By Carter B. Horsley
Truth may be stranger than fiction but fiction
can become truth.
When it was released in 1977, "Black Sunday"
was a pretty far-fetched thriller about terrorism. After September
11, 2001, its plausibility was no longer a laughing matter.
Indeed, its plot about terrorists who try to
explode an advertising blimp with 220,000 armor-piercing darts
in the middle of the playing field of the Super Bowl attended
by 82,000 fans including the President of the United States now
sends palpable and plausible shivers to an American populace now
no longer inured to terror.
Frankenheimer had previously directed "The
Manchurian Candidate" (see The City
Review article) as well as "Seven Days in May,"
so it was no surprise that "Black Sunday" would be on
the cutting-edge of the dark side of civilization. Doomsday was
the late director's forte and the last half of "Black Sunday"
is non-stop suspense and action.
As in many adventure/thriller movies, preposterous
actions can only be successfully presented by brilliant acting
and the stars of "Black Sunday" deliver the goods in
Robert Shaw plays Major David Kabakov, an Israeli
anti-terrorist agent. Bruce Dern plays Captain Michael J. Lander,
a pilot captured by the Vietcong who calls for a stop to the war
while a prisoner-of-war and eventually becomes unstable psychologically
on his return to the United States. Marthe Keller plays Dahlia
Iyad, a terrorist control agent who wants the United States to
suffer for supporting Israel and not the Palestinians.
Captain Lander has contacted a Black September
terrorist organization in Beirut and asked for their aid in killing
thousands of people who will attend the next Super Bowl. The film
begins with Iyad reassuring her leaders in Beirut that she can
control Captain Lander and that the plan can be successful. Pleased
with their approval, she makes a tape that she plans to have released
after the planned event.
Major Kabakov leads a raid against the terrorist
group, however, and surprises her in the shower and hesitates
and decides not to kill her and she gets away.
She subsequently arranges to have explosives
shipped to Captain Lander in the United States and travels there
to join him. She plans not only to help him set up the terrorist
act but to join him in executing it, which they both know means
Captain Lander has gotten a job as the pilot
of an advertising blimp and his plan is to rig an attachment to
the bottom of the blimp's gondola and when he is descends into
the center of the Super Bowl playing field he plans to set off
an explosion that will shoot out the darts into the crowds.
Major Kabakov meanwhile has discovered Iyad's
recorded tape message, which clearly indicates a plan to inflict
great harm to America and he meets with the F.B.I. and they try
to unearth the plan. He regrets his hesitation with the woman
now that he realizes she is plotting something extremely sinister
and eventually he enlists the help of the Russians in trying to
identify her. They cooperate and produce a photograph of her.
Iyad arranges for 600 pounds of explosives
to be shipped into the country in religious statues aboard a Japanese
freighter. When she and Captain Lander pick up the cargo in a
small speedboat, however, the Coast Guard approaches and pursues
them only to lose them when they cannot fit under a railroad bridge
over which a train is crossing. The chase is exciting but rather
Captain Lander insists on a test of his "darts"
and they fly out to an abandoned warehouse and convince a caretaker
that they are prospective buyers wanting to photograph him. He
gladly poses for them in front of what he thinks is a very large
panoramic camera. Captain Lander and Iyad go outside for a moment
and trigger the "camera" to explode. Captain Lander
rushes inside and is euphoric. The device has worked perfectly
and perforated completely the shed and its caretaker. Iyad wants
to get away quickly but he insists that they savor the moment
because they will not be able to when the real event takes place.
Mohammad Fasil, played by Bekim Fehmiu, learns
that the F.B.I. has obtained Iyad's photograph and he goes to
the United States to warn her and call off the mission. She refuses.
When the F.B.I. and Major Kabakov learn of
the Coast Guard's incident with two people in a speedboat unloading
cargo they investigate and Major Kabakov ruthlessly interrogate
the captain. Captain Lander, however, has snuck aboard the freighter
and rigged his phone to detonate and the ship's captain is blown
up and Major Kabakov injured. When she sees television news of
the incident, Iyad poses as a nurse and attempts to kill the major
in a hospital, but only succeeds in killing his assistant.
