One of America’s greatest pastimes is under threat in director John Frankenheimer’s thriller Black Sunday; based on the novel by Thomas Harris which itself was inspired by the Munich massacre perpetrated by the Black September Group during the 1972 Summer Olympics Games. What is truly frightening is how this film is even more topical today than it was when it was originally released back in the 70s. Unfortunately for Frankenheimer and Paramount Pictures, the previous year saw the release of another thriller called Two-Minute Warning which was also about a major league football game under siege by terrorism, it also wasn’t very good and it most likely dampened ticket sales for Black Sunday. Also not helping is that it came out the same year as Star Wars. This is a shame because Black Sunday is a riveting thriller with a great cast and deserved a better reception, so let’s take a trip back to when terrorism was unique horror and not an everyday event.
Do you know what you won’t find in many American films these days, a lead character who is an Israeli intelligence officer leading Mossad commando raids against Palestinian fanatics, yet that is exactly what we get in Black Sunday in the form of Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw), a man who will do almost anything to see the job done. He is aided by FBI agent in charge Sam Corely (Fritz Weaver) who would have been the lead character in most Hollywood movies, but instead, we get Shaw’s tenacious and brutal Kabakov as he chases his prey from the explosive heights of Beirut to the dark streets of Washington DC and Los Angeles. Kabakov is almost a proto-Jack Bauer as he will cross almost any line to stop the terrorist plot.
What makes Black Sunday stand out is that though it is obviously on the side of Robert Shaw’s character the villains of the piece are not just cardboard mustache-twirling stereotypes. Behind the plot to wreak havoc during the Super Bowl is Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller), an operative from the Palestinian terrorist group Black September who lost most of her family to the conflict between Palestine and Israel. Her goal is to “Hit Americans where it hurts, where they feel most safe,” so that they will stop supporting Israel. The plan is to detonate a bomb rigged to the Goodyear Blimp while it’s floating over the Super Bowl, which would then send a quarter million steel flechettes flying into the 80,000 fans watching the game, including the President of the United States (Jimmy Carter look-a-like). The weak link in her plan is her co-conspirator Michael Lander (Bruce Dern) who is a contract blimp pilot and Vietnam veteran who spent many years being tortured by the Viet Cong while he was a POW. Lander, unfortunately, isn’t the Chuck Norris type of Vietnam vet as he’s basically a walking basket case and probably suffering from every form of PTSD imaginable, and to make matters worse upon returning to America he faced a bitter court-martial and a failed marriage. Now he’s ready to die in a way that will take as many fellow Americans with him.
The poster and ads clearly promoted the Super Bowl threat but most of the movie’s running time deals with Kabokov, his Mossad partner Robert Moshevsky (Steven Keats) and Agent Corely as they interrogate smugglers responsible for getting the explosives stateside, boat chases through Miami’s crowded harbour, running gun battles with Dahlia’s operation’s chief Mohammed Fasil (Bekim Fehmiu), all while trying to figure out what the actual target is. Black Sunday is more a spy/thriller than the event disaster film its ad campaign suggested.
Note: Normally movies are forced to use fake team names and sporting events but Frankenheimer was actually allowed to film at Super Bowl X featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys. The movie cameras that were used in filming during the game were disguised as TV cameras with CBS logos, of course during the climax when the Goodyear Blimp plunges into the stadium that was shot on a different day with extras.
Black Sunday is an excellent thriller which manages to juggle the mechanics of a tricky plot without skimping on character development, and only someone with Frankenheimer’s skill could make a “Blimp Chase” into a suspense-filled action sequence – which is more than can be said about a certain movie based on a true dirigible disaster – and this is one of those rare terrorist plot movies that have both a compelling hero as well as fleshed-out villains, something that is lacking in many films since. So if you need a good pre-game event for your Super Bowl party I suggest putting on this flick, you and your friends will not be disappointed.
Black Sunday (1977)
Of the 70s disaster/thrillers Black Sunday is easily one of the better examples of the blended genre; Robert Shaw is always a treat, Bruce Dern gives chilling and complex villain, and the action keeps you at the edge of your seat.