Black Sunday: Terror Foreshadowed

Fear comes with imagination, it’s a penalty, it’s the price of imagination.   
                                                —Thomas Harris

For Australians old enough to remember, Black Sunday was a devastating day of bushfires in 1955, across the Mount Lofty Ranges near Adelaide, where two firefighters died and 40,000 hectares of bushland was destroyed. For our parents’ generation, the phrase might bring back memories of the 1938 Black Sunday Bondi Beach surf rescue after three waves caused a backwash and swept 200 people into dangerous waters in a matter of seconds. All the swimmers needed assistance. There were seventy lifesavers on the beach, but still five people died, and another thirty-five required resuscitation. One of the heroes, Carl Saur, gave his life to save a girl whom he held up by the hair until he sank and was drowned, enabling others to reach the girl in time.

Our grandparents might recall Black Sunday as the terrifying 1925-26 Victorian bushfire season when five fire fronts joined together, across Gippsland, the Yarra Valley, the Dandenongs and Kinglake, resulting in the deaths of sixty and injuring another 700.

In more recent times, but long before the 9/11 Twin Towers tragedy, the American author Thomas Harris published his first novel, Black Sunday (1971), which dealt with a terrorist attack on a packed American football stadium in a plan to kill 80,000 people. John Frankenheimer made the book into a film of the same title in 1977, starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller.

The licence fee Harris received for the film adaptation was enough to enable him to resign from his work as a newspaper journalist and devote himself to writing full-time. This decision resulted in his phenomenally popular Hannibal Lecter series, cumulating in five Academy Awards for the adaptation of his third novel, The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday may not have made much of an impact in Australia, as it dealt with an attack on an American Super Bowl football stadium. But even Shaw’s character, Israeli Mossad agent Major David Kabalov, asked, when trying to grasp this terrorist threat, “What exactly is this Super Bowl?” The Super Bowl has been the final game of every National Football League season since 1966.

I have always thought that Harris’s novel should be rebooted and set at the MCG during the AFL Grand Final. Only then would the impact of Harris’s apocalyptic prediction be truly grasped in this country. Unfortunately, 9/11 came later, which changed the world. With the advent of remote-controlled sophisticated drones, a terrorist attack from the air, of the magnitude of Harris’s Black Sunday, remains a very real possibility.

In the film, Michael Lander (played by Bruce Dern) is a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD as a result of incarceration and torture in a Hanoi POW camp. He had been a trained helicopter pilot and now works piloting a blimp for the Aldrich Rubber Company, flying television crews to film football games for live network broadcasting. He is also somewhat of a genius electrical technician.

While a POW, Lander had been coerced by the North Vietnamese military to make a video recording denouncing the US as a war aggressor. When finally released, he had to resign from the Navy for this “traitorous” act. The alternative had been court-martial.

Recently Lander caught his wife cheating on him, and, compounded with the indifferent treatment he is receiving from Veteran Affairs, he seeks serious revenge on the American system.

Lander is recruited by Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, via a seductive femme fatale German agent, Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller). She forms a romantic and sexual bond with him in order to channel his psychotic nature towards the group’s goals. With her encouragement, he designs a custom-made fibreglass nacelle to fit underneath the Aldrich blimp, packed with plastic explosives and a precision array of 200,000 rifle darts. When exploded at the correct height over Tulane Stadium in New Orleans during the Super Bowl, it will kill over 80,000 people, including the President of the United States.

Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw), a Mossad agent, has recently come into possession of a tape recording seized during a raid by Israeli commandos on a Black September cell. The tape was intended to be released to international media after an impending but unspecified attack in the US at the start of the coming New Year. A woman’s voice is heard on the tape reflecting on the carnage and destruction inflicted on America. She says, regrettably, the act was carried out in order to enable Americans to fully understand the suffering of the Palestinian people.

As this event is still in the near future, Kabakov’s mission is to identify the location of the terrorist cell and prevent this attack from happening.

