Some history-based films are worth watching because taken on their own merits, they’re very well made and get the job done in terms of telling a story. On the other hand, pointing a more critical eyeball at them can reveal they’re less than they’re cracked up to be thanks to too much historical alteration for the sake of making a more entertaining time at the theater.
While the real-life aerial sequences are still amazing even by today’s visual effects standards (hey, real pilots put themselves in a great deal of danger, folks!), the score is magnificently stirring and some of the performances are quite solid, John Guillermin’s The Blue Max is a great-looking, somewhat inaccurate World War I epic that’s burdened by it’s handsome yet wooden lead and ambitious 60’s era epic scope. For all the incredible air battles and laser-like focus on the German side of the conflict (and again, the absolutely thrilling plane bits are entirely worth seeing this for), the film also commits the major sin of putting flair and a romance angle over getting as much as possible correct for more serious viewers who didn’t just want another war film filled with the usual messages sent through a western filter.
Granted, you won’t even know any of this if you’re not a student of that war or the many machines used during the conflict, and yes, the film IS quite entertaining as it hits its requisite notes. Still, there’s a kind of “Eh, who cares?” aspect that I’m sure the studio went for full tilt because World War I was SO many years back and hey, who’s going to pay attention to the planes in a film that’s SO very much about them, right?…
Wrong. I had the fortune to first see this film when I was in junior high school and had a history teacher who was a pretty WWI buff overhear a few friends and myself discussing it during recess. He popped up behind us and asked if we wanted to see what was wrong with the film and after we recovered from being surprised, he disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a hardcover book that had photos and art of planes used during the war. The rest of that recess was spent with him pointing out planes that were converted from other planes, incorrect camouflage patterns and uniforms and at the end of the day (at least to him), made the film somewhat less impressive. “Great effort, but not enough follow through on research… a solid B minus in my book” I can recall him stating. Then again, it’s not supposed to be a documentary and hey, Hollywood has gotten military equipment wrong in quite a number of movies from low-budget quickies to overblown star-packed extravaganzas.
On the other hand, this isn’t Robert Aldrich’s stylistically gorgeous war-noir ATTACK! with its fake-looking German tank or a Sam Fuller deal like his great WWII films The Steel Helmet or The Big Red One where those directors needed to “cheat” because of budgetary constraints and/or the military refusing to cooperate because they didn’t like their approach angles on the stories they were telling. The Blue Max was a big-budget movie ($5 million in 1966 dollars) and SHOULD have been the definitive color film about the war to some extent. Even the author of the book saw the writing on the wall when he got a set visit, later writing about it in a great article that shoots down the film’s ambitions like a gassy dirigible in Corporal Bruno Stachel’s sights. Hmmm… over 500 words and I haven’t gotten to the story yet? Yeah… there’s a reason for that. It’s been rewritten from the book and is a mangled up wreck like that death trap monoplane that fits into the finale.
In a nutshell, Stachel, a former infantryman, somehow nudges his way into the air war as a capable, but devious pilot simply because he wants to get his hands on the titular award, a medal given to the ace who shoots down the most aircraft. He has to deal with the snobbish, older (and I’d gather wealthier) pilots who see their positions as more elite than Satchel’s more common man upbringing. Class warfare in the air while a war is going on and one is doing one of the more stressful and dangerous jobs? This is actually handled quite well in the movie and you do see how badly Bruno is treated by most of his fellow pilots. On the other hand, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the character, as Peppard plays him as a shifty guy who’s not very likable as he climbs up the ace ladder over a few of the corpses of his fellow airmen.
Peppard also plays him as boring and perhaps TOO stereotypically emotionless (at least in my opinion). He’s outclassed by the more veteran actors in the film, so his solution is to stiff his way through the picture, all steely blue eyes and fake Cher-man accent. Actually, the accents in the film are mostly like the accents you hear in plenty of war films where Germans are played by non-Germans who look the part (if you go by Hollywood’s rules for what Germans all looked like back then). Expect a lot of hard faces and frowny stares, cold laughter and irony galore in place of actual humor. Central casting field day, circa 1966. At least the cast here fares better than in some war films where Germans had to fit a more bumbling stereotype as a feel good foil for a hero’s plans or just show up as shady evil men scheming and committing crimes at leisure just to rile up audiences until they were disposed of by some lantern-jawed, ham-fisted rogue.
Meanwhile, back at the review ranch…
As Stachel rises in the ranks, a run in with General Count von Klugermann (the always great James Mason) gets him seen as a more useful piece of German propaganda as his everyman status is more acceptable to the war-weary public than a bunch of elite fly-boys magically blowing enemy planes out of the air left and right. Stachel also has a run in with von Klugermann’s younger wife, Kaeti (Ursula Andress) and you know where that leads, right? Of course, the man is SO obsessed with winning that wartime trinket that not even the offer to fly with the legendary Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen (Carl Schell) gets him to slow his barrel roll. When he claims more kills after an engagement with some enemy fighters in which his partner crashes AFTER shooting down three planes and saving Bruno’s bratwurst, he’s found out by his commanding officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler), but a scheming von Klugermann decides to keep his everyman popular and lets him have his ill-gotten gains.
The fun thing about the movie is watching people screw each other over and getting a knowing nod because some don’t know what’s coming. Although he thinks he’s a hero of sorts, Stachel is just the small fish going for that big nibble on the Blue Max. He’s also so focused on that goal that he doesn’t see the bigger fish lining up on his tail and closing in for the kill. It’s also interesting to see how much of an unlikable bastard he is makes him sort of fade into the background as the film heads to its inevitable climax. Granted, the book tells a very different tale that’s a good deal more interesting and impressive than what’s here. But the film was made in an era where bad people still had to be punished in a definitive manner even if they were “heroes” of a sort and Bruno Stachel wasn’t much of a hero to begin with save for inside his own head and in the temporary crowd-pleasing manner von Klugermann wanted him to be.
As note above, the saving graces are the air combat scenes and some of the actors who play their evil parts incredibly well. I also have to give Jerry Goldsmith’s score a medal of its own (the CD is playing in the background as I type this) as it’s yet another one of his best works of the period. The movie chops a lot of it out or drowns it out with noise in some scenes, but hearing the complete version without the planes and dialog makes for quite an experience. I’m actually typing faster than I have in a while and I’m betting that’s not the deadline making me do this, ha and ha. At the end of the day, while the air show is indeed the BIG star in the Blue Max, for my money, Hell’s Angels, the Dawn Patrol, Wings, Aces High and a few other films made before or after do an overall better job as a whole. But this isn’t a “bad” film at all at the end of the day – just a really enjoyable one that doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny.