Black Sunday (1977)
Written by: Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, and Ivan Moffat
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Bruce Dern, Martha Keller, Robert Shaw, Fritz Weaver
On March 11, 1977, nearly a quarter of a century before Al Qaeda’s horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a relatively small number of moviegoers sat in darkened theaters across the United States and watched Black Sunday, director John Frankenheimer’s film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ debut novel about a horrifying Palestinian terrorist plot against the United States.
Starring Bruce Dern (Silent Running), Robert Shaw (Jaws), Marthe Keller (Marathon Man), and Fritz Weaver (Fail-Safe, Holocaust), the film – now considered to be ominously prophetic – distilled its “torn from the headlines” sensibilities from such actual events as the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and the 1975 kidnapping of various OPEC ministers by Carlos the Jackal in Vienna.
Indeed, the Israeli response to the 1972 Munich Massacre is the starting point for the original novel and the screenplay by veteran Hollywood scribes Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, and Ivan Moffat; their adaptation, despite changing some of the story’s locations so that director Frankenheimer could use actual footage from Super Bowl X, is pretty faithful to Harris’ book.
The film opens (as the novel does) in Beirut, Lebanon, as an Israeli commando unit led by Major David Kabakov (Shaw) carries out a “retribution raid” against the leadership of Black September, the real-life splinter group of the Palestinian Liberation Organization responsible for various hijackings and – of course – the 1972 incident at Munich. Kabakov and his commandos enter the apartment of a senior Black September officer and kill almost everyone – except for the beautiful Dahlia Iyad (Keller); Kabakov spares her life when he catches her taking a shower, assuming she’s the main target’s lover.
Bad move, because Dahlia has been “running” an American sleeper agent named Mike Lander (Dern), a Navy veteran with experience on both dirigibles and helicopters, Lander was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and spent six hellish years as a POW until the Paris Agreement ended American military involvement in Indochina and Hanoi released all the American prisoners.
For Lander, it is his Vietnam experience that is the catalyst for his willing embrace of the Black September terrorists. Ostracized by his fellow POWs for collaborating with the North Vietnamese and discovering that his wife has had an affair, Lander is pushed to the brink of madness by the hostility his fellow POWs – especially the senior officer – feel toward him. Unable to cope with his humiliation and anger, Michael Lander resigns his commission and goes job hunting, finding the going tough until, finally, he is hired by the Goodyear rubber company to fly blimps.
By now, however, Lander is plotting a most lethal sort of revenge upon the country he believes caused him to lose his pride, his honor, six years of his life, his manhood, and his wife. Inspired by the Black September attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, he contacts the radical terrorist group, asking for explosives and technical assistance so he can convert the Goodyear blimp into a flying Claymore mine. The target: the Super Bowl championship game. The place: the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami.
Intrigued, the Palestinians send Dahlia to America. She spends a year in the United States, cultivating, evaluating, and becoming intimate with Lander, a man she knows to be increasingly insane yet incredibly useful to Black September’s goal of making America pay for her support of Palestine’s hated enemy, Israel.
Of course, in order for the film to get from Dahlia’s near-death at the hands of Kabakov to the climactic attempt to attack the Orange Bowl, the terrorists have to always be ahead of the forewarned American government (a tape of the prerecorded communique “explaining” the attack is found early on in the film) and Kabakov’s hunter-killer team. Just as Mohammad Atta and the 18 other 9/11 hijackers would do in real life years later, Dahlia and her Black September comrade Mohammad Fasil (Bekim Fehmiu) evade the authorities, always seemingly one step ahead of the cops, FBI, CIA, the Soviets’ KGB, and Mossad, Israel’s top-notch intelligence agency.
Although the film sometimes tends to get bogged down by the length of the Lehman-Moffat-Ross screenplay and all the cat-and-mouse moves by the protagonists, Black Sunday nevertheless is a gripping thriller. Frankenheimer, who had cut his directorial teeth in many TV productions in the 1950s and helmed 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, knows a thing or two about pacing, action set-pieces, and ratcheting up the suspense levels to nearly-intolerable levels.
While most of the casting decisions were basically sound, I do wish another actor had been chosen to play Mike Lander.
Don’t get me wrong; I like Bruce Dern, and he pulls off the angry/insane vet part here very well. Trouble is that Dern seems to have been the “go to” actor for crazy, angry, or isolated WASPy characters, because he played similar roles in Silent Running, The Cowboys, and Coming Home.
Adding to the film’s suspenseful atmosphere is a taut score by composer John Williams, who followed his work on Black Sunday with his unforgettable compositions for Star Wars.
Interestingly enough, the football game sequences in this film aren’t staged; they were filmed during the real Super Bowl X in Miami, and football fans will not only recognize key plays of the Cowboys-Steelers’ match up, but also such NFL legends as Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Miami Dolphins’ owner Joe Robbie.
Although it is a bit longer than the similarly-themed The Sum of All Fears, Black Sunday is still one of the best adaptations of a suspense/action novel ever made. Robert Shaw (in one of his last films) is always an interesting actor to watch; he projects a combination of a hunter’s instincts and the strategic prowess of a chess player, two qualities that serve him well as the terrorists’ main adversary. And, of course, the story is a gripping and – after Sept. 11, 2001 – chillingly plausible scenario.