John Frankenheimer is an American director responsible for films such as Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate (both in 1962) and Seven Days in May (1977). He studied English at college and was captain of the tennis team, considering a career in professional tennis, but decided film was what he loved most. Frankenheimer has been referred to as one of the most significant figures in the “Golden Age of Television” of the 1950s, specialising in live television production.

The Manchurian Candidate dealt with a brain-washed war veteran who became a “sleeper” assassin on his return to the US. A simple phone call from his “handlers” would trigger him into performing violent acts. The film was released just one month before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Gerald Pratley’s book The Cinema of John Frankenheimer (1969), the director said:

More and more I think that our society is being manipulated and controlled … the most important aspect is that [in 1962] this country was just recovering from the McCarthy era and nothing had ever been filmed about it. I wanted to do a picture that showed how ludicrous the whole McCarthy far-Right syndrome was and how dangerous the far-Left syndrome is … The Manchurian Candidate dealt with the McCarthy era, the whole idea of fanaticism, the far-Right and the far-Left being really the same thing, and the idiocy of it.

Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May concerned an attempted coup in America by a disgruntled military commander. On the making of that film, he commented, “We did not ask the Pentagon for co-operation because we knew we wouldn’t get it.”

Black Sunday was not a commercial success for Paramount. Universal Studios had released Two-Minute Warning a few months earlier with a similar theme. In that one, a sniper intends to unleash a mass killing in a football stadium during a Super Bowl-style match but is spotted in time by a camera from a Goodyear Blimp. Black Sunday, due to its close release proximity to Two-Minute Warning, suffered at the box office.

Frankenheimer had been hired in 1977 to direct the original screenplay for First Blood (1983), the first Rambo movie, with either Michael Douglas or Nick Nolte in the role of John Rambo and George C. Scott as Colonel Trautman. The production was abandoned. Five years later, the script was rewritten by its new star, Sylvester Stallone, and directed by Ted Kotcheff, resulting in the popular Rambo franchise.

Thomas Harris started his professional life as a journalist covering police beats in Waco, Texas. He relocated to New York to work for Associated Press before committing to becoming a full-time author. He once said, “Writing novels is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, including digging irrigation ditches.” A series of best-selling novels, beginning with Red Dragon (1981) and its sequel, The Silence of the Lambs (1988) established his reputation as a serious writer. He was also an accomplished chef with Cordon Bleu qualifications. He is known for his aversion to the press and never does interviews. He described his writing process:

Sometimes you really have to shove and grunt and sweat. Some days you go to your office and you’re the only one who shows up, none of the characters show up, and you sit there by yourself, feeling like an idiot. And some days everybody shows up ready to work.

Harris’s agent, Mort Janklow, told Jason Cowley of the Guardian, “His books never really need any editing. What he delivers has the quality of a precisely cut gem … he sits in that office, for days at a time, not even writing a word.”

Apart from Black Sunday, Harris wrote only one other book outside the Hannibal Lecter series: Cari Mora (2019). The plot of that novel revolves around a beach house previously owned by the drug cartel boss Pablo Escobar, which has a rumoured $20 million in gold buried beneath the basement. The only person who knows of its whereabouts is a man named Jesús. The novel was received poorly, with Sarah Ditum of the Guardian writing of one of main characters: “a ghastly creep called Hans-Peter Schneider—European born, medically trained and in every regard such a tacky Lecter knockoff that Harris should sue himself for plagiarism”.

Many critics believe Harris watered down the original concepts of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs by turning the psychopathic Lecter, in subsequent sequels, into an empathetic and endearing pop character rather than the cold forensic monster we were introduced to in Red Dragon.

Joe Dolce appears in every Quadrant.
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Black Sunday’s producer, Robert Evans, became head of Paramount Pictures in 1967. He said his goal was always to make films he believed: “We didn’t strive for commercial. We went for original. We fell on our asses on some of them, but we also touched magic.” John Williams, one of the most successful of all film composers, created the film’s nail-biting score.