Both she and Captain Lander are very cold-hearted
and do not hesitate to kill anyone who might upset their plans.
Major Kabakov and F.B.I. agent Sam Corely,
played by Fritz Weaver, track Iyad to a motel where she was meeting
with Fasil. When Fasil goes outside, he is spotted and identified
by Kabakov who orders the other agents not to shoot because he
needs to find out where Iyad is and what her plan is. Fasil, however,
spots an agent and grabs a hostage and proceeds to try to escape,
killing several people before he is shot.
In his motel room, Major Kabakov finds a brochure
for the Super Bowl, which is just a few weeks off and he quickly
surmises that that is Iyad's target.
The start of the film is very, very slow moving
as the camera tracks Iyad from the back through a market in Beirut.
Major Kabakov's raid on a terrorist cell in Beirut is very exciting
as is Fasil's attempted escape and shoot-out, but the first half
of the film is rather drawn out.
The second half of the film includes footage
of a real Super Bowl between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh
Steelers and is a tour de force of editing and tension as Major
Kabakov and agent Corely try to figure out the terrorist's plans
and how to thwart them.
Iyad poses as a waitress and kills the designated
pilot on the day of the Super Bowl for the television blimp. Captain
Lander shows up at the blimp's airport to explain that the other
pilot was out too late carousing to make it and that he will substitute.
He takes up the blimp, with its television crew and heads for
the stadium, but arranges for one of its two engines to overheat
and catch fire so that he has to return to the airport.
Iyad, meanwhile, races in a car with the large
gondola device in tow, and shows identification to get into the
airport. Captain Lander orders the crew to attach it to the gondola
and when the ground crew starts to ask questions he opens fire
on them and Iyad pulls out an automatic weapon and kills more
Major Kabakov senses that the blimp is the
weapon and he and agent Corely, who has been wounded by Iyad,
rush off to the airport but Iyad manages to kill several policemen
with them and Captain Lander manages to get the blimp into the
air on its way back to the stadium.
Major Kabakov and agent Corely commandeer a
helicopter that had just landed at a nearby construction site
and they give chase along with a police helicopter. Iyad shoots
down the police helicopter but Major Kabakov manages to have his
helicopter maneuver alongside the gondola and shoots Iyad dead
and also wounds Captain Lander just as it is descending down into
Captain Lander manages to ignite a back-up
fuse for the explosives as the blimp hits a huge light stanchion
on the rim of the stadium, setting off a panic among the fans.
Major Kabakov tells his helicopter pilot to
lower him on a cable to the top of the descending blimp and attempts
to attach the cable to the blimp to try to tow it away from the
Considering when it was made, the blimp's descent
into the stadium is quite well done, as far as special effects
The actual plan to kill the other blimp pilot,
barge into the blimp airport, force a crew to attach the large
device is fraught with danger and highly improbable as is the
convenient commandeering of a helicopter by Major Kabakov. Yet
so convincingly ruthless and determined have Captain Lander and
Iyad been portrayed by Dern and Keller and so driven by guilt
has Major Kabakov been portrayed by Shaw that the inconsistencies
of the plot notwithstanding the end of the moving is very thrilling
The movie was made from a book by Thomas Harris,
who would also write "The Silence of the Lambs." In
the book, Major Kabakov does not survive, but in the movie he
Although Shaw is the hero, and very, very good,
as always, the movie's credibility hinges on the performances
of Dern and Keller and they are unforgettable. Dern is deranged
and disguntled, excitable and explosive. Keller is icy and unflappable
and while she is extremely beautiful she is also extremely formidable.
She clearly could seduce anyone. They are a very scary duo.
When it was released, the film was a wild thriller.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2003, it
is a very chilling tale resonant with the horrific anger of terrorists
who believe absolutely in their cause.
With such enemies, complacency and caution
Years after the movie was made but a few years
before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, one of Tom
Clancy's novels has an airliner crash into the Capitol in Washington.
Fiction can be frightening.