Hold on to your hats, switches on, contact and chocks away, we’re going up diddly up up for another adventure in the skies. Join me as I slip on my goggles, scarf and wool lined leather jacket and make for the heavens. My film today is another in a long line of films that focus their lens’s on the conflict in the air, the ‘Devil May Care’ attitude of the pilots, the fleeting moments of life and death, the dogfights, the tragedies. My DVD player fires up first time as if it knows I won’t be taking any crap tonight, this is serious. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, ‘The Blue Max’ (1966) starring George Peppard and Ursula Andress.
Originally a book of the same name, this is the story of a German soldier who, having suffered in the trenches, decides to join the Luftwaffe and train to become a pilot. This is a rarity from the outset due to its German viewpoint. There are a few western films that have done this and they tend to be at the ‘Good’ end of the spectrum. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) being the cream of the crop. George Peppard plays a German soldier, Bruno Stachel, and the film follows his struggles to gain acceptance from the various members of the Squadron who distance themselves from him due to his working class background and as he strives, come what may, to prove himself by scoring 20 ‘Kills’ and get himself awarded the ‘Blue Max’, Germany’s highest order of merit.
From the first scene of Stachel sitting in a shell-hole marvelling at the diving planes and on through the opening credits this is clearly a film with a bit of class. The wide, sweeping, high in the clouds shots of swooping and banking planes backed with an orchestral score gilds the celluloid with a thin sheen of cinema gold dust. It has a moneyed feel. Peppard was at the top of his game around this time and was considered a sure bet by the studio. Andress, likewise, had some box office pull. Added together their fees wouldn’t have been cheap but you have to speculate to accumulate and the studio has spent it’s money wisely.
With a budget of $5 million there was plenty of cash to chuck around to create large scale battle scenes. High shots from circling camera planes show the true scale of the battles. As troops rise from the trenches and rush forward the angle widens and we have a large vista of no man’s land in front of us, pock marked with the shell holes and detritus of previous battles. The scale is immense and I can draw parallels to ‘Wings’ 1927. There are large explosions with grimacing extras/stunt men having their eardrums perforated and being flung far and wide. The British take a shoeing with bayonet happy Germans dropping down into their trenches and lunging cold steel into their bellies. They recover somewhat and counterattack but it is unclear (is it ever clear?) who wins. The tide of the war at this point was with the Germans and this is the feel portrayed implicitly by the film.
The camera work is very much of the era, classic. There are occasional moments of genius, notably towards the end when there is a long push/pull left/right up/down tracking shot of Stachel as he loops and wheels an experimental monoplane. But, overall, I was a little disappointed by the frequent use of blue/green screen or rear projection. They are dotted throughout the movie when they need close-ups of the pilots in the air and it’s a shame because it greatly diminishes the quality of the visuals. There is a close up very near to the end of Peppard in the air for real and it is reminiscent of the multitude of pilot close ups used in ‘Wings’. My question is if they can do it once why not do it throughout?
There are contemporary reviews that call Peppard’s portrayal of Stachel wooden. I don’t agree, I think he’s actually doing some acting here. Stachel wanted to win The Blue Max. He was driven to succeed and came from a different background to those around him in the Squadron. He wasn’t welcomed by them but the responsibility for this can partially be blamed on him being a bit of a bastard. This isn’t wooden acting, it’s just Peppard playing the character how it’s written.
Historically I can see they’ve tried to maintain a level of accuracy. The story fits around the real details of the latter end of the conflict. It picks up as the Germans attack in early 1918 and then towards the end of the movie, as we move into mid to late 1918, it’s clear the Germans feel the tide has turned against them. The squadron in the final aerial battle is full of kids with the exception of Stachel and the Squadron Leader. All the others are long gone.
On the flip side of the coin, I’m a bit uneasy about the planes. Some of them look a bit funny to my eye. The writer of the original book is quoted as saying as much when he arrived on set for a wee looksy. He quickly noted the lack of ammunition being fed into the sparking, fire spitting guns, the upside down engine cowls and a thousand and one other small details. I’m not too bothered by this, it’s all make believe in the end after all. The magic of cinema is much more important than some nit-picky, retentive detail semantics but the planes do just look a bit funny.
I shan’t spoil the ending other than to say it’s not a happy one. And in my experience this is how it should be. Great War Films don’t deserve a happy ending. Even the survivors, in the most part, didn’t feel happy to have made it through the war so why should a piece of art, created to entertain, skew the facts to provide a payoff for the viewing publics’ endorphin levels. No, much better in my book to leave us with an uneasy sadness in our guts as we trudge our way out of the theatre, into a squalling shower and off back to our busy lives.
What I’m left with overall is a feeling that I’ve just been lead through a decent, well written and portrayed story by an experienced film production crew who have done a decent job with the materials in front of them. The simplest way to describe the experience is ‘Classic’. This film has a depth of quality about it that is lacking from many other Great War Films. The only down side for me was the blue screen pilot close ups but even that can be forgiven. I really like The Blue Max. I’ve seen it lots over the years, can’t quite remember when it got its first viewing (probably some late night Anglia TV showing circa 1990) but in my mind it’s always been one of the benchmark films to rate others against. It’s quite long at just over two and a half hours but it doesn’t feel it. The story moves and never labours in one place for long. Peppard is likeable even though he is a bastard throughout. Is it his underdog status that appeals to my Britishness? Quite probably. So yes, this is a great Great War Film and, therefore, comes with the requisite recommendation from me that if you’ve not seen it, please do. Clicky Clicky to grab yourself a copy.