The film of Black Sunday is largely faithful to the book, but does diverge from Harris’s novel in several ways. In the novel, the Mossad agent, Kabakov, dies in the final explosion of the blimp; but he survives in the film. Faisal, the Muslim terrorist behind the attack, is killed in the movie but, in the book, he is captured and taken to Israel to stand trial. The Super Bowl, in the novel, takes place in New Orleans, not Miami. Kabakov has a steamy affair in the novel, but remains blessedly single-minded in the film, even in the presence of the stunning Marthe Keller, naked in the shower in the opening sequence. The novel delves into Kabakov’s back-story more: his father died in Treblinka; after his mother’s death, he was raised by the Zionist underground; he became so effective at killing Arabs, the Mossad called him “The Final Solution”. The dirigible in the novel is owned by the fictional Aldrich company, whereas in the movie, Goodyear gave its permission to use their name and one of their iconic blimps.

In Chapter 18, we get a brief glimpse of the narrative voice Harris was to create later to show the thought processes of serial killers Buffalo Bill (in Red Dragon) and later Hannibal Lecter. Lander’s ex-wife Margaret arrives unexpectedly at his house. The nacelle-bomb is in his garage covered with a tarpaulin. She is pregnant by her new husband and has come over to collect a bassinet and pram from the garage, and wants to go out and get them herself. Landers tells her the baby items have been moved to storage. Then he has a chilling thought: No! Take her into the garage and show it to her, then kill her. He stops himself because he realises this could ruin the plans he has made. Then he thinks of a better method of Lecter-like revenge, and gives her two free passes to the Super Bowl.

On re-watching this film after several decades, I found Bruce Dern, despite his reputation, seriously over-acted his portrayal of the damaged Vietnam veteran. The main cliché of Black Sunday, and of Dern’s interpretation of Michael Lander, is the “crazed Vietnam veteran” trope.

Trope comes from the Greek, meaning to turn, to direct, to alter or to change. The Urban Dictionary defines it in a simpler way: an overused plot device. Hollywood depicted most Vietnam veterans in 1970s and 1980s films as damaged. W. Scott Poole wrote, “The portrayal of veterans often seemed to suggest that the American public had not forgiven them for losing.”

The trope of the brainwashed veteran, later triggered to commit terrorist acts, occurred in The Manchurian Candidate. It more recently surfaced in the television series Homeland (2011 to 2020), with Damian Lewis as Nicholas Brody, a Marine sniper who was held captive, tortured by al-Qaeda and “turned”.

We can also see this trope, as Jung might say, as the shadow side of another overused cinema trope— the returning veteran with high levels of combat training and killing skills, who comes home to live an almost anonymous ordinary life, blending in—until he is required to call on his former abilities and experience to defend his family or hometown from some threat. He is the only one who has the necessary knowhow and, fortunately, always has a cache of serious military-grade weapons stashed away. Examples include Nick Nolte, in Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) and Sylvester Stallone, in First Blood, which introduced us to John Rambo, a quiet veteran who simply wanted to be left alone. The character of Rambo, originally grounded in realism, much like Hannibal Lecter, became more and more of a caricature in each episode of the respective franchises.

The symptoms of modern PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) have gone by different names since the American Civil War: soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue and, most recently, post-traumatic stress. I interviewed Dan Guenther, a captain of Marines who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Guenther received the Combat Action Ribbon and the Bronze Star for Valor, among other commendations, for his service. He said, “PTSD is a disorder that belongs in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] and should be treated by clinical psychologists and/or clinical social workers.”

In 1980, anti-war protesters and Vietnam vets petitioned the American Psychiatric Association to formally recognise PTSD, and it was added to DSM-3 “from research involving returning Vietnam War Veterans, Holocaust survivors, sexual trauma victims, and others”. Guenther believes PTSD was very common, “up to 50 per cent for infantry combatants with six months in the field conducting large-scale operations”. He said:

The more combat experience, the more likely PTSD would occur in its various behavioural symptoms. Symptoms in light cases usually involved insomnia, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts triggered by some event. Symptoms in more serious cases had to do with deeply traumatic and emotionally troubling feelings of guilt and/or shame, and were often made more complex by alcoholism and/or drug abuse.

