to be lacking it. Nobile may not have been the coward Musolini claimed he was, but when asked by Amundsen what he thought of when he boarded the plane that took him away from the Red Tent, he realizes he did abdicate his responsibilities to his men: he only thought of taking a hot bath!