Much like the 1980s was a heyday of sorts for Australian Great War Film production, the same could be said for the early 70’s in the UK. There is a shortish list of films produced during a shortish period of time including ‘Aces High’, ‘Darling Lili’ (Technically a Hollywood production but shot in Europe), ‘Zeppelin’, ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ and my film today ‘Von Richthofen and Brown’. Four of these films (Oh!…being the odd one out) share a crew member. Ex-Canadian Air force pilot, derring doer and all round bon viveur Lynn Garrison provided the planes, the pilots and the choreography.
As it happens Lynn Garrison is quite a character. One of the many feathers in his bow was renting out his collection on Great War Era real and replica aircraft for film and TV productions as well as a broad range of other money spinning ventures. He had a company that pumped silver iodide directly into clouds in early cloud seeding experiments, he was a political advisor, he was a founding director of a savings and loan, he was a mercenary and during the Clinton era was the Haitian Consul to the United States of America. Quite a varied existence all up but in reality it’s the plane stuff I’m most grateful to him for. He got a bit beaten up in a crash during the filming and also saw one of his fellow pilots killed in an accident in the final days of production. He’s still alive today probably doing something daring. He once said ‘If it has petrol and makes a noise, I can fly it!’ What a guy.
‘Von Richthofen and Brown’ (1971) tells an almost universally fictitious story based on the characters of our old friend and mortal enemy the Red Baron and his maybe killer Roy Brown. The story is a made up account of their struggles within their individual hierarchies and that is about it. I am agog at why such a colourful character as the Red Baron needs to have a fictitious tale told about his life. Why not just stick to the facts, the story would be amazing. As I’ve seen before in ‘The Red Baron’ from 2008 there seems to be some kind of writers’ block that hits whenever screenwriters try to weave a story around him. I don’t get it.
The film comes in at just over an hour and a half which is about right I think for what is actually a story about pretty much nothing. The story covers the two opposing pilots in their squadrons. Richthofen is on the up, getting promotions over his erstwhile colleagues Ernst Udet, Werner Voss, Oswald Boelcke and Hermann Goering. Brown on the other hand is suffering at the hands of a severe case of Britishness. He wears his Canadian heart on his sleeve, much to the distaste of the deeply British RFC leadership who tell him to pull his head in and stop mucking about. Of course his maverick ways end up being central to some major victories and cause a bottle brush thick, stiff upper lip or two to quiver with rage.
It starts a bit like the opening credits for ‘The Blue Max’ (1966) with cinematic shots of the tiny planes flitting through towering behemoths of nimbus clouds. This cinematic quality continues throughout with the cinematography of the battle scenes being the standout feature of the film. As I mentioned above these scenes were shot with the aid of Lynn Garrison. He and his collection of planes were domiciled in the Republic of Ireland and if you look closely during some of the scenes and press pause at just the right moment you’ll see brief glimpses of Irish industrial estates and 70’s era public buses on wide dual carriageway roads.
The choreography of the battle scenes is a bit generic in places, someone gets shot, we see some smoke and they spiral off and down into the clouds. In other places though you see flashes of class, ‘Was that an Immelmann turn?’ I wrote in my notes. However, once our flyboys touch down things get a bit rough around the edges. The story is really a load of nothing, the acting is ropey, there are severe lip-sync issues and all the usual tropes of these types of films are on display.
The story becomes a bit of a tit for tat affair as Brown and his mates go on the offensive and blow up the Barons’ aerodrome. The Baron and his buddies then return the favour gunning down some nurses and nearly blowing up a stuntman. The Baron is then grounded for the good of the country. His generals, whilst explaining their reasoning behind grounding him, mention how they are wanting to rebuild and organise themselves against the Jews, communists and merchants who stabbed them in the back. And thus, WW2 in born.
So overall where does this leave us? It’s a film of two halves. The stuff in the air is great, the bits on the ground suck. The story is fiction when the factual stories would actually be more interesting. The shitty lip-sync and voice dubbing makes the cinema magic fall apart and the ending is a massive damp squibb. It’s a shame really, all the elements were there for a British classic. Luckily all those 70’s types would only have to wait a few years for a real classic to land in their cinemas with the far superior ‘Aces High’ hitting the big screens in 1976. So there’s my recommendation if you want to watch this film, don’t. Watch ‘Aces High’ instead.