War does not always give soldiers PTSD and most soldiers with PTSD are not violent. Even the term itself has been questioned. John Tiegen, part of the Global Response Staff (GRS) that fought in Benghazi, Libya, and the director of the Tiegen Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to wounded veterans and first responders, said, “We’re trying to help guys with PTS—not PTSD, because it is not a ‘disorder’.”

Megan Hull, of the Recovery Village addiction treatment centre in the US, wrote:

Officials in the Pentagon have dropped the “D” from PTSD for several years now. This change has helped break down the barriers associated with PTSD treatment for veterans. Many service members report feelings of shame associated with seeking help for their symptoms. Breaking the stigma of PTSD is crucial to ensuring that more people receive treatment and why some individuals consistently drop the “D” for disorder from the name. When the focus is shifted away from classifying the condition as a mental health disorder instead of a normal response to trauma, it can open the door to treatment for many who are suffering.

However, as of DSM-5, released in 2013, there is still the full initialism and continued identification of post-traumatic stress as a disorder.

The hypocrisy of pigeon-holing 1960s Vietnam veterans as psychotic and giving them derogatory terms such as baby killers, in retrospective, was appalling. The underlying assumption was that each young man who served had some kind of freedom-of-choice to determine whether to participate in the Vietnam war, via enlistment or the draft—or to refuse the call-up, go to jail or flee to Canada. Freedom of choice is not something that is normally associated with draft-age teenagers. It requires some degree of self-sufficiency, maturity and firmness of will, only developed through long years of experience. What is never mentioned is that the anti-war Left, of which I was part, also had no real freedom of choice. Every counter-culture person I knew was part of some group-think agenda or “preaching-to-the-choir” movement, whether it was back-to-the-land-grow-your-own-food because the “plastic” world would soon be coming to an end, or free love, in which monogamy, and all it’s “patriarchal” trappings, had to be resisted, or the non-violent activism of Gandhi/Martin Luther King Jr, in which one should always turn the other cheek, no matter what, or alternative health lifestyle advocates who proclaimed that all pharmaceuticals were harmful and only natural remedies were “in harmony” with your body and the planet.

Hardly anyone of draft age in the 1960s really knew how to think for themselves. Michael Cimino’s film The Deerhunter (1978) and Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights (2004) show the peer-group pressure that teenagers were subjected to during those war years. When your entire school, family and small town community believes a particular course of action is the right behaviour, woe to the person who takes an opposing position.

Guenther said, “The Deer Hunter was not a realistic depiction of the Vietnam war. However, it did accurately depict Ukrainian blue-collar culture in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt.” He considers Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) the most realistic of all the films made about the Vietnam war.

Black Sunday had mixed reviews. Many critics didn’t grasp its significance at the time. Dave Kehr said in the Chicago Reader, “Once again, violence (more than 30 on-screen deaths) makes a poor substitute for suspense, while sloppy, rear projection work drains most of the excitement from the climax.” Gary Arnold wrote in the Washington Post, “At 150 minutes, [it] seems a foolishly ponderous thriller … Shaw’s character behaves more like Mr Indecision rather than Mr Final Solution … more like a screenwriter than a commando.” Richard Schickel, of Time, liked the climax of the film and had an unusual insight:

It’s as well orchestrated an action sequence as you are likely to see, with the director drawing a nice but not overstated analogy between the meaningless violence of the game itself [football] and the larger, equally meaningless violence impending from above. He is not saying the one begets the other, merely that there is something besides coincidence in their juxtaposition.

