Revisionist. There, that’s it. A one word review, succinct, neat, accurate. Need I say more? Hopefully the answer on your lips is yes. Oh go on then, I’ll give you the full Great War Films experience.
There’s something a bit different about Great War Films compared to any other genre of film. They’re all, at their basis, biographical. The stories may be told from any one of the thousands of different viewpoints of the conflict but still at their core is an element of truth and humanity. But they’re also films. A medium that doesn’t lend itself to long drawn out conflicts with long periods of boredom and waiting. As such the stories become abridged and sensationalised. That’s okay, I’m fine with that. Where a book can wend the circuitous path of a real life story a film needs to condense, focus and simplify.
For the most part that’s a good thing. The trick, I think, is to keep true to the story, there’s no need for 100% accuracy with the aircrafts or the uniforms for instance. But when a story is focussed in on an individual the importance of accuracy grows a little. In ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ Peter O’Toole was physically nothing at all like the eponymous T E Lawrence. There was a good 6 inches or so, height wise, between them. But O’Toole made up for that physical difference by utilising his acting skills. He portrayed Lawrence’s mannerisms, his effeminateness and nervous awkwardness in such a way that he painted a clear picture of the Man.
My film today has the same (fairly basic) levels of accuracy to live up to. The Red Baron (2008) is, on the face of it, a biographical story of the life and war efforts of Manfred Von Richthofen, The Red Baron. As one the most important names of the conflict he’s been written about extensively and portrayed on film many times. As such we know a great deal about his life and his character. We know how he mentored his team, his views on the conflict and his whereabouts for the majority of the war. I should add here that I am no scholar on the life and times of Herr Richthofen but what I do know are facts as far as I can discern and what I’ve seen over the last two hours flies in the face of pretty much everything I know.
To start with it’s pretty standard Great War Film fare. We have a well rendered CGI dogfight, there’s chivalry, the luck of the draw life and death struggle for survival. We have the guys on the ground counting home the planes at the end of the day. There’s a love story with a winsome French nursey. There’s the bacchanal at a chateau, champagne flowing and woman (prostitutes?) everywhere. It has all the stuff it should have, that every other film before it has had, but nothing more.
What we do have are flights of fancy from the writers and director. Richthofen is written as a pacifist, uncomfortable in his role as national hero. He tries to stand up to the powers that be and tell them that Germany needs to surrender for the good of the people. He rails against the system and declares that he cannot stop his flights because it would send the wrong message to the front line soldiers. Bullshit. He was a war hungry, bloodied, fighter just like the rest of them. In the film he tells his crew to aim for the plane not the man. Really? When there’s a rear gunner aiming a massive gun right between your eyes? At the start of the film he shoots down his future killer (Although it’s never been proven that he did fire the fatal shot) and then in the middle of the film he shares a smoke with him in some quiet field after both their planes are downed. More bullshit.
These elements of pure fancy are, I think, only in there to make sense of the love story. But why bother. The dude had a sensational enough life without needing to rely on made up stuff. What would the Baron himself have thought about this if he was alive to see it? How would he take a future generation seeing him being portrayed as a pacifist with so many real bits of his life dismissed to make room for poorly written clichés.
That is where the importance of accuracy comes from. For good or for bad historical figures leave behind a legacy. We remember them and hopefully learn from them. When a story such as Richthofen’s is totally rewritten in this way it has a detrimental effect on all the other legacies of all the other important bygone figures in that great big jigsaw of history. It cheapens the facts and muddies the waters. Shame on you, the writers and directors.
So apart from the rampant revisionism was there anything good? Yes…the CGI. The quality of modern CGI means that films like these can be made on a relative shoestring and still be of a high quality. The detail on the aircraft can be perfect, the visual spectacle can be ground-breaking and the overall scale can now match the realities of war. What other way would we in the 21st Century be able to see an air battle between so many belligerents happening all around us. I felt like I was there marvelling in the scale and speed of the air battles. But that’s about it. Nothing else was any good about this film.
This film made me angry. I have a passion for Great War Films and feel they have an important purpose. They have a message to pass on to future generations about the nature of the conflict and the characters within it. It’s important that the basics are right and when licence has been used that it is artistically altruist. That is not the case with ‘The Red Baron’. It pisses on the history and the real life stories of the men who fought with and against Herr Richthofen purely because of some misguided understanding of what we film goers want to see. If I were to see the writers or the director, or indeed any member of the crew (not that I’d know what any of them look like) I would punch them squarely on the nose and then tell them why I did it in the hope that it would stop them from ever doing it again.
Clicky Clicky should you desire self flagellation.