Bob Bloom of the Lafayette Journal and Courier wrote more recently, “One of the all-time great thrillers. It does not seem as far-fetched today as when it was originally released.” Chuck O’Leary, of Fulvue Drive-in, commented, “A film that was 25 years ahead of its time, John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday is an intelligently written, complex and constantly intense thriller that builds to an extremely exciting climax.” Matt Brunson, in From the Couch, said:

A five-month stretch in 1976–1977 gave rise to not one but two movies in which a psychopath chooses the Super Bowl as the site for a killing spree. Unfortunately, the junky Two-Minute Warning, in which Charlton Heston squares off against a lone sniper, arrived first, which largely doomed the box office chances of the far more complicated—and far superior—Black Sunday.

Black Sunday is a remarkable, if slightly flawed, ticking-timebomb ride, expertly helmed by Frankenheimer, one of Hollywood’s finest old-school directors and a pioneer of the modern-day political thriller. It was prescient in that it foresaw the kind of major attack on American soil that was realised thirty-six years later in the events of 9/11.

It is sobering to remember that the magnitude of carnage in Black Sunday is still a real possibility. September 11 resulted in 3000 fatalities, over 25,000 injuries and led indirectly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to imagine where a single event that killed 80,000 people would lead—and against whom.

Black Sunday is carried, dramatically, by the subtle acting skills of Marthe Keller and Robert Shaw. Ridley Scott wrote that he would have cast Shaw in Gladiator if he had been alive, as the Marcus Aurelius character or the wealthy slave-owner Antonius Proximo. He lamented that “we have very few Robert Shaws now”—that is, the rugged type of actor that Shaw portrays, in the style of Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas.

With our current wearisome glut of Marvel Cinematic Universe billion-dollar franchised faux-action adventures, it is startling, and somewhat refreshing, to experience a story grounded in reality—a drama to remind us of the actual unthinkable dangers still present, as depicted in films like Seven Days in May, Black Sunday and, most recently, Oppenheimer.

♦ Special thanks to author and poet Dan Guenther for insights from his service in Vietnam. He has been a regular contributor to Quadrant for many years. Dan’s Vietnam works are recognised along with those of other noted authors on the highly informative website Writing Through the Wounds of War

Joe Dolce’s two new books are the poetry collection At the Noisy Café (reviewed in this issue) and the recipe collection Joe Dolce Cooks: Most Loved Recipes, both available from


4 thoughts on “Black Sunday: Terror Foreshadowed

  • Tony Tea says:

    I prefer Black Sunday to Two Minute Warning. It’s always tickled me that Bruce Dern could play so many nutters when he was a teetotaller and didn’t take drugs. Imagine if he hit the sauce like Robert Shaw. Another excellent Vietnam vet movie is the underappreciated Rolling Thunder with Tommy Lee Jones and William Devane. I saw it at the Karratha drive-in in 1980, and it’s yet another example of the second billed film being the better of the two films on offer (the other was The Sentinel).

  • Occidental says:

    “I have always thought that Harris’s novel should be rebooted and set at the MCG during the AFL Grand Final.”
    That would give an Australian audience a sense of proximity, but would be less “coherent”. Acts of terror are perpetrated against a target. States make themselves targets. When was the last time you heard of a planned act of terror by a group against say Fiji, or Japan, or even Australia. Atleast until the 2nd Gulf war there was little in Australian foreign policy which would motivate a would be terrorist group.

  • David Isaac says:

    ‘this country was just recovering from the McCarthy era and nothing had ever been filmed about it. I wanted to do a picture that showed how ludicrous the whole McCarthy far-Right syndrome was and how dangerous the far-Left syndrome is …’
    McCarthy was a patriotic anti-communist, not ‘far right’ in any sense, who had outed a swathe of dangerous traitors. Useful idiot bien pensant liberals and crypto-communists were mobilized via the press and group think to successfully rewrite history againt McCarthy. Most of the Hollywood crowd were part of this.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    I often wonder about the cost to the world of fiction writers majoring in murder by inventive methods. Does it lead to generation after generation of children with minds adversely affected by pulp?
    Geoff S

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